As years have turned to decades, immigration activists have had to accept the reality that it could be a long time before Congress deals with the issue.
President Barack Obama’s election win in 2008 represented arguably the best hope in a generation for so-called comprehensive reform: combining better border security and a crackdown on illegal immigrant workers with a way for millions here illegally to come out of the shadows and stay.
However, even with Democrats controlling both the House and Senate, they couldn’t pass immigration reform as health care reform and the economy took center stage. After Democrats took a beating in the 2010 elections, immigration reform had become all but taboo.
“We have been given so much lip service that our lips are sore,” said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles.
Cabrera acknowledged that the immigration reform movement was at a low point, with few prospects for change in the near future. Many believe that for major reform to happen, millions more Latinos needed to become U.S. citizens and vote.
Meanwhile, for illegal immigrants, daily life has gotten harder. Deportations under Obama have gone up sharply. The annual average since 2009 is around 400,000, about 30 percent higher than under President George W. Bush, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
There are also strong indications that fewer immigrants are trying to come to America, and others have gone home.
“Sometimes it feels like every day is like a risk,” said Eduardo Villegas, a 38-year-old illegal immigrant who came to Georgia in the mid-90s, drawn by the construction boom that preceded the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
People pushing for tougher immigration laws and enforcement say the heightened fear in immigrant communities is proof that the tide is turning.
“Every day without a repeat of the 1986 amnesty is a victory for the majority of Americans,” said D.A. King, a proponent of Georgia’s enforcement-focused immigration law passed in 2011. “The pro-enforcement side is winning, but it isn’t pretty.”
States have increasingly taken matters into their own hands. After Arizona passed its law, several states followed with similar laws.
Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of small business owners working for immigration reform, said that might be a good thing. While most state-initiated laws focus on enforcement, eventually there will likely be more attempts to better deal with student visas, temporary migrant workers and immigrant entrepreneurs, she said.
“There is a little bit of a thaw” in the states, she said. “Maybe the model is to fix some small pieces, take those off the table, show Democrats and Republicans can work together, and then move on to bigger things.”