Call it cunning politicking or just necessary political calculation, but immigration is back on the top of the national agenda. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus endorsed today Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s surprise plan to bring to the Senate floor a bill that would provide a path to permanent residency for undocumented youth. The CHC’s backing adds real steam to the idea, as the caucus has been among the most vocal proponents of holding out for a broad, comprehensive immigration reform bill.
On Tuesday, Reid shook up the national immigration reform debate when he announced that he would introduce the DREAM Act as an amendment to the defense authorization bill. He said he would also attach a provision to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“We enthusiastically endorse Majority Leader Reid’s plan for bringing the DREAM Act to the floor as soon as possible,” said New York Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, in a morning press conference. “We have been supporting his attempts to move immigration reform forward all year. As a key champion in Congress for sensible immigration reform, the CHC trusts Leader Reid’s judgment and his strategy for passing the DREAM Act, while simultaneously pushing for comprehensive reform.”
Immigration rights advocates have indeed been watching the political clock for the past year. The opportunity to pass a piece of immigration legislation that doesn’t focus on building up the military presence at the border or strengthening enforcement at the local level has been rapidly shrinking. With the midterm elections just around the corner, reform plans to move millions of undocumented residents toward citizenship were abandoned this summer as a hot potato issue too polarizing to handle. Reform advocates both in Congress and around the country pressured the White House all spring, particularly following the passage of Arizona’s SB 1070, to keep the president’s campaign promise to make a comprehensive bill a priority. But they won only more rhetoric, a few administrative changes and promises of a vote someday down the line.
It’s against this backdrop that the immigration reform movement now finds itself in a new race against time. Reid’s spokesperson Jim Manley said that the senator would likely file for cloture on the defense authorization bill this week, for a vote as early as next Tuesday. According to congressional watchers, Reid’s got to win at least five more votes to protect the DREAM Act through cloture.
“The next seven days are crucial. We need Republians,” said DREAM activist Mohammad Abdollahi, a Michigan native and undocumented immigrant who was arrested for staging a sit-in in Arizona Sen. John McCain’s office earlier this year. DREAMers, as the bill’s supporters are often called, have been waging a very public battle to force Democrats to tackle the bill separately, rather than wait for the sort of broader package that CHC, the president and major Beltway immigration reform groups prefer.
The divide has often led to intra-movement controversies over political strategy. A significant sector of the immigrant rights movement has long resisted moves to break comprehensive immigration reform into smaller bits for a piecemeal approach. But the political reality is difficult to ignore now.
“The DREAM Act is a very limited step in the face of the huge challenges of what it means to try to reform immigration policy,” acknowledged Oscar Chacón, executive director of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, also known as NALACC. “But we believe it allows us to bring some concrete, rational, practical approach to what has been in our opinion a losing battle essentially since 2002.”
The DREAM Act would provide an option for hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth with clean criminal records to adjust their status if they commit to at least two years in college or the military. A person must have lived in the country for at least five years, and entered the country before the age of 16 in order to qualify. According to Migration Policy Institute estimates, some 825,000 people would be granted conditional permanent residency if the DREAM Act were passed.
DREAM Act activists have been sparring with the CHC for the better part of the summer. The intra-movement disagreements took a particularly public turn when DREAM Act activists released a phone call recording this summer of a Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez scolding activists who were in the middle of a sit-in in Reid’s office. Twenty-one activists would be arrested that day, but not before Gutierrez told them:
>Every time someone says the whole thing cannot pass, only part of it, it weakens us, it divides us, it confuses us, it scatters us all over the place. We once had a united movement for comprehensive immigration reform. Now we don’t have a united movement, and that is causing, that is detrimental to the movement for all of us.
Today, CHC leadership downplayed that divide while announcing support for a stand alone DREAM Act at an interfaith gathering in Washington, D.C.
“If we can assist part of our community by enacting the DREAM Act, we will redouble our efforts to ensure working people, families, children, and farm workers are protected within the framework of a comprehensive fix to our immigration laws,” said Gutierrez. Earlier this year he was among the White House’s most vocal critics for not prioritizing a comprehensive bill. And he reiterated his support for a broader comprehensive bill today. “We will not give up until we have an immigration system that works for the American people, for immigrants, for employers, for families and for the rule of law.”
Immigration advocates attribute the sudden movement to the collision of multiple factors. “Democrats have finally realized there is not one vote they can spare” this November, said Ochoa. “And they are trying desperately to reach out to voters by identifying niche policy areas that have the potential to entice voters into participating this season.”
Reid in particular needs every vote. He is polling neck and neck against Tea Party-backed challenger Sharron Angle, and campaign watchers expect he will need strong support from the Democratic base–including Latinos–to keep his seat. Angle, meanwhile, hopes to make him pay for the choice. She released a new television ad yesterday calling Reid “the best friend an illegal alien’s ever had.” More broadly, Democrats, skittish as ever when it comes to taking a stand on immigration, are bracing for the possibility that they will lose their majorities in both houses of Congress.
But the bill’s renewed political life is also owing to the aggressive activism of young people around the country. Dozens of DREAMers have made life often uncomfortable for both Democrats and Republicans this year, staging sit-ins and leading hunger strikes inside congressional leaders’ offices. Frank Sharry, the executive director of immigration reform group America’s Voice, says, “To be honest, the combination of the activism of DREAMers themselves and the sense [the DREAM Act] has a better chance of passing by leaders of the Senate, that combination put DREAM in senior position” over other smaller immigration bills.
The DREAM Act has far more bipartisan support than comprehensive immigration reform, it’s true, but the move is still a political risk. As of today, the DREAM Act had 40 cosponsors in the Senate and 128 in the House. Leaders from both parties had signed on. Yesterday Politico reported that Sen. Richard Lugar, who had previously supported the DREAM Act, had not said whether he would support it this time around.
DREAM Act organizer Mohammad Abdollahi doesn’t begrudge Reid his self-serving political calculations. “The reality of it is that it is something we were depending on to make sure this issue gets covered,” he said. “We’ve been fighting for so many years that it just needs to be passed now.”
“Let’s face it, it may be too little, and it may be too late,” said Chacón. “But I think they cannot afford not to try.”
For Abdollahi and the country’s immigrant rights advocates, the next seven days will be key. “It comes down to calls,” Abdollahi said. “In 2007 we were still losing in phone calls four to one. Congress hears from anti-immigrants way more than they hear from us. The best thing people can do is pick up the phone.”