Cracks Emerge in Immigration Reform Coalition

January 16, 2014

When it became clear that Speaker Boehner was planning to introduce a series of small standalone immigration bills (rather a single broad reform bill), we speculated that this would test the strength of the reform coalition.

The reform coalition is wildly diverse, and only a fraction of it is concerned with “immigration reform” writ large. Most are committed to much more specific issues: Silicon valley wants to be able to hire more skilled workers; DREAMers want the DREAM act to pass; the Ag industry wants easier access to seasonal labor. If their issues are addressed in standalone bills, they may not stick around to fight for the (relatively unpopular) pathway to citizenship. That would leave the least politically potent part of the coalition – the 11+ million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. – to fight alone for the hardest-to-achieve aspect of immigration reform. It is impossible to imagine a pathway to citizenship passing in such a context.

Committed reform activists know this and so are adamantly opposed to breaking up the reform bill (“Our battle is to fight for what we need and not for what the opposition is inclined to give us,” says Elisio Medina). However, House Republicans have no intention of allowing a pathway to pass, and some reform advocates are tired of having to wait to see their agenda enacted in the name of the pathway. Surprisingly, the first sign of defection hasn’t come from big business, but from the DREAMers:

As rumblings begin again about Congress taking up overhauling U.S. immigration laws, tension has developed between key advocates in the reform community over what exactly should be pursued in terms of citizenship.

In a letter obtained by BuzzFeed, a group of more than 80 so-called DREAMers, undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children, as well as advocacy groups, argue that “citizenship or nothing” is no longer a viable strategy.

This is a complicated issue with no clear way forward for those in favor of broad reform. They would be loathe to miss a chance to enact widely supported and broadly beneficial policies such as the DREAM Act, H-1B reform, etc. However, the status quo – in which millions of residents are living in the shadows – cannot be maintained indefinitely. What’s clear is the Boehner’s decision to move forward on standalone bills has upped the pressure on the reform coalition, and fissures are starting to emerge. None of this bodes well for comprehensive reform, although that has been clear for quite some time.

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