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Immigrant Activists Regroup | The Nation

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Immigrant Activists Regroup

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Over the past decade, the immigrants' rights movement has become one of this country's strongest grassroots forces. Nationwide, grassroots groups and legislative coalitions have mobilized millions of people to protest punitive enforcement laws, promote legalization for undocumented people and demand access to state services.

About the Author

Daniel Altschuler
Daniel Altschuler is a Copeland Fellow at Amherst College and a doctoral candidate in politics at the University of...

But following the Republicans' midterm victories, the movement faces a hostile environment. How it responds will affect whether the country continues shifting toward restrictionism or rediscovers a middle ground on immigration.

The recent elections may turn back the clock to 2005, when the last Republican-controlled House passed the infamous Sensenbrenner bill, which triggered an unprecedented wave of protests in which Latinos, immigrants and allies took to the streets.

With millions marching and a legislative coalition backing them, the movement resisted the restrictionists' surge and pushed a comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) bill through the Senate. Still, when a similar CIR bill failed to pass the Senate the following year, three key movement weaknesses became clear: shaping public debate, solidifying labor alliances and connecting grassroots and legislative work.

Since 2008 the movement has tried to address these shortcomings. To broaden the immigration conversation, groups throughout the country have reached out to potential local allies, including business, evangelical and African-American groups. Pro-immigrant organizations have also convened meetings at congregations and town halls for immigrants to tell their stories. As Andrew Friedman, co–executive director of Make the Road New York, explained, "This issue is made understandable through the experiences of actual people. Everyone can raise the specter of the negative impact of immigrants. But when you actually look at it, you've got hardworking folks, raising kids, who are going to school—the stories are on our side."

The movement has worked to strengthen alliances with labor, bringing unions into the latest national coalition, Reform Immigration for America (RIFA). In 2009 the Change to Win coalition and the AFL-CIO (which withdrew support for the 2007 bill, mostly because of concerns about guest-worker provisions) agreed to a unified framework for CIR. SEIU, the service employees union, has worked especially closely with RIFA's leadership, participating in its management team and collaborating with grassroots organizations nationwide.

Finally, RIFA's leadership—which includes the National Immigration Forum, the Center for Community Change (CCC) and the National Council of La Raza, among other groups—has also tried to improve the movement's messaging capacity and its policy impact. To help translate grassroots activism into legislative victories, the movement has created new organizations in strategic states; enhanced its communications platform; built a digital platform to marshal calls, faxes and e-mails to legislators; and mobilized voters.

These tactics worked—and they didn't.

To immigrant advocates' delight, on election day Latino voters provided the Democrats with a firewall in the West to keep the Senate majority. Although there was some concern early this year about voter apathy given President Obama's failure to push for CIR, Arizona's SB 1070 and Republican support of repealing birthright citizenship showed Latino and immigrant voters the price of inaction.

Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of SEIU, presciently observed before the elections, "Democrats ought to be thanking their lucky stars that there are Republicans, as far as the Latino community goes. Because the Republicans are making crystal clear to the Latino community why they cannot afford to stay home." In Colorado, California and Nevada, Latinos' pro-Democratic impact on the Senate races surpassed the overall margin of victory, enabling Democrats to keep their majority.

Moreover, in a display of the movement's sustained grassroots capacity, a rally on the Mall in March and May Day demonstrations nationwide mobilized hundreds of thousands of supporters. And in September, after Senate majority leader Harry Reid introduced the pro-immigrant DREAM Act, which provides a path to legalization for young people who attend college or serve in the military, RIFA and its grassroots affiliates mobilized hundreds of thousands of supportive calls, e-mails and faxes to Senate offices. In previous legislative battles, restrictionist callers had overwhelmed Senate phone lines and cowed potential CIR supporters.

In short, the movement showed its ability to convert grassroots power into legislative pressure and conveyed to both parties the risk of taking Latino voters lightly.

But the movement's makeover was not as successful in two other critical areas: developing a unified legislative strategy and shaping the national debate.

The lack of legislative opportunities through this past summer may have been beyond movement leaders' control, but they also failed to find agreement about whether to push Democrats to present a bill without Republican support. Some thought it necessary; others deemed it political suicide. Movement leaders never resolved where to apply the most pressure. Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum and RIFA's chair, acknowledged that "the legislative strategy wasn't clear. And, when you don't have a clear legislative strategy, it's hard to keep a legislative coalition together."

