According to US authorities, in the last year the government arrested and deported record numbers of illegal immigrants whilst in the same period it naturalized a record number of new Americans. With figures of 350,000 and more than 1 million respectively, Bush administration officials consider these to be great accomplishments within a system that President-elect Obama calls "broken and overwhelmed".
"We are seeing the kinds of results that the country hasn't seen for many years," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said last month.
After Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2007, the administration became more determined in its enforcement of existing immigration laws. The government also hired more people to process applications for immigrants who want to enter the country legally.
These enhancements led to a dramatic increase in the number of arrests of both illegal immigrants and the employers who hired them, as well as decreases in the amount of time it takes to process immigration applications.
The time taken for naturalization applications, previously 16-18 months, has now been reduced to a more healthy 9-10 months. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has reduced its backlog to 1.1 million applications, which is down from a record backlog of 3.6 million in 2004. It claims to be on track to eliminate the backlog entirely 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. According to the Pew Hispanic Centre, there are currently about 11 million illegal immigrants living in the US, reflecting no increase from the previous year.
But, despite the achievements, the next administration will need to go back to Congress for comprehensive reform if the immigration problem is to be solved completely, according to Chertoff, who oversees immigration.
Pressure to revisit immigration reform should build quickly from Latino supporters, various immigration groups and some business interests. The large Democratic majorities could help to move a bill through Congress, though this could be tempered by the large numbers of Democrats from conservative districts who are wary of going too far. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that Democrats may have to give up some of their priorities on immigration reform, such as giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, in order to gain overall agreement to change.