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.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
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.'

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.

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.

But the newly introduced bill is similar to more than a dozen bills that have failed to be enacted by previous Congresses, including the Temporary Agricultural Worker Act of 1998, the Agricultural Job Opportunity Benefits and Security Act of 2000, and the Temporary Agricultural Labor Reform Act of 2007, which Representative Goodlatte introduced six years ago.

Passing stand-alone immigration bills would also require multiple bargains and agreements across parties and across interest groups.

This kind of bargaining – called “legislative logrolling” – could move step-by-step, piecemeal immigration legislation forward. With this practice, a legislator agrees to trade her vote on a bill she cares less about for another legislator’s vote on a bill that is much more important to her.

For example, a New York City Democrat who wants to help high-tech businesses but cares less about agriculture might agree with a Texas Republican to vote in September for a new temporary agricultural worker program that benefits Texas, if his Texas colleague will vote in October for legislation giving green cards to foreign students who earn PhDs from US universities – which benefits New York.

But such an approach to immigration reform would necessitate numerous, complex vote trades during a long sequence of bills being introduced and voted upon. The piecemeal approach will not work in this Congress because there is simply not enough trust among its members (and their constituencies) to enable such logrolling.

Too many members of Congress reason that if provisions others want most are considered first and passed as stand-alone legislation, the legislation they want most may not even get a vote in the House or Senate. Since lawmakers cannot trust one another to enact immigration reform piece by piece, it must be voted on all at once.

The good news is that soon after the Memorial Day break, a bipartisan House group is expected to introduce a comprehensive reform bill close enough to the Senate’s that differences could be worked out in conference.

However, Speaker of the House John Boehner did not object at the beginning of the legislative session to Rep. Goodlatte’s plan to hold extensive hearings on individual pieces of immigration legislation. If Mr. Boehner fails to support the comprehensive reform approach when the bill is introduced and opts for Rep. Goodlatte’s slow, piecemeal approach, it is unlikely the American people will see any difference from the pattern of failed immigration legislation introduced over the past few years.

Members of Congress introduce immigration bills popular with their constituencies that have zero chance of passing both houses but enable them to issue press releases stating they have done something, while, in reality, nothing changes.

But polls show that the majority of Americans – both Republicans and Democrats – support broad immigration reform. If Congress wants to meet that demand, members will stop avoiding change by floating unrealistic, piecemeal proposals and make the tough compromises of comprehensive reform.

Rey Koslowski is an associate professor of political science at the University at Albany and a non-resident fellow of the Migration Policy Institute.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.