For now, the strategy has become clear again. In December the movement will focus on getting the DREAM Act through Congress. Phone-banking and lobbying have already begun, and the DREAM youth activists—many of whom have risked deportation by protesting and getting arrested—will continue mobilizing supporters.

But what then? First, the movement must become more adept at handling tough legislative calls. This may mean changing the composition of the national coalition's leadership team, and it will certainly require doing a better job of building consensus between national and state groups. The movement needs to get better at anticipating when and how legislative proposals will spark tension between advocates in the Beltway and organizers on the front lines.

The most contentious issue may be enforcement policy. Movement leaders accept that any immigration compromise will include enforcement, but they fear disproportionately punitive measures. As CCC executive director Deepak Bhargava explained, "The question isn't whether we have enforcement but what kind of enforcement we have."

Deportations spiked under President Bush and have continued increasing under Obama. To express their frustration with Obama's de facto enforcement-only policy, pro-immigrant groups have organized rallies and engaged in civil disobedience. Though the Obama administration has shifted enforcement, with prodding from advocates, toward targeting criminals, it may continue trying to use deportations to prove its "toughness" to immigration opponents. Meanwhile, the movement will likely protest ongoing deportations while pressing for the White House to use executive authority to provide relief to undocumented people.

If restrictionists dominate House debate as much as in 2005, however, the locus of protest could shift away from Obama's enforcement to the proposals of Republicans Lamar Smith and Steve King—the likely Judiciary Committee and immigration subcommittee chairs. These House leaders will likely focus on repealing birthright citizenship, attacking family reunification provisions and ramping up enforcement. This will put the movement on the defensive, but as Noorani noted, "Our movement does well when we have a clear target. Lamar Smith makes for a clear target."

The movement will also have to respond to developments at the state level. Since Republicans made gains in legislatures and governorships, anti-immigrant legislation is likely to arise across the country. With legislative contests imminent in states like South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Florida, the movement and its foundation funders may concentrate resources on building and reinforcing state coalitions.

Indeed, state fights are arguably more important because for the next two years the best national legislative scenario may be a stalemate: the House and Senate passing irreconcilable bills, as in 2005 and 2006. If the Senate advances toward bipartisan solutions while the House turns toward restrictionism and mass deportation—and if the movement can ward off malicious state legislation while persuading the White House to reduce deportations—the immigrants' rights movement and its Democratic allies will have performed well.

Over the longer term, the movement must focus on broadening its alliances and shifting the national immigration conversation. Thus far, efforts to share immigrants' stories have resonated with small audiences. CCC has recently tried to lift individual narratives into the national spotlight through its "We Are America" initiative. These stories, however, have never gained anything near the traction achieved by restrictionists' scare tactics. For its storytelling efforts to figure centrally in a national campaign, the movement must expand its audiences.

Moreover, the movement must redouble its efforts to build local and national alliances. There could be accidental side benefits to a nativist surge—laws that encourage racial profiling, for instance, may prompt alliances with African-Americans and other minority groups. And evangelical groups may also become more vocal in response to punitive proposals.

The movement will need all the allies it can get. Evangelicals and business groups can advance the moral and economic cases for comprehensive solutions among conservatives. Such pressure would not likely be enough to get CIR passed in the next two years, but it could help resist punitive state legislation. In Utah, for instance, business leaders, clergy and Republican officials recently signed the Utah Compact to oppose SB 1070 copycat proposals.

For the foreseeable future, the movement's goals will be to fend off punitive enforcement legislation and lay the groundwork for CIR. Even the best-case scenario will entail substantial compromise, particularly on enforcement. But the challenge will be to sustain a strong enough left-of-center coalition to prevent future legislation from, as one Senate staffer put it, "going off a cliff" to the right, as it did in 2007. Maintaining such unity will require the national leadership, grassroots groups and unions to work out tensions on contentious issues—e.g., enforcement and future immigration levels—before legislative windows open.

Ultimately, CIR is not just about fixing the country's broken immigration system; it promises broader political change. If the movement achieves legalization for the roughly 12 million undocumented people in this country, it would strengthen an increasingly powerful—albeit diverse and often socially conservative—Latino voting bloc. As CCC's Bhargava argued, widespread legalization could mark "a structural change in the politics of the country that will make the country more generous to immigrants in the future. So, if you want better immigration policy ten years from now, you'd better support and do what's necessary to get the current undocumented population legal."

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