Lisa Murkowski

What Will Immigration Reform Advocates Learn from DREAM’s Defeat?

January 10, 2011

by Daniel Altschuler

Anyone who has ever played on a bad Little League team will recall the age-old wisdom that you learn more from defeat than from victory.  While winning prompts celebration, losing demands critical reflection.  The same is true in politics: any advocate worth her salt will use defeat as a learning opportunity for future efforts.

Now is just such a reflective moment for the movement for immigration reform, which, after losing the DREAM Act via a Senate filibuster, has come up empty-handed in the Obama administration’s first two years.  Advocates must now ask themselves how they could have done better with regards to legislative strategy.  The DREAM story suggests that this inquiry should revolve around two concerns.  First, were advocates of comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) too slow to shift to supporting piecemeal legislation?  And, second, did these movement and congressional leaders advance the optimal piecemeal strategy by focusing exclusively on the DREAM Act?

Costly Compromise

The DREAM Act centered on a path to legalization for undocumented high school graduates whose parents brought them to this country as minors.  The price for a path to citizenship would have been attending college or serving in the military.  Since its introduction in 2001, DREAM has enjoyed bipartisan support, because it focuses on a highly sympathetic group of immigrants—students—who bear no responsibility for their undocumented status.

But, in the hyper-polarized 111th Congress, DREAM became extremely controversial.  First, the bill failed to overcome a filibuster before the mid-term elections.  Then, during the lame-duck session, despite majority public support for DREAM, the prospect of another Senate filibuster prompted DREAM advocates to shifting their focus to the House of Representatives.

Nonetheless, the Democratic leadership was unsure if DREAM could pass even the lower chamber.  Eventually, Democrats modified the bill to pre-empt Republican objections—they reduced the age limit (from 34 to 29), lengthened the time period for citizenship (to a 10-year wait before being able to apply for citizenship), eliminated DREAMers’ eligibility for certain government benefits during the 10-year waiting period, and increased the fees beneficiaries would have to pay.

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Tags: Richard Lugar, DREAM Act, Lisa Murkowski, Bob Bennett, Center for American Progress Action Fund, Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform