Rolling the Dice on Immigration Reform

In a last-ditch effort to prevent comprehensive immigration reform from disappearing from the national policy agenda, two veteran Democratic Senators said last week they would introduce legislation to grant green cards to illegal aliens, despite strong opposition to an “amnesty” from the GOP and fear among many Democrats that a legislative push on immigration could torpedo their re-election chances.

Late Wednesday, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said he planned to attach the so-called DREAM Act – a bipartisan bill granting permanent residency to illegal alien youth – as an amendment to this year’s defense authorization bill, in the hopes of forcing recalcitrant Republicans to sign-off on the long-stalled legalization measure.

DREAM, first introduced in 2000, and cosponsored by Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Richard Lugar (R-IL), is strongly supported by the Pentagon, which has been heavily recruiting Latinos for years.  It’s never been voted on by the full Senate, let alone by the House, but under Reid’s plan, it’s scheduled for a full Senate floor vote as early as next Tuesday.  If it passes, it would then go to the House where Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has already pledged her strong support to get the bill passed.

Reid’s push on DREAM coincides with a separate announcement by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the chamber’s lone Latino, that he plans to force Congress to vote on a much broader immigration bill containing a sweeping legalization program and provisions to reform the nation’s legal immigration system as well as a controversial plan to introduce a national ID card to help weed out illegal aliens at the workplace.

Menendez has said privately that he opposes Reid’s attempt to use the defense authorization process to pass the DREAM Act, fearing that it will lead to a flurry of GOP counter-amendments that will stall passage of the larger defense bill, for which the Democrats themselves will be blamed.

Menendez also believes “piecemeal” reform bills like DREAM could sap momentum from a legislative push on a larger and more comprehensive bill.  His thinking, which is shared by Chiuck Schumer, the party’s chief immigration reform architect, is that Democrats may only get one shot at building as consensus on immigration reform before 2012, and getting a partial legalization bill like DREAM passed won’t satisfy the party’s restive Latino base.

Under DREAM, somewhere between 800,000 and 1.5 million illegal alien youth who arrived in the country before they were 16 and who agreed to attend college or to join the US military could qualify for green cards.  That’s only a small sliver of the total illegal immigrant population, roughly 8-12%, according to official estimates.

But DREAM supporters say that in the current political climate passage of any legalization bill would be a huge symbolic and practical victory.  DREAM should be viewed more as a complement than a competitor to broader legislation, they argue.  Menendez has said that if Reid’s DREAM gambit fails next week, he will agree to include DREAM in his comprehensive reform bill.

Menendez, Reid and other senior Democrats have already bent over backward to accommodate Republican objections to legalization by all but endorsing the GOP’s “enforcement-first”  approach to immigration reform.  Last June, they circulated a draft “conceptual proposal” in which they publicly agreed to postpone a legalization program until the border was “secure.”  The proposal also called for a fully functioning workplace verification system and a system for tracking and apprehending visa over-stayers and mandated that specific program “benchmarks” be in place before any legalization could proceed.

But that was before Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and other senior Republicans pulled out of immigration talks with Senate Democrats and before the mood of the country, post-Arizona, continued its rightward shift.  Graham and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnel (R-KY) has since called for a repeal of the 14th amendment guaranteeing citizenship to the US-born children of illegal aliens, a proposal that has turned out to be just as popular with US voters as Arizona’s recent crackdown law.

It’s unclear, in fact, where Reid or Menendez expect to get Republican votes to allow their measures to pass.  One-time GOP moderates like Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), have lost their bids for re-election, and some, like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who will be returning to the Senate this fall, say they oppose the DREAM Act and will not seek further compromise with the Democrats on immigration.

Top GOP leaders have already dismissed the Reid-Menendez legislative maneuvers as “election ploys.”   But they are clearly concerned that some moderate Republicans might be pressured to back DREAM.  A further complication is Reid’s decision to curry favor with gay rights groups by attaching a separate amendment that would repeal the Pentagon’s notorious “Dont Ask Don’t Tell” policy toward soldiers with gay lifestyles.  That’s further fueled GOP criticism of Reid, and may well tip the scales against him on DREAM.

The most likely scenario, some observes say, is that Republicans will offer their own immigration amendments to the defense authorization bill that liberal Democrats will find abhorrent, forcing them to retreat on DREAM.  Menendez himself mentioned that possibility in private discussions with immigration activists last summer as one of the reasons he objected to Reid’s plan.

But Menendez is also worried that Democrats could suffer political damage if they were perceived as holding an otherwise popular bipartisan national defense bill hostage to a highly partisan effort on behalf of illegal aliens and gays, when the country is still at war.

One additional factor is whether President Obama, who’s been reluctant to take leadership on immigration reform, will seek to influence next week’s debate, or the subsequent debate over the Menendez bill. Obama is on record supporting DREAM, and even mentioned it by name during his major address on immigration at  American University last June.  After that address, and under pressure from immigration activists, Obama instructed the Department of Homeland Security to suspend further enforcement actions against prospective DREAM beneficiaries.

Pushing DREAM and resurrecting comprehensive immigration reform in the current political climate are clearly high risk maneuvers.  Reid himself is in a tight re-election battle in Nevada in which Latinos comprise an unusually high percentage of the state’s electorate and where they voted 3-1 for Obama in 2008.   Reid previously promised Latinos that he would push immigration reform and his failure to do so thus far has cost him politically.  Getting them to the polls is an urgent election priority.  But for many other Democrats in close races, a vote on amnesty could well expose them to the wrath of independent voters, probably the last thing they need.

Self serving or not, the Reid-Menendez maneuvers are clearly intended to keep the Democrats visibly out in front on the immigration issue with the expectation that the public mood on immigration could begin shifting next year if the economy starts to recover.  Menendez’s legislation will be the first full-fledged comprehensive reform bill promoted in the Senate since Congress last debated the issue in 2007. With a separate comprehensive reform bill already in place in the House, the Democrats can enter 2011 with a full-blown legislative agenda, leaving the GOP as the party of “no” in the run-up to 2012.

STEWART J. LAWRENCE is a Washington, DC-based an immigration policy specialist.  He can be reached at

Stewart Lawrence is a long-time Washington, DC-based policy consultant.  He can be reached at