DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
This morning we're remembering the victims of the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday, and we'll continue our coverage in just a moment with a story of someone with close ties to the school. Right now, though, an issue that has become more of a priority since last months' presidential election. The nation's Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for President Obama and pushed immigration to near the top of the legislative agenda.
SENATOR-ELECT JEFF FLAKE: Well, there's nothing like a big election loss to focus the mind.
GREENE: That is Senator-elect Jeff Flake from Arizona. He's a Republican who's expected to play a big part in any immigration reform. Over the next few days, we're going to look closely at the issue of immigration. Today, we start with a story from NPR's Ted Robbins on how we got here and what might happen.
TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: The last time the nation dealt with comprehensive immigration reform - 1986. Back then, President Ronald Reagan said he would strengthen border security, stop employers from hiring illegal immigrants and give amnesty to about two million people.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.
ROBBINS: The amnesty happened. But it took two decades to build-up border security. And relatively few employers were prosecuted. Crucially, the 1986 law also didn't provide enough visas for more people to enter legally for work. Dan Kowalski is editor of Bender's Immigration Bulletin.
DAN KOWALSKI: So it legalized a bunch of people who were here without status, but it did nothing to prevent a future buildup of people who had no way to get a visa.
ROBBINS: Millions more came illegally, mostly from Latin America. Today, an estimated 11 million are in the U.S. In 2005, a bipartisan group in Congress tried to deal with the problem. Again in 2007. In 2008, Presidential candidate Barack Obama promised comprehensive immigration reform. Instead, his administration continued the enforcement buildup and deported record numbers of people.
Julieta Garibay says it's time for Republicans and Democrats to act. Garibay is undocumented herself, part of United We Dream. That's a coalition of groups which began by advocating for the DREAM Act to legalize those who were brought here as children. Now, the DREAM ACT is no longer enough.
JULIETA GARIBAY: I speak on behalf of my mother and my sister who are now U.S. citizens. They don't want that. They want something comprehensive. Throwing us little pieces and thinking that, oh, let's just do it by piecemeal is not going to cut it. And I think dreamers have really seen their power.
ROBBINS: Both Republicans and Democrats seem to realize that power. Republican Senator-elect Jeff Flake is a member of a bipartisan group of Senators pushing for comprehensive immigration reform.
FLAKE: Both sides are motivated. We're four years out from a presidential cycle. We're two years out from another congressional cycle. So if it's going to happen, it needs to happen this year. And I think the prospects are good.
ROBBINS: Flake says a new law has to do four things: increase border security even more, create a guest worker program, require employers to use something like e-verify - the online system which screens for undocumented workers. And it has to deal with the undocumented already here in a humane way.
FLAKE: There is a path to citizenship. But it's an arduous path, a difficult path.
ROBBINS: Fines and penalties, so as not to reward illegal entry. A path to citizenship may be a tough sell in the House, though, where anti-immigrant forces are stronger than in the Senate. But even some Christian conservatives say legalization is the right thing to do. And mainstream Republicans acknowledge Latinos won't vote for candidates they perceive as hostile to their families. Frank Sharry says this is an issue where politics and decency can meet. Sharry heads America's Voice, an immigration reform group.
FRANK SHARRY: Honestly, Republicans will get a great deal of credit from Latino voters, from their own voters, from swing voters if they work with Democrats and solve a problem that causes enormous frustration among the American electorate.
ROBBINS: Sharry says everyone really wants the same thing: An immigration system which allows employers to legally hire the workers they need, gives workers the protection they deserve, and a system which removes the need for people to come to this country illegally.
Ted Robbins, NPR News.
GREENE: And NPR News will continue digging into the immigration debate this afternoon on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Our series takes us to Alabama, home to one of the nation's toughest laws against undocumented immigrants. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.