Immigration groups eye piecemeal reform as Reid focuses on energy bill

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s plan to move energy legislation in July has cast a pall over the chances of comprehensive immigration reform.

The signal from Reid (D-Nev.) that Senate Democrats will focus on energy over the next two months has changed the strategy of some pro-immigration groups.

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Instead of pushing for comprehensive reform, they will focus on smaller proposals that could have more bipartisan support.

One such popular proposal is the Dream Act, legislation sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) that would put illegal immigrants who came to the country at a young age on the path to legal permanent residence.

The second proposal is the Ag Jobs bill. It would allow illegal farm workers and agricultural guest workers to obtain temporary immigration status with the possibility of becoming permanent residents.

Pro-immigration advocates believe the legislation could attract the support of conservative farm-state senators.

“If you’re talking about the whole comprehensive reform, I think we can probably write it off before the elections at this point,” said Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

“We’re going to push for the down payment on reform,” said Wilkes. “We want to get the Dream Act passed and Ag Jobs passed. They have both been discussed in advance and have solid bipartisan support.”

Tyler Moran, policy director of the National Immigration Law Center, acknowledged that time for passing comprehensive reform this year is running out.

“There’s a limited amount of time on the calendar and looking at the agenda right now, there doesn’t appear to be enough time,” Moran said. “The Dream Act could be the first step in a broader strategy for comprehensive immigration reform.”

Moran, however, declined to say that comprehensive immigration reform is impossible this year.

Durbin said in a radio interview last month that he thought it was unlikely the Senate would pass comprehensive reform this year.

Durbin’s assessment received a boost Thursday when Reid sent a letter to Democratic committee chairmen signaling the chamber would focus on energy over the next two months.

He asked eight chairmen to submit recommendations for how the energy bill could address the Gulf oil spill by July 4.

“I would ask that you provide any recommendations or report legislation, if desired, in your Committee's jurisdiction, before the Fourth of July recess to address the challenges that I have laid out above so it can be incorporated into a comprehensive clean energy bill for consideration during the July work period,” Reid wrote.

Regan Lachapelle, Reid’s spokeswoman, said that comprehensive immigration reform could still move this year.

But Reid has said the timing will depend on pro-immigration groups rounding up enough Republican support.

“The groups were given a couple a weeks to get some Republicans to cosponsor immigration reform and we’re waiting to hear from them,” Lachapelle said.

Pro-immigration advocates such as Robert Gittelson of Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform report that Senate Republicans have “closed ranks” against broad reform.

Senate insiders view June and July as the final months of the year to pass sweeping legislation through the upper chamber. Senators have scheduled a five-week recess beginning Aug. 7 to give those facing tough re-elections some time to campaign back home.

Historically, politics takes over the agenda during September and October of an election year. Lawmakers tend to focus on political debates on the floor instead of the substantive negotiations necessary to pass broad controversial legislation.

Some advocates of immigration reform are still holding out hope for comprehensive legislation.

Grisella Martinez, director of policy and legislative affairs at the National Immigration Forum, argued that Reid left himself some wiggle room in his Thursday letter to take up immigration before the August recess.

“As majority leader, he has the capacity to bring whatever he wants to the floor,” she said. “If he wants to make time on the calendar he can do something. I don’t see that statement as ruling out the possibility of immigration moving forward.”


Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Conference, who has spearheaded negotiations on broad immigration reform, has resisted breaking it up into smaller pieces.

Proponents of Schumer’s view question whether the Dream Act and the Ag Jobs legislation could attract enough support without being packaged with provisions to crack down on illegal immigration.

But Wilkes of the League of United Latin American Citizens argues those bills could pass this year and create momentum for broader reform in the 2011.

“The Ag Jobs pulls in a lot of farm-state conservatives,” he said. “That’s very doable legislation that can pass now.

“We can come back next year and finish the job with a comprehensive approach,” Wilkes added. “Getting a full, comprehensive immigration reform between now and the election is unlikely.”

So far Durbin has held back from pushing for the Dream Act to move separately from a comprehensive bill. But his position could change as consensus grows among pro-immigration groups that there’s not enough time to pass broad reform in the few months before the election.

Angela Kelley, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, said a piecemeal approach could make sense this year.

"There’s something to be said about the stepping-stone strategy that looks at most compelling populations," she said.

But Kelley emphasized that the Dream Act and Ag Jobs could not replace broad reform beyond this year.

“It’s not going to fill you up, it's not going to be very satisfying when there’s a much bigger population,” she said in reference to an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, many of whom would not be addressed by the smaller bills.