The U.S. government arrested and deported record numbers of illegal immigrants — nearly 350,000 — in the past year, authorities say. It had also naturalized a record number of new Americans during the same time period, more than 1 million.
Bush administration officials considered these to be great accomplishments within a system that President-elect Obama calls "broken and overwhelmed" on his transition Web site.
"We are seeing the kinds of results that the country hasn't seen for many years," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said last month.
When Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2007, the administration kicked up its enforcement of the immigration laws already on the books. The government also hired more people to process applications for immigrants who want to enter the country legally.
These enhancements led to increases in arrests of illegal immigrants and employers who hire them; decreases in the amount of time it takes to process immigration applications — it now takes 9-10 months for naturalization applications, compared with 16-18 months before that. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has reduced its backlog to 1.1 million, which is down from its biggest backlog of 3.6 million in 2004; it's on track to eliminate the backlog by October 2009.
The government recently awarded a five-year, $491 million contract to IBM to convert a paper-based immigration processing system to an electronic system.
Living in America
There are about 11 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S., which reflects no increase from the previous year, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. It was recently discovered that Obama's aunt is among the estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally.
The woman, Zeituni Onyango, had been instructed to leave the country four years ago by an immigration judge who rejected her request for asylum from her native Kenya. She has been living in public housing in Boston and is the half-sister of Obama's late father. Federal officials are prohibited from talking about her case, citing privacy laws. "If she is violating laws, those laws have to be obeyed," Obama said in a television interview Nov. 2.
"Obviously that doesn't lessen my concern for her, I haven't been able to be in touch with her. But I'm a strong believer you have to obey the law."
But to solve the immigration problem completely, Chertoff — who oversees immigration — has said the next administration will need to go back to Congress for comprehensive reform.
Pressure to revisit immigration reform will build quickly from Latino supporters, immigration groups and some business interests. Larger Democratic majorities could help to move a bill through Congress, but those majorities will be built, in part, with Democrats from conservative districts who are wary of going too far. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said Democrats may have to give up some of their priorities in immigration reform to get an agreement, such as giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.