On April 10, hundreds of thousands of people representing many different races and ethnicities demonstrated in dozens of cities across the United States. As REMODELING went to press, a nationwide “Day Without Immigrants” — where immigrants were urged to stay home from work and school — was being organized for May 1. South of the border, momentum was growing for a boycott of all American businesses within Mexico's borders, also on May 1.

Immigrants and activists demonstrated across the country in protest of proposed immigration law reform.
Courtesy Fair Immigration Reform Movement Immigrants and activists demonstrated across the country in protest of proposed immigration law reform.

It's all in response to a proposed crackdown on illegal immigration, a controversial and emotional issue that — after simmering for quite some time — finally boiled over in the Senate in March and April.

A House Divided

The story starts in 2001, when President Bush announced his support for the creation of a guest worker program. The terrorist attacks of September 11 put the issue on the back burner, and it wasn't until December 2005 that the House of Representatives got the ball rolling, passing a measure that would toughen immigration laws. The House bill is a particularly stringent one that would make being in the country illegally a felony. It would require employers to verify the legality of their workers, and would also tighten border security, increasing the number of border patrol officers and building fences along certain borders. It would not, however, fulfill Bush's wishes for a guest worker program.

It's impossible to say whether the recent protests will keep the House bill from being ratified in the Senate, but as the Senate broke for a two-week holiday recess, it appeared that some parts of the House bill — the provision that would make illegal immigrants felons — had little support in the upper chamber.

Although the issue was hotly debated in the Senate, an eleventh-hour compromise seemed to have been reached on the eve of the spring holiday break. According to a USA Today article, the compromise would, among other things:

  • Grant amnesty to illegal immigrants who had been in the U.S. for at least five years, allowing them to continue to live and work in this country;
  • Give illegal immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for two to five years the opportunity to gather materials to qualify for legal status;
  • Require illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. less than two years to leave;
  • Establish a guest worker program for farm workers;
  • Tighten border security by more than doubling the number of Border Patrol agents, establishing additional detention facilities for illegal immigrants, and authorizing the use of cameras and sensors to monitor the U.S.-Mexico border.

However, the bipartisan agreement, sponsored by Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), has since collapsed. Several conservative Republican senators objected that the bill was too lenient in allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens and insisted upon amendments that Democrats were unwilling to make.
It's possible that a revised version of the Hagel-Martinez bill may be brought back to the Senate floor by the end of the year, but several news reports released in the aftermath of the defeat of the compromise quoted various senators professing, at best, cautious optimism.

Jerry Howard, executive vice president and CEO of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), which has been closely monitoring developments, doubts that any sort of immigration reform will be established anytime soon. “If you had to bet on this,” he says, “the safe bet would be on nothing happening.” Any Senate bill that does pass is likely to be so different from the House version that a merging of the two would hardly be seamless.

Some argue that in the long term, nothing is likely to change, even if legislation is passed. “The reality is that there are between 11 and 16 million illegal immigrants in the United States,” says Houston remodeler Michael Strong. “They are here, and they aren't going home.”