IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

What is immigration reform?

What you need to know about immigration reform
Image: Immigration activists march in front of the U.S. Capitol
Immigration activists march in front of the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 7, 2018 in Washington. John Moore / Getty Images file

Immigration reform is a catchall term for changes or attempts to change laws governing immigrants and immigration. It's a term that was most often used by those wanting to create a way for people who had arrived or stayed in the country illegally to eventually get permission to stay in the country.

But it has also been recently used as well by people wanting to toughen immigration laws, which they consider to be reforming a system they see as too lenient.


Immigration laws and policies can change in many ways, from acts of Congress to court decisions to executive orders by the president. Laws can be rewritten, regulations or policies changed or court rulings handed down that adjust how the country governs immigrants and immigration-related matters.

The current Congress has not passed any substantial immigration laws recently, although it has discussed and debated the issue.

Many recent reforms have occurred through executive orders issued by President Donald Trump. He has ramped up immigration enforcement, ordered the construction of a border wall and ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program by executive orders. There has been some attempt to undo his orders through the courts.

Agencies in the administration also have been changing regulations and policies on immigration. Recently, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that it would no longer automatically release from detention immigrants who are pregnant.

State and local governments also are writing their own laws on how to govern immigration. California has been the most liberal. In January, it implemented a law restricting law officers from asking people about their immigration status in certain cases. Other states, like Georgia and Texas, have passed laws that make it easier for law officers to question someone on their immigration status. The National Conference of State Legislatures has tracked states’ immigration laws over the years.


Comprehensive immigration reform often refers to a package of sweeping legislation that changes many aspects of immigration law.

During the Bush and Obama administrations, legislation was crafted that tightened up border security but also proposed a way for people for who did not have legal status to “earn” legal permanent residency, which an immigrant must have before trying to become a citizen.

For some, comprehensive immigration reform is a way to balance different views on immigration.


The last major immigration bill in Congress was passed by the Senate in 2013 and was a comprehensive immigration bill. The House did not consider the bill.

In 1996, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act that focused on cracking down on illegal immigration. It contained many provisions, including allowing for the building of border fencing and for local governments to help enforce immigration laws.

The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. It is considered more of a comprehensive immigration bill. It allowed millions of people who came or stayed illegally in the country to become legal residents and eventually citizens. It also made it illegal for employers to knowingly hire or recruit people without legal permission to be in the country.

There have been other reforms with more limited reach, such as a 1997 law that allowed certain groups to get legal status, but they are not considered comprehensive immigration reforms.

Otherwise, changes have been made to policies and regulations or by presidential power.

Obama used his executive power to authorize DACA, which temporarily shields hundreds of thousands of younger immigrants from deportation and allows them to work.

Trump rescinded the DACA program, ending it on March 5, but courts have ordered his administration to continue to accept applications from immigrants to renew their DACA status.


This Congress has had several chances to address immigration but has failed to pass any substantial immigration reform legislation. Because it is an election year and primary season is underway, the chances of any large immigration measures being considered this year are slim, although there is some discussion that immigration reform legislation could be broached again this spring or summer.

Congress has considered whether to provide a way for about 1.8 million people who arrived or stayed in the country illegally to get legal status. But so far, nothing has happened.