The Wall Street types came first, and save for the unsaved Lehman Brothers, bailout delectables were generously doled out. Next came the hungry insurance behemoth, AIG, the large and small banks, the credit-card lenders and the makers of consumer loans. Each voraciously consumed their bailout largess.

Last, came the Big Three U.S. automakers, the UAW, and with them in tow, the parts suppliers, car dealers and myriad companies in the automotive supply chain. The answer so far from Messrs. Bush and Paulson, and from strange bedfellows in Congress, is a succinct and unsympathetic: “Fuggeddaboudit! Go eat the leftovers at the Bankruptcy Diner.”

There’s a lesson here for the advocates of immigration reform. Come to the table last, and expect to receive at best the leavings or at worst an empty plate. The Obama administration (with the majoritarian Democrats in the House and the near-filibuster-proof Senate) is now preparing the biennial meal and setting the table.

Who’s favorite dishes are being prepared? Which group’s crockery and dinnerware are to be laid out? If immigration reformers wait till the economy is stable — two years at best — the mid-term elections will disincline the Dems to become 524-group fodder for the die-hard anti-immigrationists in the Republican camp, and the hungry immigration reformers will not dine until 2011. Worse yet, a Clintonian repeat of history could then witness, a slimmed-down majority or even malnourished minority status.

If there is to be an immigration meal, it must be piecemeal. If immigration supporters cannot have a multi-course feast at a single sitdown dinner, then tapas eaten seriatim will more than satisfy the hungry reformers’ appetites.

The first immigration comestibles can be dished in early March 2009 when the continuing resolution will likely be continued again until the regular budget-appropriation season in the fall. The menu should include immigrant-visa recapture, EB-5 regional center renewal (permanently), AgJobs and the Dream Act, all justifiable contributors to an economic turnaround. Another opportunity arises in late 2009. By then it’s past the time to feed the hungry masses, especially Latinos who voted 60-31 Obama-McCain, with a slow path to citizenship for the 12 million unauthorized in our midst. They can cover the dinner tab with payment of fines and back taxes, and with the nutrient of legal status, help rebuild our crumbling infrastructure.

By 2010, and the coming midterms, all that good food will have been fully digested, and the larder of the Congressional supporters of immigration reform will have been replenished by the voters. Then, in 2011, with the economy rebounding, a comprehensive recipe can be used to nourish the country with safe and orderly future flows of temporary and permanent residents.

The lesson of the carmakers should be heeded. Wait too long to come to the drive-in window, and it will be shuttered.