After the DREAM Act: Immigration Reform in the 112th Congress?

Not long ago, immigration reform was a bipartisan effort, with leading Republicans like then-President George W. Bush and Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham working shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Democratic Senators Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Barack Obama. How very long ago that seems. Fast forward to the second session of the 111th Congress, and the ambitious plans for a much-needed overhaul of our immigration system had foundered in the heavy weather of an approaching mid-term election. By the spring of 2010, it was already clear that the comprehensive version of immigration reform was unlikely to move forward, as the last attempt at a bipartisan compromise – the long-awaited Schumer-Graham bill – failed to even get off the drawing board, after Senator Graham pulled out of the negotiations.

By then, all that was left was the DREAM Act, a small but significant fragment of the original omnibus bill, a fragment assumed to be easier to pass because the beneficiaries were considered “deserving,” in some sense: illegal immigrants brought to this country as children, who presumably had little say in the matter at the time. Lobby as they might, Latino and other pro-immigration activists could not overcome the objections of some influential GOP constituencies who saw the DREAM Act as a backdoor attempt to pass at least a limited amnesty bill after the gate closed on the path to citizenship envisioned by the ill-fated comprehensive reform proposals.

To most observers, looking ahead to the start of the 112th Congress in January, it seems likely that House passage of the DREAM Act will be the high-water mark for those seeking to provide that path to citizenship for at least some of the estimated 10.8 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Many leading conservatives recognize that mass deportations would not be a practicable solution, as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently observed. Some are trying a new tack, proposing a “constitutional” solution that would rewrite the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, to eliminate birthright citizenship to anyone born in the U.S. to illegal immigrant parents. (See In Congress, a Harder Line on Illegal Immigrants, by Suzanne Gamboa, Associated Press, 26.Dec.2010.) According to the Associated Press, the GOP also is likely to seek a crackdown on employment of undocumented workers by mandating the use of the E-Verify system.

The attempt to take away birthright citizenship is sure to be controversial, and may run into any of several political buzz saws – including a Senate filibuster – before it ever could make it to the President’s desk, where, as the AP story points out, it would face a certain veto. Such a measure also might give pause to GOP members with substantial Latino constituencies, and to leading Republican contenders for their party’s nod to run for President in 2012. As the Associated Press article puts it:

“Such a hardened approach – and the rhetoric certain to accompany it – should resonate with the GOP faithful who helped swing the House in the Republicans’ favor. But it also could further hurt the GOP in its endeavor to grab a large enough share of the growing Latino vote to win the White House and the Senate majority in 2012.”

On the other hand, the President and Congressional GOP leaders may find common ground on the E-Verify issue, since, as the AP article observes, like the pro-enforcement camp in the GOP, “Obama also has made cracking down on employers a key part of his administration’s immigration enforcement tactics.”

For his part, the President has assured his Latino supporters that immigration reform will remain a key legislative priority, despite the changing power dynamics on the Hill. Last week, President Obama met with the House Hispanic Caucus, telling them that he still wanted to pursue immigration reform in the next Congress, according to an article in the Chicago Tribune. (See Obama, Latino Lawmakers Take Pragmatic View on Immigration, by Peter Nicholas and Brian Bennett, The Chicago Tribune, 21.Dec.2010.) The Chairman of the Caucus told that the President said “we would still be looking at reforming the immigration laws and it would be comprehensive.” (See Facing Long Odds, Obama Vows Immigration Push, by Carrie Budoff Brown,, 21.Dec.2010.) Certainly, given the new political realities, he will be looking at a much less comprehensive measure than he might have been able to get in the last Congress.

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.