Immigration: Comprehensive or Piecemeal?

By Mark Krikorian on November 25, 2013

Democrats are appearing to accept the House Republicans' sensible insistence on addressing immigration issues in separate, targeted bills, rather than the Senate's comprehensive, Obamacare-style approach. You will not be surprised to learn that this acceptance is insincere.

President Obama, for instance, said last week that, "If they want to chop that thing up into five pieces, as long as all five pieces get done, I don't care what it looks like." He reiterated that today in his comments in San Francisco. Nancy Pelosi and Dick Durbin have expressed similar sentiments.

But the president's next sentence gives the game away: "What we don't want to do is simply carve out one piece of it ... but leave behind some of the tougher stuff that still needs to get done." In other words, a series of targeted bills is okay, so long as they all move together and include all the components of the Schumer-Rubio comprehensive bill passed by the Senate in June. But if any one piece were to fail, the whole deal would be off.

There's nothing "targeted" or "step-by-step" about that; it's just another way of passing a huge, comprehensive package of disparate measures at one time. George Will provided historical context for this approach, arguing that it was how Stephen Douglas got the Compromise of 1850 through Congress after Henry Clay's comprehensive approach failed. And it's clear that's what the pro-amnesty House Republicans are planning; Luis Gutierrez told Al Jazeera last week, referring presumably to his ally Paul Ryan, "When I talk to my Republican friends, [they tell me] all of the parts will lead to the full package."

But this is legislative trickery, simply reinforcing the fear that any conference with the Senate will yield what is, in effect, the Schumer-Rubio package of measures.

If the House leadership is serious about pursuing a step-by-step approach, they'll pass one measure about which a majority of the GOP caucus agrees — like the enforcement-focused SAFE Act or increases in green cards for tech workers or farm workers — and send it, as a stand-alone measure, to the Senate, and wait for the Senate to pass its own targeted bill on that specific topic, after which the two chambers can go to conference.

But the political logic of the pro-comprehensive coalition means Harry Reid can't approach immigration in a genuinely step-by-step manner. The odd-bedfellows alliance of Big Business, Big Labor, Big Race, Big Religion, etc. can't hold together without a comprehensive package satisfying the differing demands of the various interest groups.

If, for instance, the tech companies got their extra cheap-programmer visas through a targeted bill (which I think is inadvisable, but that's immaterial here), then they lose the incentive to remain engaged in the amnesty fight. Likewise, if the yet-to-be-introduced KIDS Act (a GOP version of the DREAM Act) were to pass, the amnesty pushers would lose their most sympathetic symbols. In effect, more politically popular immigration measures are held hostage to a broad amnesty, and if those other measures were to be passed on their own it would be the equivalent of releasing the hostages, leaving amnesty-pushers with little leverage.

Speaker Boehner has a choice: Follow Obama's phony step-by-step approach to pass a comprehensive package, or pursue a real step-by-step approach and force the Democrats to turn away changes they favor because they demand all or nothing.