Explainer: A Guide to Immigration Laws, Bills and Proposals

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As immigration reform legislation moves in and out of Congress, the public pushes for everything from tighter enforcement and border security to comprehensive reform and amnesty. Some measures make it through the gauntlet, but not before a good chewing by Congress and the public. Many fail outright, and some are debated over and over again, amended and re-introduced.

The legislative bills and proposals run the gamut, but one thing they almost always do is incite controversy. One bill allows local police to enforce immigration laws, some proposals push for tighter border security, one would implement a path to citizenship for immigrant minors, one would provide a temporary residential visa for long time immigrant farmworkers, and another creates a database for law enforcement to track down undocumented immigrants convicted of a crime.

Here's a guide to some of the legislation that's been up for discussion:


The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, best known as the DREAM Act, was first introduced in the U.S. Senate in August of 2001, though it has been introduced within other immigration bills and under different names.

The Act would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. under the age of 16, have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, providing they have completed high school or obtained a GED and are of "good moral character," among other requirements.

The DREAM Act has been introduced in several forms over the past ten years and has also been called “The American Dream Act.”  It was also introduced as part of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 and of 2007. It was most recently introduced in both the House and the Senate in March of 2009 and saw a lot of action in Congress in the end of 2010. It passed the House in December but did not garner enough votes to reach the 60 vote threshold in the Senate. Some states have introduced their own versions of the DREAM Act as well.

Advocates argue that without this Act, young immigrants who didn’t choose to come to the U.S. but were rather brought here by their parents raised here should have the right to affordable education and citizenship and should not be punished as a result of their parents’ actions.

Many who oppose the Act say it is too broad and that it too closely resembles amnesty and that it is an attempt to cure a symptom, not the problem of illegal immigration.

14th Amendment

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1868 as one of the Reconstruction Amendments. The citizenship clause in this amendment grants citizenship to all persons born in the US. This amendment became part of the immigration debate when immigration opponents began to see it as an invitation for illegal immigration to the U.S. and right wing groups began to organize around its repeal.

Those who oppose any change or repeal to the “birthright citizenship” clause in the amendment say it would unfairly punish the children of undocumented immigrants who are born in the US. Those who support the repeal have said children shouldn’t be rewarded for their parents’ illegal behavior. Republicans introduced a bill to repeal the birthright citizenship amendment in January of 2011. The bill’s introduction was lead by Reps. Steve King (R-IA), George Miller (R-CA), Rob Woodall (R-GA) and Phil Gingrey (R-GA) who call it a “misapplication” of the 14th amendment.

Arizona Sen. John Kyle (R) suggested support for the repeal by calling for hearings on the issue in 2010.

SB 1070

The Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, also known as Senate Bill 1070 was a controversial bill passed in Arizona in April 2010. The law essentially mandates that local law enforcement enforce immigration laws on a local level, something that has always been the responsibility of federal law only. The law makes it a misdemeanor not to possess and carry proper immigration documents at all times and it requires an undocumented person present in the U.S. who is convicted of a violation of state or local law to be transferred immediately into ICE custody or Customs and Border Protection.

The federal government sued the state of Arizona over the law in July of 2010 arguing it was unconstitutional and that only the federal government can regulate and enforce immigration law. Before the law went into affect, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton put key parts of the immigration law on hold but she is still hearing challenges to and in defense of SB 1070.

The law states that a reasonable attempt must be made to determine the immigration status of a person during any legitimate contact made by an official or agency of the state, county, town, city or political subdivision if there is reasonable suspicion that the person is unlawfully present in the U.S. This is the part of the law that drew the most response from its opponents who say “reasonable suspicion” would basically legalize racial profiling.

Many states have introduced copycat laws since Arizona passed the bill, including Mississippi, Oklahoma, Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina.

287 G

287 (g) is essentially a law enforcement partnership with ICE.  More formally know as the Delegation of Immigration Authority Section 287(g), the program is one of the top U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) initiatives, according to the agency.  It was added to the Illegal immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. It allows state and local law enforcement to enter into a partnership with ICE under a joint memorandum of agreement. Once they opt in to the partnership, the state or local law enforcement group can receive delegated authority for immigration enforcement within their jurisdictions. The program trains local law enforcement in immigration law.

The partnership is part of the ICE ACCESS (Agreements of Cooperation in Communities to Enhance Safety and Security) program which provides local law enforcement agencies with the opportunity to work with ICE to address immigration challenges in their communities. As of October, 2010, 69 law enforcement agencies in 24 states had signed on to the partnership. 

Opponents to the program see it as a violation of the civil rights for those that come in contact with a police officer working under this program and call for its abandonment.

