Immigration Reform on the Installment Plan?

In the days before credit cards, many people bought big-ticket items “on time,” paying the needful in installments until the debt was paid in full. There are signs that we may be going back to the future, as it were, with our immigration policy. Having sorely depleted their existing stock of political capital in the fights over health care reform and new rules for the financial industry, Democrats seem to be considering immigration reform on the installment plan, hoping to pass smaller chunks of legislation as a downpayment on the comprehensive scheme they can’t afford just now.

Comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) is a public policy debt long in arrears, but CIR on the installment plan may be the best we can hope for, given the increasing rightward slant of political discourse. Word began circulating last week that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) plans to bring the DREAM Act to a vote in the Senate, as a rider to a Defense authorization measure scheduled to be taken up this week. (See Democrats Plan to Add Immigration Amendment to Defense Bill, by Lisa Mascaro, Los Angeles Times, 14.Sep.2010.) As the LA Times notes, the DREAM Act – “DREAM” stands for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors – would create “a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrant students who serve in the military or go to college.” Specifically, it would apply to illegal immigrants who came here before age 16, have been here at least five years, pass background checks, and either go to college or serve in the military for two years. (See Senate to Consider DREAM Act Immigration Reform, by Devin Dwyer, ABC News, The Note, 14.Sep.2010.)

The measure would be far narrower than the broad path to citizenship many hoped would be the signal achievement of any comprehensive immigration reform worthy of the name. Still, even a narrow and winding path to citizenship probably looks good to Democratic lawmakers at this juncture, with midterm elections approaching, and core constituencies calling them to account for their inability to pass CIR when Democrats held the House, Senate and White House – a situation unlikely to recur any time soon.

The DREAM Act is expected to be debated alongside another contentious issue, a Democratic attempt to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prevents gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. military. Perhaps the Democrats hoped that including two controversial issues in one bill would help them curry favor with two key constituencies, while dividing GOP attention in at least three directions: that of the underlying Defense bill, and the two controversial riders. (If you poke the GOP elephant once, Democratic thinking seems to suggest, it will attack in the direction of the first poke; if you poke the elephant from two or more sides at once, it will collapse in confusion – or something like that. Time will tell whether elephants – GOP or otherwise – are quite so distractible.)

Meanwhile, President Obama told a leading Latino organization, the Hispanic Caucus Institute, that he does not intend to “walk away from this fight” – the fight for CIR – and talked of the need to “break the Republican leadership’s blockade,” if any progress is to be made. (See Obama Says He Won’t ‘Walk Away’ from Overhaul of U.S. Immigration Security, by Nicholas Johnson,, 15.Sep.2010.) The President is absolutely right that CIR will be impossible without GOP support, just as he must be fully aware of how unlikely he is to get that support, given increasing GOP hostility to CIR and immigrants in general. Still, the President is wise to lay down a marker, showing his intention to make good on his promise to Latino voters, a large voting bloc of ever-increasing influence.

Not content with piecemeal immigration reform, Senator Bob Menendez announced recently that he plans to introduce his own CIR proposal this month, one that reportedly includes “border security provisions, employment verification, a temporary-worker program and a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants now living in the U.S.” (See Menendez Pushes Immigration Reform in a Tough Climate, by Scott Wong,, 15.Sep.2010.) The bill is not publicly available yet, so the precise contours of the legislation are still somewhat sketchy, but it seems likely that the measure will draw upon the Reid-Schumer-Menendez proposal that circulated in April of this year, emphasizing rigorous border enforcement and strict requirements for illegal immigrants hoping to walk the path to citizenship. We will provide further details on this proposal when they become available. In the meantime, we should not be surprised if there’s little progress on immigration reform during the peak of the election season.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.