Despite decades of effort, immigration reform still eludes Congress

Activists protest on March 14, 2011 outside the US embassy in San Salvador demanding President Obama a reform in the immigration regulations and to stop the deportation of Salvadorean immigrants. JOSE CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images

When President Reagan signed comprehensive immigration reform in 1986, he promised that "future generations of Americans will be thankful for our efforts to humanely regain control of our borders and thereby preserve the value of one of the most sacred possessions of our people: American citizenship."

Nearly 30 years later, however, the nation's immigration system remains dysfunctional. About 11 million undocumented immigrants reside within U.S. borders (by comparison, close to three million undocumented immigrants were granted legal status in 1986), and the legal immigration process is complicated and outdated.

Once again, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are ready to come together to look for solutions to these problems -- solutions that last. In the House Judiciary Committee's immigration reform hearing today, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who leads the committee's immigration and border security subcommittee, will be asking what went wrong in 1986.

"Twenty-five years ago, we were told this is the going to be the last time we have this conversation as a country, but we're having the conversation again," he said to CBSNews.com. Gowdy was elected to Congress with the tea party wave of 2010 and represents a very conservative district.

"At least in my district, I'm going to have to convince them the level of seriousness with respect to border security and employment verification is higher than it was in 1986," he said. At the same time, he's interested in finding a fair way to bring the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants out of the shadows. "Not to seem to Pollyanna-ish about it, but I think everyone agrees on why people would want to come to our country."

While there appears to be bipartisan agreement on broad principles when it comes to immigration reform, it's unclear how congressional talks will proceed once legislative details are unveiled. That's why the House Judiciary Committee's first hearing this year is tackling the issue and why committee chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., plans to hold more hearings and informational sessions.

"I think there's a lot of interest in this issue right now ,and therefore it's a good time to be taking this up," he told CBSNews.com. "Most members of Congress are not fully versed in immigration law -- it can be a rather obscure topic -- and we want to immerse them in more information."

A group of bipartisan lawmakers in the House is far along in crafting an immigration reform proposal, but if House Republicans plan to take up immigration reform through regular order -- as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has indicated -- it will have to go through the Judiciary Committee. The committee is made up of some of the most passionate immigration reform advocates on the left, like Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and hardliners on the right, like Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, and Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas. One of the biggest sticking points, predictably, is expected to be the issue of creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Amnesty, or a pathway to citizenship?

Goodlatte asked one of today's witnesses, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, a Democrat, where he stands on the "question of the day" -- whether there's middle ground between the extremes of creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and deporting them. Castro rejected the notion that a pathway to citizenship is "extreme."

"I do believe that a pathway to citizenship should be the option that Congress selects. I don't see that as an extreme option," he said. "To my mind it would be unprecedented to create a class of folks stuck in this kind of limbo not allowed to become citizens... We draw our strength from citizenship, that is the essence of who we are."

In today's hearing, Gowdy said ahead of the event, "Some people will focus on what they want our immigration policy to reflect, some will focus on security, some will probably use the word 'amnesty' -- I usually like to get the people who use that word to define it."

Last year, Gowdy was one of 41 House members who signed onto the "Prohibiting Back-door Amnesty Act" to nullify President Obama's executive actions allowing certain undocumented youth to stay in the country. Still, Gowdy says he's open to ideas that could be characterized as "amnesty," such as letting undocumented immigrants stay in the country legally, as long as they meet certain requirements.

"To Sen. [Marco] Rubio [R-Fla.] and others' point, if what you have now is de facto amnesty, and you're asking for a more difficult, arduous path [to legalization] -- is that amnesty?" he asked. Gowdy declined to answer his own question, noting, "The devil is always in the details."

He said, however, that it's a worthwhile question to discuss. "It's too important of an issue to digress into phraseologies and bumper sticker attacks," he said.

Gowdy said it's reasonable -- as members of Congress and the president have suggested -- for a pathway to citizenship to include English and civics requirements. Immigrants who can't meet those standards could perhaps still be granted some legal status, he said.

For some immigration reform advocates, however, creating a pathway to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented residents is considered a necessary step.

"If we leave out a significant portion [of immigrants] and strengthen border enforcement, we believe that's a dealbreaker," said Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente.org, a grassroots organization for the Latino community. "Our hope is the White House will hold the line on an inclusive, pro-migrant solution... We have to have an inclusive plan before we make life harder [for immigrants.]"

Carmona's organization is pressing for Congress to create a pathway to citizenship without the barriers called for in past failed immigration reform bills -- and which Mr. Obama and congressional leaders are calling for again. Carmona argues that putting up these barriers will simply leave millions of immigrants in legal limbo. For instance, requiring a Level 3 proficiency in English, as required by the failed 2006 Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, would leave out 3.6 million immigrants, according to estimates from the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

"We're not really talking about 11 million if you start adding all this," Carmona said, calling such reforms a "partial solution" that would lead to a more complex, intractable problem.

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