Should Immigration Activists Go All In, Or Bet On A Smaller Prize?

It's Just a Bad Hand - Photo: Malinkrop/flickr

It's Just a Bad Hand. (Photo: Malinkrop/flickr)

Despite thousands in the streets marching for immigration reform; civil disobedience; law suits; and hunger strikes, Congress has barely moved a toe towards passing “comprehensive immigration reform.” A proposal was introduced in the Senate, but it’s so flawed that politicians are finding it easy to ignore. The president hasn’t exerted much leadership on immigration, except for appeasing Republicans by agreeing to send 1,200 National Guard troops to the southwestern border. Meanwhile, July 29 is quickly approaching, the day SB 1070 will be implemented in Arizona.

Immigration is a tricky issue, and may be just as incendiary as health care.  At this point, even members of Congress who openly support immigration reform say it’s unlikely to pass this year, as they prep for midterm elections in a difficult political climate.

But if not now, when?

It’s universally accepted that Democrats will lose some seats in November. That makes it unclear why passing an immigration bill would be easier in 2011 than it is now.

I wouldn’t say that immigration reform advocates are in outright despair, but some have taken a cue from Congress and given up on lobbying for full-blown immigration reform. This is a game of politics, and some players are betting that singular pieces of legislation, namely the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act and the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act (AgJobs) have a better chance of passing. The DREAM Act would provide a path to legal status for youth brought to the U.S. before the age of 16, and AgJobs would do so for farm workers. These two bills have bipartisan support.

That’s why there are 10 young immigrants on hunger strike outside of Sen. Schumer’s (D-NY) office. They’ve refused to budge until Schumer supports the DREAM Act as a standalone bill. He doesn’t want to, because he favors fighting for “comprehensive immigration reform.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid shares the same position.

“We can’t just do the DREAM Act,” Sen. Reid told Latina Lista. “Republicans would have a field day with adding amendments to it.”

Even Sen. Dick Durbin, (D-Ill.) the main sponsor of the DREAM Act, is holding back in deference to his congressional leader. “I’m not going to push for that because I don’t want anyone to think I’m pushing the DREAM Act at the expense of comprehensive immigration reform,” Durbin told The Hill.

Some immigration reform proponents worry if Democrats push the DREAM act and fail, it will make it impossible to pass broader legislation. In essence, they believe they only have one shot to pass an immigration bill, so they have to pick the bigger fight.

Robert Gittelson of Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform told The Hill that Senate Republicans will not support broad reform. He believes the DREAM Act and AgJobs bills could pass separately, yet he’s still advocating for a bigger bill.

“I feel that by taking off what would be the low-hanging fruit, it takes away significantly from the full coalition advocating for comprehensive immigration reform,” he said. “It would be a long-term mistake to try to pass this short-term, temporary piecemeal solution.”

But some DREAM Act proponents are questioning this strategy. If comprehensive immigration reform will plainly not happen this year, and possibly not happen in the remainder of this presidential term, is this just stalling? The Dreamers are refusing to wait. As a blogger named Mohammad wrote on last week,

“We have two options right now: either we continue to play this waiting and pandering game to these groups that want nothing to do with us and care nothing about our futures, or we take a risk, we take a stand, and we push for the DREAM Act to pass as a stand alone bill.”

Tension is clearly mounting within the immigration reform movement. Calling it a “moral crisis,” Mohammad continued: “If you are not making the DREAM Act happen as a stand-alone bill, then you are a roadblock to DREAM, and we are going to call you out in a very public way.”

As can be seen in the comments to the blogger’s post, immigration reform advocates are by no means universally in agreement. It’s a poker game. What hand to play?

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AboutSarah Kate Kramer
Sarah Kate Kramer first got hooked on collecting stories as a StoryCorps facilitator, then traveled the world with a microphone for a few years before settling down in her hometown of New York City. From 2010-2012 she was the editor of Feet in 2 Worlds and a freelance reporter for WNYC Radio, where she created “Niche Market,” a weekly segment that profiled specialty stores in New York. Sarah is now a producer at Radio Diaries, a non-profit that produces documentaries for NPR and other public radio outlets.