The so-called DREAM Act partial immigration amnesty—one of the Democratic priorities being pushed in the current lame-duck Congress— isn't dead yet. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's game plan for passing it seems clear: Wait until the big tax bill passes and Republican senators are released from their "no cloture" pledge. Then try to break out enough "yes" votes to get to 60 at the buzzer, right before Congress adjourns.
Majority pundit sentiment says Reid won't be able to do this. But a week is a long time to expect squishy GOP senators to hold out against a wave of criticism from respectable kibbitzers and ethnic-identity politicians (e.g., "If Senate Republicans kill the DREAM Act ... many millions of Hispanics will take it as a slap in the face"). In particular, I'm worried some anti-amnesty Republicans might be tempted by the argument that passing DREAM—which in theory applies only to illegals brought to this country when they were under age 16 who graduate from high school—will make it harder to pass a larger "comprehensive" amnesty in the future.
I used to think that, until I thought about it. After thinking, I suspect President Obama is closer to the truth when he argues that DREAM is in fact a "down payment" on "comprehensive" legalization.
Why? After all, pro-legalization types have traditionally worried that passing DREAM all by itself would kill "comprehensive" reform by cherrypicking the most appealing group of illegals (those who came here "through no fault of their own")—making it that much harder to pass a law legalizing all the less appealing groups. This sort of thinking is in line with the traditional liberal approach of using heart-tugging victims, especially children, as the tip of the spear for far broader programs. (Even within the class of 1 or 2 million DREAM beneficiaries, we hear mainly about the "the valedictorians in their classes, the presidents, the stars of their sports teams, and the people who win the college bowls.") It's why legalizers resisted until the last minute (i.e. now) making a push for a separate DREAM bill that wasn't part of "comprehensive" package. Once the DREAM kids were taken care of, who would be the poster children for the Big Amnesty?
But were the legalizers right about this? The "think of the children" approach doesn't always work. Marian Wright Edelman led brigades of kids to Capitol Hill to sing "Itsy Bitsy Spider" when she was defending welfare benefits that went to parents as well as children. That didn't stop Congress from passing the welfare reform she opposed. And it's not at all clear that DREAM was working to produce "comprehensive" amnesty. The DREAM kids were lost in the vast mass of "comprehensive" reform, which would have affected potentially 11 million. Did you even know that DREAM was part of Bush's 2007 plan?
Suppose Congress passes the DREAM Act. Will that use up the supply of poster children for "comprehensive" reform? Of course not. There will be plenty of other appealing cases, including the cases of those who are denied citizenship by DREAM's own rules.
The arbitrariness and complexity of DREAM's requirements and categories is seen as a problem by the left. But maybe it's a dialectical strength, from their point of view. The Act's crazy quilt of deadlines and precondidtions, combined with the massive fraud that will follow its virtually irresistable invitation to false applications, will create a system seemingly doomed to collapse of its own weight. Penalize a kid who came to the U.S. four years before DREAM, rather than the requisite five? Who spent only a year and a half in college instead of two years because he was busy working? Who went back to Mexico for a year instead of living here "continuously"? Who was too honest to lie on his application--so he stays illegal while hundreds of thousands of his less scrupulous brothers-in-undocumentation get in?
Some of these distinctions will be finessed in practice, as Heather MacDonald notes, through the widespread application of the law's "hardship" exemption. Illegal immigrants who get 10 years to complete the Act's requirements and don't complete them are unlikely to actually be deported. But the press will have a feast with the arbitrary rules, whether they are applied or not. And some of the rules that are most likely to be applied--such as the GED requirement--are morally unstable. If the DREAM kids are appealing because they didn't choose to come across the border and all they know is America, why should they also have to graduate high school again? Do you have to have an 1100 SAT to be an American these days? The temptation will be to say, "The hell with it. This is crazy. It's simpler to just amnesty everyone."
And that isn't counting the pressure to legalize all the new illegals drawn by the international signal DREAM sends: "Come illegally, bring your kids, and you might be a winner!"
True, the "it's simpler to cover everyone" line doesn't always work either. It didn't work in the late 1960s when the elite consensus favored a "guaranteed income" that would dispense cash across the board, overriding old-fashioned, hard-to-police distinctions between people who worked and people who didn't. The voters, it turned out, liked those old-fashioned distinctions. But the distinctions created by DREAM don't have a similar moral clarity. The great strength of the anti-amnesty movement, after all, is the clear line it draws between legality and illegality. DREAM replaces that with the line between GED and no GED, between four years and five years, between 29 years old and 31 years old. It will be hard to stop future Congress from busting through these weak moral lines and expanding the amnesty, perhaps "comprehensively."
The drafters of DREAM are almost certainly hoping that this happens, even if they are not actually setting it up to happen. Hence their "down payment" rhetoric. If, like me, you don't want "comprehensive reform"--if you want border enforcement first, amnesty later--it's a down payment you don't want to make ... 1:39 a.m.