For the courageous young people who willingly disclosed their undocumented status last year, Congress’s failure to pass the DREAM Act was a devastating blow. They had an overly optimistic view, as activists often do, that the justice of their cause, the intensity of their commitments, and the drama and risk of their efforts, would carry the day. They were wrong, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t matter.
In the lame duck session following the 2010 elections, the Democratically- controlled House of Representatives passed the DREAM Act, but Democrats in the Senate were unable to generate the supermajority necessary to break a filibuster and vote on the bill. Those who came out were politically disappointed–and personally at risk; they knew they were now visible and vulnerable to deportation.
The prospects for passing a new DREAM ACT, when the Republicans added to their numbers in the Senate and took control of the House of Representatives, are much worse than before. The grassroots wing of the Tea Party movement has identified stopping any kind of immigration reform, aside from increased border security, as a key priority. They’ve effectively held their legislators hostage to this position.
But President Obama is now pressing Congress to bring the DREAM back. When Obama was interested in building a bipartisan coalition for comprehensive reform, he invested heavily in putting money and people on the border with Mexico, and dramatically increased the number of deportations. He now knows–and even more importantly, says that nothing the administration does will buy Republican support for comprehensive reform. The Administration’s key enforcement and deportation priorities, he has announced, involve removing convicted criminals without documentation from the United States. This doesn’t mean that the students are now safe, just that they won’t be explicitly targeted.
Quite obviously, electoral politics are all over this move. President Obama means to mobilize Latino enthusiasm and voters. He also means to have the Republicans take full responsibility for catering to the anti-immigrant forces within their ranks. And he must surely know that his efforts will provoke and mobilize nativist activists in opposition.
The DREAMers, denied a legislative victory, need to realize that none of this would have happened without their efforts. Their demonstrations, press conferences, civil disobedience actions, and everything else, dramatized their cause and its political support. President Obama thinks there are electoral advantages to be gained here because the DREAMers showed him their power and support. And the DREAMers activated a vigorous opposition that has pushed Republican politicians away from a key mainstream Republican constituency: big business.
Businesses always want access to labor, and cheaper labor is better. In response to President Obama’s recent immigration speech, the normally stalwart Republican US Chamber of Commerce announced enthusiasm and support for the president’s approach to comprehensive reform. Ambreen Ali (Roll Call) reports:
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has long supported immigration reform as a way to help American businesses remain competitive, gave the speech an “A” grade.
“We were quite pleased with the ideas he put forth,” said Randy Johnson, the chamber’s senior vice president of labor, immigration and employment benefits. “Now’s the time to get prepared for an economic recovery. This bill isn’t going to rush through Congress, so let’s get off the dime.”
Johnson said the president’s outline for immigration reform largely reflects the business group’s position.
A renewed campaign for comprehensive immigration reform could mobilize the Democratic base–and fracture the Republican electoral coalition.
The DREAMers made this move smart politics for the president.