Immigration: Key Players On the Road to Reform

The road to the current push for immigration reform is paved with a long cast of established, influential characters going back at least a decade.

From the legislative corridors of Washington congressional offices to other nations, such as Mexico and India, to undocumented teenagers brought here illegally who feel utterly American, to dairy farmers and Silicon Valley corporations, here are people and groups who have played a key role in the fight over immigration reform.

President Barack Obama

Barack Obama courted Latinos in 2008 with a vow to have a comprehensive immigration reform bill in his first year in office. Latinos, who voted overwhelmingly for him in his race against GOP contender Sen. John McCain, grew disenchanted after Obama not only failed to aggressively push for an immigration bill, but actually presided over record deportation rates. He blamed Republican intransigence for the lack of movement toward comprehensive immigration reform; Republicans said the president failed to reform immigration even when he had a Democratic majority in the House and Senate. Obama renewed his promise of immigration reform in his campaign for re-election and Latinos again voted overwhelmingly for him. They say they will hold his feet to the fire more doggedly this time.

The Latino Voter

Latino voters are widely seen as the pivotal force behind the new bipartisan push for comprehensive immigration reform. They showed up at the polls at a record rate on Nov. 6, 2012 -- they accounted for 10 percent of all voters. Seven out of 10 Latinos chose President Barack Obama over his GOP challenger, Mitt Romney. Though Latinos tend to vote Democrat, the robust support for Obama was attributed to disgust over the harsh tone that Romney and many in the GOP struck when discussing immigration and immigrants.

U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez

U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, long has been one of the most vocal advocates in Congress for an overhaul of the immigration system that would allow undocumented immigrants to legalize their status. Gutierrez has not hesitated to be provocative in his fight, subjecting himself to arrest at immigration rallies and criticizing fellow Democrats, including President Barack Obama, for not doing more to bring forth a comprehensive immigration reform bill. In recent years, he has been -- arguably -- the lead voice in Congress fighting on behalf of the DREAM Act, a measure that would let undocumented immigrants brought here as minors legalize their status.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, attempted to push for a measure in 2012 that would have given undocumented immigrants brought as minors  -- so-called "DREAMers" -- a form of temporary legal status, but he stressed then it would not be a pathway to citizenship. That plan was sidelined after President Obama, criticized widely by many Latinos and immigration advocates, announced an initiative last summer to offer such immigrants "deferred action," involving a two-year reprieve from deportation and work permits and a Social Security number. Now, Rubio is playing a lead role in a bipartisan Senate effort to work on a comprehensive immigration reform bill that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria.

House Speaker John Boehner

House Speaker John Boehner, Ohio Republican, long opposed the notion of any kind of immigration reform proposal that included a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants. But after the bruising defeat of GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney in his race for the presidency, and Latino voters' critical role in that defeat, Boehner has indicated that he is softening his stance on the matter of offering a pathway to legalization and is ready to work on a bipartisan effort to achieve comprehensive immigration reform that would include both a pathway and stricter enforcement.

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, held sway over how much traction immigration proposals got in the House of Representatives, where for many years he chaired the Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration. Smith took a hard line on immigration, saying he was firmly opposed to giving breaks of any kind to undocumented immigrants, and condemning such breaks as rewarding illegal behavior -- amnesty. He also opposes proposals which he sees as directly or indirectly potentially hurting U.S. workers. As chairman, Smith had considerable influence over the selection of who held top posts on the immigration subcommittee, usually favoring lawmakers such as Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King, who is also hawkish on illegal immigration.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, became a symbol for the frustration of many local officials nationwide over illegal immigration and what they said was its negative impact on their communities. She signed SB1070 into law, and many states soon followed suit, with legislatures considering measures that -- among other things -- require police to check the immigration status of people they stop for other reasons if they suspect they're here illegally. Brewer said that the Obama administration had failed to address illegal immigration, forcing states like Arizona to take matters into their own hands. The Obama administration challenged the Arizona measure in the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that immigration is a federal matter.


