Comprehensive immigration reform, which seemed so likely in 2001, has not recovered its political footing since the 9/11 attacks.
As the United States paused in September to mark the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the enforcement paradigm that took hold immediately after the terrorist attacks showed no signs of waning.
The Obama administration, which came to office pledging to undertake a rewrite of the nation's antiquated immigration laws, instead set a record in 2011 for deporting more noncitizens than any prior administration. The White House also earned the ire of state lawmakers and immigrant-rights advocates for pressing ahead with a controversial program to check the immigration status of everyone booked into state and local jails, insisting that the Secure Communities program could be implemented without state and local agreement.
The decade since 9/11 has witnessed an intensified focus on border control and immigration enforcement that has pushed aside efforts to fix the nation's dysfunctional immigration system.
And the comprehensive immigration reform framework that seemed on the verge of bipartisan agreement just days before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks has never recovered its political footing. Though the Senate in 2006 and 2007 took up legislation modeled loosely on the framework agreed to by President George W. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox just six days before the attacks — increased cooperation on border security, a new temporary worker program, and legalization for millions of unauthorized immigrants already in the United States — the efforts ran aground amid persistent policy and political divisions.
In its stead, the federal government tightened border controls and spent tens of billions of dollars securing legal travel channels and adding manpower and resources at the borders, particularly the US-Mexico boundary. The US government also asserted its security imperatives abroad, seeking access to international passenger records and building vast new information databases to check those and other records against terrorism and criminal watchlists.
In mid-November 2011, the European Union signed off on a new agreement for the sharing of air passengers' data with the United States. If endorsed by the EU Council and the European Parliament, the accord will replace an agreement from 2007. Though touted as increasing privacy rights and imposing limitations on the use and retention of identifiable passenger data, the agreement has been sharply criticized both by European and US privacy experts. The agreement also has some critics in the European Parliament, and this may prevent its approval.
Other governments have moved to emulate US policy and programs in the security realm. After the United States implemented the first phase of a long-promised entry-exit system after 9/11, similar actions were adopted by Brazil and Japan. And the European Union is proceeding with plans to design an exit-entry system of their own, called Smart Borders.
Amid a federal policymaking vacuum on immigration, states and local governments have stepped into the void, but in vastly different ways. While some states (Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina among them) have enacted laws with tough penalties for unauthorized immigrants and designed to deter their employment, other states such as California and Maryland have adopted immigrant-friendly laws. The result is a patchwork quilt of differing state laws and programs, with courts providing differing assessments of the constitutionality of state immigration enforcement laws. The limits of the states' role in immigration policy will ultimately be decided by the US Supreme Court.