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Democrats and Immigration

More rhetoric than reform.

11:00 PM, Dec 30, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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A couple of weeks ago, amidst the prolonged drama surrounding Senate passage of the Democrats' health care bill, House Democrats unveiled another major policy initiative for 2010--a renewed effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

The new bill didn't attract a lot of national media attention at the time. Health care sucked the air out of the news cycle. But a closer look at this developing story reveals an interesting twist. The House's new immigration gambit looks more like a political tactic aimed at dividing Republicans--when the GOP is growing in political strength heading into the 2010 midterm elections--than a serious effort to find solutions to this complicated issue.

Serious reformers, genuinely interested in improving immigration policy, would not tackle the subject as House Democrats have approached it. Here's why.

First, the legislation is ill timed. Congress is not the Energizer Bunny. As an institution, it's prone to exhaustion and needs time to recover. After bruising and extended battles on the stimulus, cap and trade, and health care this year, Congress simply lacks the political stamina to take on an issue as controversial as immigration in 2010.

Second, Congress cannot tackle this issue in a partisan manner. True, a straight partisan bill could pass the House. Yet if reformers want a law instead of a talking point, a purely party-line measure won't make it to the finish line.

Legislative progress on health care seems to violate this principle. But immigration is not health care. Health care is the Holy Grail of Democratic orthodoxy. Substance aside, passage is a moral and political imperative for partisans. Passage of comprehensive immigration reform is not. The issue simply doesn't produce the same amount of political voltage for Democrats.

Third, "immigration" is a catchphrase for a host of issues. As a result, "reform" means different things to different people: border security, raising immigration totals, visa reform for high-skilled workers, guest worker programs, social services for illegals, employer sanctions for not complying with the law, and creating a path to citizenship. Moreover, following last week's terrorist attack aboard Northwest Airlines flight 253, a variety of immigration reform topics get intertwined with homeland security questions. All of these subjects also fall under the rubric of "immigration reform."

When Congress addresses multiple problems in a single bill, probability of passage plummets. Congressional Christmas trees topple with too many ornaments. Fixing problems in the immigration system--as opposed to scoring political points--may require a lighter, more incremental approach.

Predicting public policy through "piecemeal" versus "comprehensive" reform efforts is a matter of great debate among practitioners and academics alike. Some argue "change" requires a coalition of interested parties supporting a broad-based bill to overcome an entrenched status quo. Others believe a narrower, incremental approach boosts the odds of victory because it limits the number of interests and potential opponents.

University of Wisconsin--Madison political scientists Benjamin Marquez and John F. Witte provide some support for the incremental approach in a recent paper published by Berkeley Electronic Press, "Immigration Reform: Strategies for Legislative Action." Marguez and Witte argue that some issues, such as amnesty, are so controversial, reformers should address them separately. " No issue divides Congress more decisively," they write. "To include it (amnesty) instead in a large package of reforms is likely to sink the package along with amnesty." Margues and Witte conclude comprehensiveness can kill when it comes to legislation, "There is in Congress the powerful tendency to solve all the problems at one time in a huge complex bill that covers broad ranges of issues." They argue incrementalism may be a better approach for those truly interested in fixing immigration-related problems: " it might be better simply to ask: 'Can we make positive progress on issue x, always remembering the issue y can be dealt with on another day.'"

That's sound advice. And given Congress's collective exhaustion and the lack of bipartisan consensus on a broad-based bill, legislators are better off focusing on a piecemeal approach. Congress could tackle a number of issues in the immigration debate with separate pieces of legislation, such as improving border security, addressing the needs of employers by reforming visa and guest worker programs, and reforming sanctions on employers who hire illegals.