Theres not a prayer that comprehensive immigration reform will pass Congress this year, but theres a slim one that a smaller down payment measure might. And it should.
Many of the nations most important Latino groups, plus Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), are now pushing passage of a package to legalize undocumented workers in the farm industry and young people going to college or the military.
Whats needed now is some concerted leadership from President Barack Obama, from Republican presidential wannabes (and maybe former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush) and business groups plus some gumption (and simple humanity) on the part of GOP Senators who have supported immigration reform in the past.
The problem, of course, is lock step GOP opposition to anything Democrats want to do plus a political atmosphere inflamed by Arizonas effort to sic its police on illegal immigrants.
Republicans are fixed on a border security first immigration strategy, while down payment involves legalizing the status of about 2 million undocumented immigrants.
Theres also resistance in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, many of whose leaders fear that passing an agriculture bill now will pull a key group the grower lobby out of the campaign for comprehensive immigration reform.
Theres also fear that Republicans will try to attach harsh enforcement provisions to any down payment bill.
Still, its worth the effort. A small, good deal is better than no deal at all, says Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and a convenor of the National Latino Congreso, a coalition of major Hispanic groups.
We want comprehensive reform, but right now we need a lifeboat, he told me. We need to take care of the people we can.
The National Latino Congreso includes the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
The down payment strategy also has been endorsed by a huge coalition of groups organized as Reform Immigration for America, which includes the National Council of La Raza and the National Immigration Forum.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) may be interested in pushing only the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, but Feinstein wants the AgJOBS bill, too. Her staff counts no more than 56 votes for either measure separately but thinks the farm lobby can pull in enough Republicans to get to 60 for the two measures as a package.
The DREAM Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) would offer legal status to young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children if they go to college for two years or join the military.
AgJOBS, sponsored by Feinstein and Lugar, would offer legal status (a blue card) to workers with two years experience in agriculture, and to their families, if they agreed to stay in farm work for another two years.
Each of the measures would legalize about 1 million of the 12 million undocumented people in the U.S.