Yesterday's House Judiciary Committee hearing was supposed to focus on the plight of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children—commonly referred to as "DREAMers." But it inevitably turned to the question at the heart of the immigration-reform battle: what to do with their parents. While members of the committee expressed support across the board for granting citizenship to DREAMers—at least those, in the words of Representative Steve King, who aren't gang members or drug-runners—its more conservative members expressed reservations about where this would lead. "Is this being set up as a background amnesty?” asked King. “Who do you enforce the law against if everyone who hasn’t committed a felony is legalized?" The Iowa Republican, following the "secure the border" drumbeat that's become a fixed feature at such hearings, also assailed the Obama administration for failing to enforce immigration law. "Parents bringing their young children to the U.S. illegally is not something we would want to encourage," said Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia and the committee chair.
While it was not the immediate topic of the hearing, Republicans in the chamber are currently working on the KIDS Act, which Democrats and immigration-reform supporters have assailed for conferring legal status on the children of undocumented immigrants while simultaneously deporting their parents. Democrats say the current immigration problem needs a comprehensive solution that deals with both populations. La Opinón, the largest Spanish-language newspaper in the country, called the KIDS Act a cynical political ploy: Ceding to pressure for their version of immigration reform to contain some legalization component, they have proposed a measure they know Democrats will oppose, whom they can then blame for the failure of immigration reform. Given Republicans’ previous opposition to the DREAM Act and their recent vote to defund the administration’s Deferred Action program, which halted the deportation of DREAMers in anticipation of immigration reform, it’s hard to read their newfound sympathy for DREAMers any other way.
But yesterday’s hearing also highlights the political problem with piecemeal reform, which has also plagued fights over energy and environmental policy; comprehensive approaches allow lawmakers to group more controversial provisions of legislation with the less controversial ones. With DREAMers at the forefront, a comprehensive solution to our immigration problem that also legalizes their parents is an easier sell. It is, if you want to phrase it that way, a "backdoor amnesty" for DREAMers' parents. But with piecemeal reform, each affected group must make its own case for legalization. The standalone argument for legalizing non-DREAMers—more than 9 million people—is far harder. The rhetoric of the immigration debate is so dehumanizing to most of the undocumented population, it has proved nearly impossible to make the humanitarian case for reform to Republicans who stress this is a “nation of laws” but forget it’s also one of people. Rather than being viewed as economic refugees who took the risky move of breaking U.S. immigration law to provide a better life for themselves and their children, those who’ve crossed the border illegally or overstayed visas are simply “lawbreakers."
Of course, from a policy and humanitarian standpoint, legalizing both the children of the undocumented and their parents is a no-brainer. Failing to do so breaks up families, and DREAMers and their supporters will not be satisfied with a solution that deals with them but not their parents. At yesterday’s hearing, Representative Goodlatte asked DREAMer Pamela Rivera, whose undocumented mother was deported after being stopped for a minor traffic infraction, whether she would accept a solution that provided her with citizenship but not her mother. “My mom wants the responsibility and opportunity that comes with citizenship. We had, up until that happened, lived with my parents here for 20 years,” Rivera said. ”It’s difficult for me to say we’d be OK with that.” Or as Representative Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California, parroted back: “When you’re pitting sons and daughters against moms and dads, the system is not healthy.”
While reformers are still holding out hope for a comprehensive solution that provides a path to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants, they may ultimately have to settle for what they can get. This is what they were prepared to do in 2010. After it was clear comprehensive immigration reform was dead, advocates tried to get the DREAM Act passed on its own. It failed to overcome a filibuster from Republicans in the Senate, who at the time said we still needed to secure the border before moving on to legalizing anybody. But immigration-reform advocates will only take this bargain if it's certain they can't get anything more. With the Senate having already passed an omnibus bill and House Republicans motivated enough to do something on immigration reform, that is not yet the case.