Harry Reid’s gambit to attach the DREAM Act as an amendment to this year’s Defense Authorization Bill failed miserably last week. Republicans, who strongly oppose DREAM as a stand-alone measure — but might one day consider it as part of broader immigration reform legislation — weren’t biting. Reid, however, never expected them to. He wanted Republicans to vote DREAM down so that that he could continue to paint the GOP as “anti-immigrant” with Latino voters back in Nevada. Reid’s been in a dead-heat with Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle for months, and may well lose his seat. Latinos comprise 22% of the Nevada electorate, and voted 3-1 for Obama in 2008. Reid desperately needs to get them to the polls.
But unfortunately for Reid, Nevada Latinos, who stand to benefit from DREAM, aren’t much interested in his re-election bid. They have a lot of other things on their mind this November, like double-digit unemployment, for which Reid and his Democratic colleagues have no solution. And offering DREAM as an alternative to comprehensive immigration reform, which would include a legalization program as well as expanded border and workplace enforcement, is an insult to all voters, Latinos included. To Reid, DREAM must have seemed like the perfect straddle — a smaller, more manageable legalization that would appeal to Latinos but one small enough, perhaps, not to alienate most Nevadans, who say they favor an Arizona-style crackdown law before any “amnesty” is considered.
What’s sad, and disturbing, is that the majority leader, like so many other Democrats, insists on putting partisan politics ahead of the broader national interest in achieving a bipartisan consensus on immigration. Had Reid really wanted to garner GOP support, he could have allowed Republicans to offer their own amendments to the Authorization Bill, including amendments specifically relating to DREAM and more broadly to immigration. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), who has supported comprehensive reform in the past but is reluctant to do so now, publicly challenged Reid to open up the amendment process. But Reid refused. After all, this was not about making real progress on the issue.
What could Republicans offer? Well, stepped-up border enforcement for one. John McCain and John Kyl have been pushing for a major expansion of border enforcement, as well as a measure that would criminalize repeat border-crossers. They tried to pass the same bill last summer, and managed to convince California Democrats Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein to join them. But the measure gained only 54 votes, 6 short of the magic 60 needed. Feinstein, in particular, is to be commended for stepping across party lines. Boxer’s in a tough re-election race with the GOP’s Carly Fiorina, who opposes amnesty and supports expanded enforcement. Apparently, Feinstein deliberated long and hard before siding with Boxer. With California Democrats opposed to an Arizona-style enforcement law, supporting the McCain-Kyl bill provided a golden opportunity to demonstrate the party’s toughness on illegal immigration. And Feinstein must have known the bill would be defeated, so her vote was largely symbolic. But loudly so.
It turns out that McCain and Kyl were fully prepared to offer the border enforcement legislation as an amendment to the defense authorization bill, alongside of DREAM, but thanks to Reid’s intransigence, they never got the chance. Which means we’ll never know what might have happened if Democrats and Republicans had been allowed to combine the two measures — DREAM and expanded border enforcement — as a kind of bipartisan “down payment” on immigration reform. DREAM would give legal status to illegal aliens who migrated to the US with their parents when they were children. Even many amnesty opponents recognize that these individuals are something of a special case. And the numbers are small — either 800,000 or 2 million, depending on which source you consult. If we split the difference, that’s still less than 15% of the total illegal alien population.
Despite its crushing defeat, we probably haven’t heard the last of DREAM — or of Reid’s polarizing efforts on immigration. Reid has confided to pro-immigration activists that he may try to win on DREAM by convening a “lame duck” session of Congress in mid-November, immediately after the midterms. The idea would be to convince Democratic and Republican senators no longer facing the threat of voter reprisals to swing their support to DREAM. That might work with one or two of the senators who lose in November, but it’s unlikely to sway the winners let alone the 21 incumbent Democrats facing re-election in 2012. Subverting the will of the incoming Congress by ramming through DREAM during the lame duck session could well cost them their seats.
Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.