In the aftermath of the 2012 presidential elections, immigration reform was high on everyone’s radar. Now that we are engrossed in the fiscal cliff mania, immigration reform has slipped from the forefront. While we should be focused on our fiscal issues, we can’t forget about immigration reform and that it could return as a priority sooner rather than later. However, before we look forward let’s take a look back at what these reforms looked like under President George W. Bush and see if history can teach us something.
Coming into his second term, President George W. Bush had relatively good support from the Hispanic community. His election numbers improved from 34% of the Hispanic vote in 2000 to the 40%-44% range in 2004. This perceived support led to the belief that he could deliver comprehensive immigration reform before he left office.
His first test of that support came in 2007, when he signed a measure to build a 700 mile border fence. The first step in immigration reform for Bush was for the United States to regain control of the border and this fence was the key to that. As Republicans touted this as a victory the international community was not in favor of the move. Mexico joined 27 other members of the Organization of American States to express concerns for what the fence represented.
It wasn’t without controversy with Americans either. Because of an existing treaty with Mexico that prevented construction in the flood plain of the Rio Grande, the fence was constructed over a mile from the border. This caused Americans living on American soil to be on the “Mexico” side of the wall causing safety concerns for those families. Families who were still on the “American” side of the fence still had issues with portions of their land being on the other side and inaccessible.
President Bush admitted that the fence alone was not enough, and that further reform measures were needed. Heading into the campaign season for 2008, Bush and the Republicans were looking for one more policy victory to close out the presidency and provide a boost for declining polling numbers. That came to a screeching halt when the Senate killed his comprehensive immigration reform bill in June of 2007. The bill included tougher border security, enforcement measures in the workplace, legalization of 12 million undocumented immigrants already here, and a temporary worker program. The wide reaching bill made it hard to build a good coalition to push it through. Unions opposed the temporary worker program; Republicans opposed the legalization measures which they considered an amnesty program, and immigration groups also opposed certain aspects of the bill that impacted families. When it came to a vote only 12 Republicans voted to move the bill forward.
The increase in support from the Hispanic community was supposed to help President Bush move comprehensive immigration reform in his second term. However, his second term was riddled with failures from alienating international support with a fence that even alienated Americans, deporting 1.57 million undocumented immigrants, and failing to carry party support to push a comprehensive package through the Senate, comprehensive immigration reform was nonexistent under eight years of Bush.
If history can teach us anything, we can learn from Bush that increased support in the Hispanic community is not an automatic precursor to being able to move reforms. As President Obama is now the president who is heading into a second term with increased Hispanic support and dreams of pushing immigration reform before he leaves office, we will see if history repeats itself.