Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

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

Reading Time: 9 minutes

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.

These concessions were difficult to swallow for DREAM advocates.  Gaby Pacheco, a DREAM leader who walked for four months from Miami to Washington with three other DREAMers, noted soon after the House bill passed, “For me, it was really tough to see the DREAM Act change, and change in such a dramatic way.  Now it will leave out my sister, for instance….The compromises and the changes came at a high cost.  But, at the same time, we understood that they were needed in order to push forward.”

Ultimately, though, the concessions to get DREAM through the House were insufficient to overcome another Senate filibuster.  While DREAM advocates managed to get certain key senators like Richard Lugar (R-IN), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Bob Bennett (R-UT), and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) to vote to end Senate debate and force a final vote, 6 Democrats joined 39 Republicans in either voting against DREAM or abstaining.  As another DREAMer, Efraín Trujillo, noted about the Democratic hold-outs, “If Democrats wanted to, we could have the DREAM Act now.”

But the swing-vote Republicans and Democrats simply never came to the table, citing myriad procedural objections.  Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, explained that Senator Durbin (D-IL)—the lead senator in the DREAM effort—“had an open door, and he reached out to Republican Senators.  And there was enormous outreach at the staff level.  But no one bit.”

The denouement came on Saturday, December 18th, when DREAM students watched helplessly from the Senate balcony as the cloture motion failed.

Building Rome In A Day?

DREAM’s failure prompts the question of whether the principal actors pushing for immigration reform pursued the right legislative strategy.  In particular, DREAM’s demise raises the issue of whether the movement’s principal legislative campaign, Reform Immigration FOR America (RIFA), and its Democratic allies should have shifted from a comprehensive strategy to a piecemeal approach earlier.

Since the mid-2000s, CIR has been the centerpiece of the national political debate on immigration.  Like its predecessor, the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR), RIFA has pursued a “big tent” strategy.  The CIR strategy emerged for multiple reasons.

First, our immigration system needs multiple fixes—legalizing undocumented immigrants, enforcement and border security, setting future immigration levels, among others.  CIR has long seemed like an appropriately complex response to a complex problem.

Some, however, have argued that CIR is a mirage rather than a magic bullet.  The first objection has been that comprehensive reforms never work, period.  In a 2009 article in Salon titled Against Comprehensive Reform – of Anything, Michael Lind argued that the 2007 battle for CIR failed because, “Trying to please every special interest, it alienated enough special interests – labor on the left, nativists on the right – that it died for lack of support in Congress.”   Oscar Chacón, Executive Director of National Alliance of Latin American & Caribbean Communities (NALACC), similarly notes that CIR advocates “have pretty much ignored the fact that, in almost every other major area of public policy, you do not necessarily come up with changes all at once.”

This argument is weakened by the fact that President Obama did manage to pass a massive—albeit flawed—health care bill.  But comprehensive bills are, of course, extremely difficult to pass, and it may be that passing more than one such bill in the 111th Congress was simply asking too much.  Given the protracted health care debate, the depth of the economic crisis, and the Republican Party’s unprecedented unity in opposing the President’s agenda (all of which only became apparent after RIFA had formed its CIR strategy), the deck may simply have been too stacked against a CIR push in 2009 and 2010.

But the second reason for a CIR strategy was that it provided a vehicle to build the broadest possible coalition to assert political power in support of immigration reform.  By bringing immigrant rights organizations, unions, business groups, and others together, RIFA sought to counter the restrictionist surge that inevitably follows any effort to reform immigration policy in Washington.

While some groups, like NALACC, felt that RIFA held too dogmatically to a CIR orthodoxy, the big-tent strategy succeeded in mobilizing Latino voters before the mid-term elections and rallying unprecedented numbers of people to contact Congress.  Whereas previous efforts were hampered by restrictionist callers over-running congressional offices with calls, RIFA at least equalized congressional contacts in 2010.  According to Mr. Fitz, RIFA mobilized 700,000 calls, faxes, and emails to Congress in the recent DREAM effort alone.  Once DREAM became the focus, RIFA put its broad coalition’s weight behind this targeted effort.

The question remains, however, whether this transition could have been made earlier.  By late spring 2010, it was clear that CIR would not pass the 111th Congress.  Still, advocates kept calling for CIR, with concomitant delays in the push for other measures like DREAM.  Ultimately, RIFA did accept a “down-payment” approach, but DREAM was not introduced in the Senate until mid-September, when the mid-term elections were already consuming Washington.

So why did it take so long?  Part of the reason is that the DREAMers are arguably the most sympathetic group of undocumented immigrants, and CIR advocates are reluctant to lose bright-eyed student faces from their coalition.  Piecemeal measures risk eroding both public support for the broader effort and losing the mobilizational capacity of groups with a more narrow focus—in this case, the highly-organized and -sympathetic DREAMers.  Luís Pérez, a DREAMer from California, noted, “At one point we were fighting against everybody, because a lot of organizations pushing for comprehensive didn’t want to push for the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill.”

There was also, however, a problem of scale.  While RIFA’s size generated political strength, it also appears to have limited the movement’s agility.  Anyone who has ever watched a commercial jet reversing its course on the tarmac knows that turning a big machine around takes time.  This lesson is particularly true for a movement that tries to create space for dissenting voices and alternative suggestions.

But it remains the case that RIFA and its congressional allies were not able to re-direct their energies to DREAM early enough in 2010 to get 60 senators on-board.  Mr. Fitz noted, “If the campaign could have pivoted to an alternative more quickly, we probably would have been in better shape to enact DREAM, or DREAM and AgJobs.  But that wouldn’t have been the campaign we had.  The uniting force of our campaign was this driving theme of comprehensive immigration reform.  There were very real obstacles for a campaign that was built as it was to make that kind of pivot.”