DREAMers, the label for undocumented immigrants who were children when they were brought to the United States illegally -- or on visas that their families then overstayed -- took the immigration fight to a whole new level when thousands came out of the shadows to rally for reform. Specifically, they have pushed for the DREAM Act, which would allow such undocumented immigrants a path to legalization as long as they meet a strict set of criteria. DREAMers have staged rallies, press conferences and even -- as in the case of Benita Veliz -- delivered prime-time speeches during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. in September.

Former President George W. Bush

Former President George W. Bush personally got involved in 2007 to get bipartisan support for the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill, which called for tighter enforcement as well as a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants. Bush, who said he was particularly mindful of the complexity of immigration from his days as governor of Texas, argued that the nation's millions of undocumented immigrants could not all be deported. But bi-partisan bickering doomed the bill, with opponents calling it "amnesty" and saying it would encourage more illegal immigration.

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez

The New Jersey Democrat has co-sponsored several comprehensive immigration reform bills over the years. He played a key role in the bi-partisan effort to pass the McCain-Kennedy immigration role in 2007, and again is at the center of a new, similar Senate plan to revamp the immigration system. Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, says that he senses a new spirit in Capitol Hill -- on the part of both Republicans and Democrats -- to pass a comprehensive bill that would tighten enforcement and help millions of undocumented immigrants to legalize.

"Latino voters expect it, Democrats want it, and Republicans need it," he says of the passage of a comprehensive immigration reform law.

U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy

The late Massachusetts Democrat worked with his GOP colleague, Sen. John McCain, in 2006 on a sweeping immigration bill that addressed enforcement as well as helping undocumented immigrants legalize their status if they met certain criteria. On Monday, Jan. 28, while unveiling a new bi-partisan Senate effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform, McCain paid homage to Kennedy. "If we do succeed, and I think we will, it will be a testimonial to Ted Kennedy's effort years ago that laid the groundwork for this agreement," McCain said at the press conference.

U.S. Sen. John McCain

The veteran Arizona Republican and former presidential candidate has changed his position on immigration over the years, and now is at the center of a bipartisan Senate effort to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill. In 2006, McCain worked with another veteran, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., to produce a comprehensive immigration reform bill that enjoyed considerable bipartisan support. The bill failed to pass, however, despite the personal involvement of then-President George Bush to appeal for lawmakers in both parties to pass the measure. Later, McCain reversed his support for providing a break to undocumented immigrants, saying he opposed what amounted to rewarding law-breakers. But about this latest bipartisan effort, McCain says he supports giving such immigrants a chance to legalize, and concedes that Latino voters' anger over GOP hardline stances on immigration prompted him and other Republicans to reconsider their views.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach

His is not a household name, but Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is the architect of many of the nation's state-level immigration measures, including Arizona's SB1070. Kobach also served as GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney's unofficial immigration advisor, a liaison that many observers believed ended up being detrimental to the former Massachusett's governor. Many Latinos said in polls that Romney seemed hostile to immigrants, and by extension, to Latinos, because of his hardline views on providing a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants. Kobach, a champion for the who oppose illegal immigration, long has been a proponent of the concept of "self deportation," whereby life becomes so difficult for undocumented immigrants that they leave the United States on their own.

The Gang of Eight

They are called "The Gang of Eight," a bipartisan group of U.S. senators who have unveiled a proposal for comprehensive immigration reform. The group includes Democrats Robert Menendez, Richard Durbin, Charles Schumer, Michael Bennet, and Republicans John McCain, Marco Rubio, Jeff Flake and Lindsey Graham.

Foreign Leaders

U.S immigration policy is of great interest to leaders from around the world, among them the leader of Mexico, the source of most of undocumented population in the United States. Mexican leaders long have pushed for the United States to revamp its immigration system.

Sept. 11, 2001

The terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001 suddenly made immigration a national security issue. The attacks focused attention on how foreign nationals enter the United States and are able to move within the country. Though virtually all the terrorists involved in the attacks entered legally, the tragedy made national security an enduring component of immigration discussions.