Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Q&A: UCSD immigration expert Wayne Cornelius on why the Dream Act went down

Participants in a vigil and rally for the Dream Act in downtown Los Angeles earlier this month
Participants in a vigil and rally for the Dream Act in downtown Los Angeles earlier this month
Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

The defeat in the Senate last Saturday of the Dream Act, which would have granted conditional legal status to qualifying undocumented college students, graduates and military hopefuls who arrived here before age 16, was just the most recent action on a proposal that has been circulating for nearly a decade. And each time it has come up for a vote, UC San Diego's Wayne Cornelius has followed it, as he has every other federal immigration proposal that has come and gone since then.

Cornelius is one of the nation's leading scholars on immigration and U.S.-Mexico border issues, a political scientist and director emeritus of UCSD's Center for Comparative Immigration Studies. He is now associate director of the university's Center of Expertise on Migration and Health.

After years of observing the politics of immigration, Cornelius has his own take on why the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act failed this time around, in spite of unprecedented student activism and a streamlining of the bill that allowed it to clear the House. He shares his opinion on the Obama administration's strategy of pushing tough enforcement as a means to win support for broader immigration reform, a strategy he believes is doomed to fail.

M-A: Why do you think that in this latest round of the Dream Act, with all of the activism, the recent tightening of the bill and the positive Congressional Budget Office analysis, the proposal still failed? Was it purely partisan politics, or is there any sort of adjustment that could have saved it?

Cornelius: The partisan politics of the Dream Act were impossible to overcome. In this sense, it wasn't fixable, however many tightening concessions were made.

The larger problem is that the entire Obama immigration policy strategy was based on a high-risk gamble that winning credibility on border and interior enforcement among members of Congress would buy the political space needed to enact comprehensive immigration reform.

This strategy was fundamentally misconceived because Republicans in Congress have found tough immigration stances to be reliably effective in mobilizing their base, and because the Great Recession heightened public anxiety and anger about immigration.

The Obama administration has continued the Bush II-era border fortification project and also significantly toughened interior enforcement, pushing spending on all forms of immigration enforcement to unprecedented levels. But with the failure of the Dream Act, and the negligible probability of enacting any larger legalization program in the next Congress, President Obama is left with nothing but the stick.

His immigration legacy may well turn out to be a step-level increase in immigration enforcement and spending, with no progress on anything unrelated to pursuing the undocumented - even high-achieving students brought to this country as children. To those of us who worked hard in his presidential campaign, that is a bitter pill.

M-A: What did you see as the Dream Act opponents' main concerns?

Cornelius: Publicly, they said that they opposed rewarding law-breakers (undocumented students brought to the U.S. as children?), and that legalizing this small population would serve as a magnet for untold millions of new illegal aliens (despite a total lack of empirical evidence to support this "magnet" hypothesis). But this is a smoke screen. These are the arguments that play well with the GOP's base and Tea Partiers. Whether GOP members of Congress really believe them or not, that's what determines their strategy on this issue.
M-A: What makes it so difficult for non-enforcement (i.e. non-fence, etc.) immigration reform bills to pass? Is it a question of being able to quantify results?

Cornelius: None of the proponents of tougher immigration controls is interested in evidence-based policymaking.

M-A: So what happens next? Non-enforcement measures like this one appear to stand no chance before 2012. Then what?

Cornelius: The next two years may bring some ramping down of the most heavy-handed interior enforcement activities, but the genie is now out of the bottle.

In many cities and counties, for example, local police have assumed an aggressive immigration enforcement role that will not be surrendered easily. Our most recent (UCSD/Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, January-February 2010) survey of migrants from Jalisco found that more than one-quarter of them had been stopped by police and interrogated about their immigration status within the last twelve months.

I don't see a Congressional coalition capable of withstanding the anti-immigration forces anytime in the foreseeable future. Obama's political advisors will be telling him that pushing comprehensive immigration reform would complicate the challenge of winning back independent voters who have deserted him in the last two years (independents tend to prefer a harder line on immigration than Democrats), so he can't go too far in that direction. The countervailing pressure will come from Latinos, who will justifiably feel that they have been thrown under the reelection bus.

What it will take to change the basic political calculus is a broad, robust, sustained economic recovery that generates highly visible labor shortages across the country and refocuses public and Congressional attention on immigration as one solution to this problem.

Want to predict when that will happen?