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Column: Forget IOUs on immigration reform

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CHICAGO -- "You owe us" is not exactly a compelling argument for legislative action, but this is really all that some immigration reform activists have left to goose Democrats to make something -- anything -- happen during the lame-duck session of Congress.

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This doesn't look likely and everyone knows it -- Congress reconvened Monday and is facing major, controversial issues such as Medicare payments to doctors, unemployment benefits, and whether to extend the Bush tax cuts.

There are other matters -- like ratification of the nuclear arms treaty with Russia -- but the ones I just mentioned will overshadow any interjections about the highly flammable issue of immigration reform because of their impact on American pocketbooks. And like it or not, right now all anyone cares about is the economy and their own financial stability.

Don't get me wrong, you can't blame activist groups for trying anything to keep their reform agenda in the public eye at a time when some Republican House members are licking their chops about legislation to deny "birthright citizenship" to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants, and do anything else possible to make illegal immigrants' lives hellish enough to inspire a mass exodus.

On the first day of the lame-duck session, President Obama was quoted by Sen. Robert Menendez, who is trying to meet with him to press the issue, as saying he's only willing to move forward on immigration with Republican support. Meanwhile, Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart from Florida sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging her to schedule a vote during the session on the DREAM Act, which would legalize immigrant youth who came to the U.S. illegally before the age of 16 and fulfilled strict requirements. Pelosi would join the forever-grateful-to-Hispanics Harry Reid in bringing up the act which has enjoyed bipartisan support for over 10 years but was again smacked down in September when he tried to tack it onto the defense spending authorization bill.

I can't predict whether Congress will respond to this last-ditch effort for relief to those frustrated with inaction on immigration reform, and many observers think a comprehensive overhaul is dead until at least 2012. Either way, the next few weeks should close the five-year "We demand comprehensive immigration reform" chapter in the continuing American saga over how we welcome newcomers and usher in a next chapter I'd call "Political pragmatism, compromise, and small steps delivered substantive progress."

"There's little political will to tackle something as huge as immigration," Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law expert at Cornell University, told me. "But if people realize they can't pass comprehensive reform the question is, will they be able to pass some smaller bite-sized bills like the DREAM Act, Ag Jobs? Some worry that if small bills go through, the will to get through a larger, comprehensive package is diminished, but smaller chunks could actually make a down payment on comprehensive immigration reforms."

Yet that won't happen unless there is compromise on the part of legislators -- and also those demanding the reforms. Pro-reform organizations have failed to communicate their legislative agenda effectively to non-supporters. For the last five years they've left the impression, especially on those who tend toward nativism, that "comprehensive immigration reform" is actually code for an open borders policy that provides amnesty for all. While this might not be true, activists have done a poor job of selling a more concise vision to a country that, according to a recent nationwide poll of registered voters, overwhelmingly believes it is unrealistic to deport all illegal aliens and craves a federal solution including tighter border protections.

This is an opportunity, not a setback. And rather than arguing for what might be "owed" to Latino voters, it's time to convince the average Joe on how both small and large reforms could benefit the entire country and its financial stability.

Esther J. Cepeda's e-mail address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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