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Hey, Congress: It's comprehensive immigration reform or nothing

Some members of Congress argue that the Senate immigration reform bill should be broken up and considered piecemeal. But only comprehensive legislation will pull together the strange-bedfellow coalition necessary to secure enough votes to pass both the House and Senate.

By Rey KoslowskiOp-ed contributor / May 21, 2013

Senate Judiciary Committee members Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of N.Y., left, and Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois confer on Capitol Hill, May 20. The panel is aiming to pass immigration legislation out of committee this week, setting up a high-stakes debate on the Senate floor. Op-ed contributor Rey Koslowski says 'a piecemeal approach [to immigration reform] flies in the face of the long history of failed stand-alone immigration bills.'

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Albany, N.Y.

Some members of Congress argue that the comprehensive immigration reform bill before the Senate is too long and that it needs to be broken up and considered piecemeal. But a piecemeal approach flies in the face of the long history of failed stand-alone immigration bills. This Congress needs comprehensive reform to save itself from itself.

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Only a comprehensive reform legislative package will pull together the strange-bedfellow coalition necessary to secure enough votes for any immigration bill to pass both houses of Congress: No comprehensive legislation; no bipartisan coalition; no change.

As groups hold out for their priorities, each part of comprehensive immigration reform legislation is held hostage to passage of all others:

Liberal Democrats supported by ethnic interest groups want earned legalization with a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants. Libertarians in the Republican Party and other Republicans responding to business constituencies want more visas for high-skilled information technology workers and lower-skilled guest workers.

Legislators from states with large high-tech sectors want green cards for foreign graduates of US university doctoral programs in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields; legislators from agricultural states with vegetable, fruit, and dairy want a guest-worker program for farm workers.

More socially conservative Republicans as well as security hawks among Democrats want tougher border controls and work-site enforcement. Liberal Democrats and more libertarian Republicans accept increased spending on border fences and tighter controls, but only within the context of comprehensive reform.

Unless these many demands are part of an interdependent, comprehensive reform package, each of the various camps is unlikely to support each other’s individual initiatives.

But with so many contentious parts, some lawmakers have argued for a piecemeal approach. Senate Judiciary Committee Member Ted Cruz (R) of Texas called for considering smaller bits of immigration legislation that have the most bipartisan support, like an improved agricultural guestworker program, instead of imperiling legislation by including deeply divisive elements like legalization with a pathway to citizenship.

Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Robert Goodlatte (R) of Virginia, said his committee would examine these issues in a step-by-step process and then introduced a stand-alone temporary agricultural worker bill allowing up to 500,000 foreign workers.

History shows that the piecemeal approach to immigration reform doesn’t work. For example, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia has put forth a bill to create a nonimmigrant H-2C work visa program for agricultural workers. The bill would eliminate the limitation to seasonal work and reduce cumbersome requirements of the current H-2A temporary agricultural worker program established in 1986. It would also increase the overall numbers of agricultural workers.

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