Secure Communities Program

According to ICE, the goal of their Secure Communities program, which was launched in 2008, is to modernize and expedite the identification of undocumented immigrants in the country accused of committing a crime. It is designed to identify immigrants in U.S. jails who are deportable under immigration law. Under this program, fingerprints taken of all persons who are arrested and booked for a crime can be checked against FBI criminal history records and also against Department of Homeland Security (DHS) immigration records. If any fingerprints match these records, ICE can then determine whether any immigration enforcement is required.

The strategy uses the new technology of fingerprint-based biometric identification. ICE also says the program prioritizes resources towards the greatest threats and shares information between law enforcement partners under Secure Communities.

As of October 2010, Secure Communities was available in 686 jurisdictions in 33 states. Unlike 287(g), no memorandum of agreement is required between local law enforcement agents and ICE to enforce immigration laws through Secure Communities. According to the Immigration Policy Center, ICE plans to have this program implemented in every state by 2011 and in each of the 3,100 state and local jails across the country by 2014.

Opponents of the Secure Communities program express concerns about the close connection between local police and immigration officials. They say this may discourage immigrants from coming forward and speaking with the police about other community concerns or safety issues and can become an obstacle to community policing.

Advocates of the program say it is an important way to identify undocumented immigrants who have committed severe crimes and pose a threat to public safety and to remove them.

Real ID Act

Under the Real ID Act, state-issued driving licenses and identification cards are required to meet federal standards or they will not be accepted as proof of ID for federal purposes, like boarding an airplane. Historically, states have made their own decisions about driver licenses and IDs. The Act also implements new limits for temporary workers. It includes some funding for border security and tightens laws on application for asylum and deportation of aliens for terrorist activity.

After 9/11, there was a push for better security and with that, a national form of identification. On May 11, 2005, President Bush signed Emergency Supplemental Appropriation for Defense, the Global War on Terror, and Tsunami Relief Act into law, in which the Real ID Act of 2005 was included. Since then, there have been several extensions of the Act’s implementation and in March 2011, DHS Security Secretary Janet Napolitano extended the deadline again from May 2011 to January 15, 2013 for states to be in full compliance with the Real ID.

The regulations for the Act have also come under fire by states, many of whom have rejected its implementation all together.

Opponents to the Real ID view it as an invasion of privacy and civil liberties by giving the federal government access


The Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act, known as AgJOBS, is a compromise negotiated by the United Farm Workers union and major agribusiness employers after years of conflict in the industry.

The proposal contains two main parts, an earned legalization that would enable many undocumented workers and H-2A guestworkers (who come with a visa specifically for seasonal farm work) to earn a “blue card” temporary status with the possibility of becoming permanent residents. To earn this, they would have worked in agriculture for a certain period of time. The second part of the proposal includes revisions to the H-2A program.

AgJOBS was recently re-introduced during the lame duck session in 2010, along with the DREAM Act but it did not pass.

"English only" legislation

The U.S. does not have an official language and some states are pushing for more regulation to make English the national language.

In January of 2009, residents of Nashville, TN voted on an “English only” ballot measure that, had it passed, would have limited local government to conduct its business in English. The bill was first introduced by a city council member in 2006 who did so in his frustration around illegal immigration in the area. The bill did not pass (by a margin of 56% to 44%) but, according to U.S. English, Inc., an organizational effort to make English the national language, a bill just like it has passed in at least 30 cities around the country, including Green Bay, WI, Fort Smith, AR and Farmers Branch, TX (a suburb of Dallas).

Uniting American Families Act

This Act was re-introduced to the House on April 13, 2011 by Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and a handful of other House members from Michigan, Wisconsin, Colorado and Illinois. The legislation would allow gay and lesbian Americans to sponsor their permanent partners for legal residency in the U.S., a right that only heterosexual couples currently have under immigration law.

The UAFA would add the term “permanent partner” to sections of the Immigration and Naturalization Act that apply to married heterosexual couples. “Permanent partner” is described as an adult who is in a committed, intimate relationship with another adult in “which both parties intend a lifelong commitment.”  This legislation provide equal immigration benefits to permanent partners and would impose the same restrictions, enforcement standards and penalties as are currently in immigration law.


E-Verify is currently an internet based verification system operated by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services of DHS in partnership with the Social Security Administration (SSA). The program provides employers with the opportunity to verify the work eligibility of their employees. It is free to employers and is available in all 50 states.

This is part of an expanding crackdown on businesses suspected of hiring undocumented immigrants. It was first established by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 and has been renewed over the years. In 2007 it became “E-Verify.”

E-Verify is an enforcement approach that could mandate that all U.S. companies use a government run electronic database to verify whether their new hires have legal work documents.  Currently only federal agencies are required to use this database.