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Key Questions as DREAM Debate Heats Up

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Last Wednesday, immigration reform advocates cheered as the DREAM (Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act passed the House of Representatives. DREAM, which would provide a path to citizenship to undocumented youths brought to the US by their parents conditional upon them attending college for two years or serving in the military, was all but certain to fail in the Senate. But the passage in the House gave advocates new life. Now, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has tabled the Senate version of DREAM with the hopes of passing the House's version before the lame-duck session ends. Passing the House bill would skip the "conference" process that is required when the House and Senate pass substantively different versions of legislation.

The obvious question for now is: does DREAM have a chance? Things are moving very fast in Washington these days, so, while DREAM remains a long shot, it's hard to make any determinations with any certainty. But certain key questions have become clear, and the answers to them may prove the determining factors in the days to come.

The most obvious and over-arching question is whether Democrats can get enough of their conservative members and Republicans on-board. Dick Lugar (R-IN) is the first and only Republican who has said he will support DREAM in its current form. But he, like all his Republican colleagues, pledged not to support any legislation before a tax deal was resolved. So, DREAM's fate is tied to whether and how a tax deal materializes. But there's also a content issue--namely, how much would DREAM advocates have to concede to Republicans to get the bill passed. This raises a few more questions.

The second key question is: what concessions might DREAM advocates be willing to make on immigration enforcement to get the bill passed? Republicans have long made the dubious "enforcement-first" argument--namely, that the government must massively increase enforcement (which it has done under Presidents Bush and Obama) before Republicans will talk about legalizing undocumented people (which they consistently refuse to do). So, one way to try to appease Republican senators would be to add punitive measures to DREAM that would threaten more deportations and/or greater militarization of the border.

But, as Ali Noorani, Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum, acknowledged to me in September, "the risk [of a piecemeal strategy] is that the enforcement measures are disproportionate". Already, the Reform Immigration FOR America Coalition has been criticized from the Left for giving up too much on enforcement in its unsuccessful pushes for a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2007 and 2010. More recently, Democrats and pro-immigrant advocates made sacrifices on DREAM--e.g., reducing the age maximum from 34 to 29 and increasing the period for legalization to 10 years--to increase its chances of passage. As this week unfolds, tension will rise between A) conceding on their ideals vis-à-vis enforcement and B) the pressure of knowing that this will be the best opportunity to pass immigrant-friendly legislation for the next two years.

The third critical issue will be whether there is enough time to make a deal on DREAM. The lame-duck session is tentatively scheduled to end on Friday, December 17th. With the tax cut debate still raging and the START Treaty and defense authorization issue still on the debate, time is in short supply. The clock could quite easily run out before DREAM advocates get enough senators on their side. That said, the Democratic leadership could alternatively opt to extend the session, which could improve DREAM's odds. Last year, the Senate was still in session on Christmas Eve, and the stakes seem at least as high this time around.

Finally, there is the question of whether a longer lame-duck session could prompt another surge from supporters of the AgJobs Bill. Already in this lame-duck session, House Democrats considered pairing DREAM and AgJobs--which would offer legalization for undocumented farmworkers and ensure a more stable workforce for this country's growers--when they feared DREAM alone would not pass. The thinking on this combination is that AgJobs would increase the votes in favor by bringing in conservative Democrats and Republicans with rural constituencies. Ultimately, House Democrats opted for DREAM only and managed to get it through the lower chamber. If DREAM looks sure to fail in the Senate, though, and advocates have extra time in the lame-duck session, it is conceivable that the AgJobs lobby (growers and farmworkers) could try a final push for a DREAM / AgJobs combination. After all, if they fail to get anything this December, they--like the DREAM advocates--will likely have to wait at least two years for another chance at anything as appealing as what has been on the table this month.

Given all these questions, DREAM clearly remains a long-shot to pass the Senate in the lame-duck session, but there are still various moving parts that will determine its ultimate fate. So hang on to your hats--the next week or two could make for a wild ride.

(Cross-posted on www.americasquarterly.org.)

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