The Arizona Department of Public Safety raids a house in Phoenix, April 29, 2010. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
For some immigrant rights organizations, President Obama’s principles for comprehensive immigration reform sound familiar. “The idea of the three-part tradeoff, that is, that we get some legalization in trade for guest worker programs and increased immigration enforcement, has been around for a long time,” says Lillian Galedo, executive director of Filipino Advocates for Justice in the San Francisco Bay Area. “We need a new alternative, based on much more progressive ideas. I don’t think the Dignity Campaign is the only alternative, but it’s an effort to get us to talk about what we actually want, not just what politicians in Washington tell us is politically possible or necessary.”
The Dignity Campaign is a loose network of more than forty immigrant rights and community organizations, unions and churches that has crafted an immigration reform proposal based on “human, labor and civil rights for all.” (Full disclosure: I am an active supporter of the Dignity Campaign.) The campaign’s member organizations support it as an alternative to the political strategy behind the tradeoff because of what they call the bitter impact of earlier tradeoffs over the last thirty years.
In Tucson, Arizona, the Coalición de Derechos Humanos calls comprehensive immigration reform, the shorthand name for the tradeoff strategy, “primarily a vague promise used to attract immigrant and Latino voters, [while] border communities have suffered the costs of irresponsible and brutal enforcement-only policies, resulting in death and violence.” A recent study by the Migration Policy Institute found that the federal government spends more today on border and immigration enforcement than on all other law enforcement agencies combined.
When the first discussions of the Dignity Campaign proposal began four years ago, Derechos Humanos formulated the demands about border enforcement. Instead of even more immigration agents, walls and now drones, they call for dismantling the high-tech wall, removing the National Guard, closing private mass detention centers and restoring civil rights to people living in border communities.
Isabel Garcia is a public defender, and every day her fellow lawyers defend dozens of people brought into Tucson’s Operation Streamline courtroom in chains, where they’re sentenced to prison terms for crossing the border. “That courtroom should be closed,” she says, “and the money redirected to healthcare and education, which our state is now busy cutting.” Derechos Humanos wrote that demand into the Dignity Campaign proposal too.
Galedo and Garcia first saw the tradeoff in 1986, in the Immigration Reform and Control Act. That law, signed by President Ronald Reagan, set up an amnesty that gave legal status relatively quickly to almost 3 million people. Nevertheless, they and other immigration activists of the day, including Bert Corona—widely recognized as the father of the modern immigrant rights movement—campaigned against it. The bill also contained employer sanctions, a provision that made it illegal for employers to hire undocumented workers, and expanded a limited guest worker program into today’s H-2A visa scheme.
“We’ve lived with the consequences ever since,” Galedo says. “That’s why, when we look at Obama’s principles, or the CIR bills of the last decade, we think not just about our need for legalization, but that we’ll have another twenty-five years of enforcement and more guest workers. Because we’ve lived with those costs, we believe the best starting point for immigration reform is a discussion of what immigrant communities actually need and want, and what we know will actually solve the social problems around migration. That’s the source of the Dignity Campaign.”