Another year, another political can kicked down the road.
An estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants still live in the United States, and this year Congress kept up its decades-long trend of neglecting to pass any meaningful reform.
It doesn't break evenly by party, but Democrats typically pursue what they call "comprehensive immigration reform," which would include enforcement, a guest worker program, and a path to legalization for illegal immigrants. Republicans have typically said they won't think of any other policy until the U.S.-Mexico border is completely secure.
Immigration policy has been primarily enforcement-based since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and though the Obama administration has tried to focus that enforcement on dangerous criminals, 2011 followed the same trend.
Here is a look back at key stories in immigration policy this year:
Obama's Record Deportations / Prosecutorial Discretion
President Obama's policy in 2011 has him stuck between a rock and a hard place politically, criticized by both sides of the immigration debate.
In October, the Obama administration announced it had deported a record of nearly 400,000 individuals in fiscal year 2011. And about 55 percent of those were convicted felons, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
Meanwhile, in June, ICE Director John Morton released a memo asking agents to exercise "prosecutorial discretion" on immigration cases to determine whether or not each case fits with the administration's goals of prioritizing deportation of illegal immigrants who are criminals or national security risks. Agents were asked to consider a range of factors in deciding if they should drop a case, including family issues, age, ties to the community, and more.
In November, the administration announced it would review the backlog of deportation cases to dismiss those involving people who would have received prosecutorial discretion.
Some in the immigrant rights community praised the review as a good start, but are hesitant to give it the full thumbs up quite yet. "We hope that that's being used to the benefit of a lot of people," says Christy Fujio, director of asylum programs for Physicians for Human Rights. "But we still hear stories about families being ripped apart, and people being put in immigration detention and eventually being deported for really minor infractions."
Others are frustrated with what they see as Obama playing both sides of the fence. "This administration is trying to be tough on enforcement and be a strong campaign for immigration reform," explains Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant-rights group. "At the end of the day, Obama is not going to get the credit of hard-line restrictionists for record deportations," Noorani says. "He's only going to get the grief from the families that have been destroyed."
Critics on the other side of the debate question the administration's motives for upping deportations since Obama has been clear he wants reform to include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
"I believe that's just another part of the political rhetoric in trying to say that: We are strong on immigration enforcement," says Jessica Zuckerman, a research assistant for the conservative Heritage Foundation. But, she adds, the administration may at the same time be "trying to put forward these amnesty proposals and use [deportations] as fuel."
And in fact, Republicans in Congress, many of whom have opposed a path to citizenship, called prosecutorial discretion "administrative amnesty" and an end-run around Congress.
The House Judiciary Committee recently subpoenaed the Department of Homeland Security for data on individuals who were flagged by ICE but were not placed in deportation proceedings—a way to assess whether any immigrants let go went on to commit more crimes.
State Immigration Laws
Frustrated with illegal immigration, several states have followed Arizona, which in 2010 passed a controversial law tough on illegal immigrants.
Lawmakers in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and other states have faced a backlash for strict laws from human rights organizations and from federal appeals courts. Several aspects of state laws have been blocked by the courts—including Alabama's provisions that immigrants carry documents proving their legal status and that schools check immigration status of students.
Aside from human rights concerns, critics also point to the economic consequences, like agricultural labor shortages, which meant farmers have had to watch viable crops rot. Additionally, according to Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, unstable and enforcement-only immigration laws have caused some farmers to abandon high-value crops—like fruits and vegetables, which require a lot of hand labor—and move toward low-value crops—like soy beans and corn, which farmers use machines to harvest.
And when that happens, Regelbrugge says, "you essentially see the economic engine in these local communities sputter and virtually stall out."
In those cases, workers who paid for rent, taxes, and groceries move on. American jobs in the community are also at risk, he explains. "It's the shop keepers and the tractor dealers and the fertilizer supplier," he says. "After these high-value crops leave the farm, that stuff all goes away."
But Heritage's Zuckerman sees the controversy over states' actions as a matter of federalism. States need to look at the unintended consequences of laws, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't wade into immigration law, she says.
"The federal government has the supreme power as far as national security," Zuckerman says. "But ultimately, we do believe the states have the right to do what they're doing."
A final answer to the question of the state laws' constitutionality may be coming next spring or early summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule on Arizona's law.
For those who fear a nation of 50 different immigration policies, the Supreme Court's decision to take up the case is a light at the end of the tunnel.
"It highlights in a very pointed and visibly public way how problematic it is that we're engaged in this state-by-state skirmish over immigration," says Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy for the left-leaning Center for American Progress. Immigration policy, he says, "has to be decided by the federal government, because you cannot have 50 states going in 50 different directions."
The states and the president have acted on immigration for one very clear reason: Congress has not solved the problem.
Budget, deficit, and debt-ceiling battles embittered an already partisan climate on Capitol Hill, making cooperation on such a controversial (though vital) topic even harder.
But some policy experts see reason to hope.
The negative reaction to the state laws by a broad swath of stakeholders—faith communities, businesses, human rights organizations, state and local politicians of both parties, and others—could signal an opportunity, they say.
"Did we have to hit bottom before we could start to head back toward the surface and maybe re-establish a more sensible conversation?" wonders Fitz. "Different people come at it from different perspectives," he says, "but I think the fact is that there's a strong consensus in the electorate that we've got to do something more realistic, more pragmatic about the current undocumented population."
And a few public opinion polls signal left and right may be moving closer together, perhaps creating that environment for compromise.
According to a Fox News poll taken in early December, 63 percent of Americans favor increasing legal immigration and 66 percent believe illegal immigrants should be allowed to remain in the United States and eventually qualify for citizenship if they meet certain requirements. Even a majority of Republicans—63 percent—favors a path to citizenship.
Regelbrugge, in a paraphrase of Winston Churchill, explained his reason for hope. "The Americans will always do the right thing—once they have tried everything else," Regelbrugge says.
"I believe 2011 was, in many respects, a step back," he adds. "But I believe it was a painful step back, which was a necessary part of realizing we've tried everything else."
- Is the GOP using the border fence as an immigration distraction for 2012?
- Read: After 9/11, Immigration Became About Homeland Security.
- Check out political cartoons on immigration.