Finding the Sweet Spot: the possible DREAM-AgJobs Combo

In his comment, Mr. Fitz mentioned another piece of legislation, AgJobs (The Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act), which was excluded from the final bill.  This raises a second question: was DREAM on its own the optimal piecemeal strategy?

In early December, DREAM advocates became uncertain of the bill’s prospects in the House, and thus began entertaining the possibility of adding AgJobs to secure passage.  AgJobs would offer an earned path to legalization to undocumented farmworkers, while reforming the H-2A program that oversees agricultural guest workers.  Advocates considered adding AgJobs to DREAM because the agricultural bill has enjoyed a firm agreement between labor and business (the growers’ lobby) and reliable bi-partisan support from congressional members with rural constituencies.  When labor (principally the United Farm Workers, UFW) and business negotiated the initial AgJobs compromise in 2003-4, the bill obtained 125 House co-sponsors and 63 Senate co-sponsors, including a majority of Senate Republicans.

Fast forward to December 2010, when Republican support was in short supply, and AgJobs again looked attractive.  In a December 6 memo to the House Democratic leadership, Ali Noorani, the Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum and RIFA’s chairman, argued: “Support for these measures is additive; DREAM is especially appealing to more progressive and urban members, and AgJOBS addresses an urgent need in the local rural economies of scores of more moderate members. Both bills have a history of bipartisanship, and together, AgJOBS and DREAM hold the promise of bringing the moderate Democrat and Republican votes necessary to win.”

Sources lobbying for AgJobs argue that the DREAM-AgJobs “combo” would have added at least 8, and as many as 16, House votes to DREAM—which could have given the impression of a strong, rather than slim, House victory.  They also expressed confidence in improving the odds of winning over key Senators—such as Senators Voinovich (R-OH), Collins (R-ME), Snowe (R-ME), Brownback (R-KS), Hagan (D-NC), Baucus (D-MT) and Tester (D-MT)—though Senate passage of a combo was never assured.

In the end, though, Democratic leaders opted against introducing the combo bill in the House.  And, though certain advocates again discussed the combo when DREAM looked likely to perish beneath another Senate filibuster, there is no evidence of a serious Senate effort to explore the combo.  According to one source close to the AgJobs lobby, given the time pressure in the lame-duck session, “the key was getting in the House bill.”

Why, then, did the Democrats not replace DREAM with the combo?

The simplest explanation is that they ran out of time.  House Democratic leaders had conducted preliminary vote counts based on DREAM alone—re-doing the “whipping” exercise in the brief lame-duck window could have taken too long.  It could have been risky to push a House vote without greater certainty of how the AgJobs addition would have affected the vote count and whether adding a bill that would have roughly doubled the scope of legalization (adding roughly one million farmworkers to the one million students) would have cowed any DREAM supporters.  With the clock ticking, the argument went among House Democrats, simpler was better.

But this raises the more difficult question of why DREAM advocates did not explore the combo option earlier.  After all, certain CIR dissenters had been calling for a combo since much earlier in 2010.

Two reasons seem to explain the delay.

First, like DREAM, CIR advocates value AgJobs as a critical piece of the broader puzzle.  AgJobs is particularly important because it is the one piece of the immigration policy debate with clear labor-employer unity.  CIR advocates want growers and farmworkers—who carry the piece of their legislation with arguably the greatest bi-partisan appeal—on their team for the bigger fight.  Some supporters of AgJobs argue that they have been “held hostage” to the CIR effort.  When CIR advocates—including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus—finally agreed to consider including AgJobs, it was already too late.

Here, congressional CIR champions like Representative Gutierrez (D-IL) and Senator Menendez (D-NJ) may have miscalculated.  Had the combo been introduced, it likely would have included only an emergency, five-year pilot of AgJobs.  Such a pilot would have alleviated the strain on the growers and farmworkers, but its temporary nature would have maintained the incentives for the growers and farmworkers to continue seeking a broader immigration solution.  They would not likely have abandoned ship.

Secondly, sources close to the House negotiations reported that the AFL-CIO objected to the combo because of the concerns among the building trades.  (The AFL-CIO did not respond to a request for comment.)  Construction workers have long feared competition from immigrants agricultural workers outside of the picking season.  AFL-CIO opposition was probably not the determining factor in the combo’s demise, but its objection does suggest some nagging labor disunity that the movement (which has otherwise retained strong labor unity over the past two years) will need to work out in advance of future efforts.

All of this is not to say that a piecemeal approach—and specifically a DREAM-AgJobs combo—was the solution all along.  Promoting CIR made sense as a way to try to both deliver the greatest amount of relief to the greatest number of people and build the broadest possible coalition for concrete legislative victories.  Moreover, given all the constraints mentioned earlier, it is not clear that any piecemeal combination promoted by RIFA and its congressional allies would have cleared the outgoing Senate.

But the events of the past few months do suggest that advocates and congressional DREAM supporters should have explored alternative strategies earlier.Given that the odds of passing progressive immigration legislation in the next Congress are virtually nil, it is unclear when advocates might have another chance to push CIR.  In the meantime, the big question is whether the organizations that coalesced into RIFA can hold together while making their coalition nimble enough to respond more quickly to shifting political realities.

*Daniel Altschuler is a contributing blogger to www.AmericasQuarterly.org.  He is a Copeland Fellow at Amherst College and a doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. His research focuses on civic and political participation in Honduras and Guatemala.



Daniel Altschuler has written extensively on Central American politics and U.S. immigration politics for publications including the Christian Science MonitorForeign Policy, The Nation, CNN, and Dissent. He is a contributing blogger to AQ Online and holds a doctorate in politics from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. To read more of his writing, visit danielaltschuler.com.

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