San Francisco

As a Nation writer, I am not in the habit of publicly critiquing other Nation writers, especially on articles about immigration. That’s because I mostly agree with the excellent coverage concerning an issue I’ve worked on and reported about for some time. But I am moved to change my habit because of observations I have about Daniel Altschuler’s “Immigrant Activists Regroup” [Dec. 20].

The article makes crucial and unfounded assumptions that orbit around a critical mistake made by the mainstream media: talking about immigrant rights groups in Washington as if they speak for the larger immigrant rights movement. Although these groups do play an important role in shaping policy, they have a very different role in the nonpolicy arena of the “movement” mentioned in the article. Groups like the Center for Community Change, the National Immigration Forum, the National Council of La Raza and others highlighted by Altschuler have collectively received more than $100 million to advocate for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR), legislation that combines the legalization of 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States with punitive policies that will jail, deport and terrorize immigrants even more. The DC groups backed legislation like the McCain-Kennedy bill of 2006–07, which contained about 100 pages focused on legalization and about 700 pages focused on punishment.

Altschuler fails to mention how CIR and its DC advocates have fragmented and divided the immigrant rights movement, which is also made up of groups that support neither CIR nor the DC groups. Unlike the outside-the-Beltway immigrant rights groups that organized the spectacular marches of 2006—groups that have been consistently and vociferously critical of President Obama and the Democrats since 2006—Obama’s allies in the immigrant rights movement have, until this past year, largely avoided criticizing the president. Even after reports that Obama had broken records on persecution, prosecution and deportation of immigrants, the DC groups provided him a Jumbotron-size video platform at their mobilization for CIR. When these groups do criticize Obama, their approach is to target DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano or ICE Director John Morton, a very different approach from the Bush era, when they regularly named and denounced Bush. Altschuler’s claims that the DC groups organized marches and did civil disobedience to “express their frustration with Obama’s de facto enforcement-only policy” are, at best, partly and only recently true. The criticisms have come only this past year, when the terror rained on immigrant communities by the administration became so devastatingly bad that nobody in immigrant rights could ignore it without appearing callous, co-opted or irrelevant.

I again saw the DC groups’ tacit submission to the Democrats when I called the heads of some of these groups to get their opinion about the most recent CIR legislation, presented by Chuck Schumer. When I asked about Schumer’s ideas on including, for example, a national ID card as part of CIR, the DC leaders’ response was either to avoid me, say “no comment” or declare that they needed time to “study” the matter further (the ACLU and other outside-the-Beltway immigrant rights groups, by contrast, condemned Schumer’s national ID proposal before, during and after the CIR debate).

Quoting only the heads of DC groups simply reproduces the MSM’s spin and keeps Obama’s depredations on immigration out of the public view. The inability to find actual immigrants, immigrant voices to speak for immigrants, is also noticeable in this article. While nonimmigrants can and should speak in the movement (full disclosure: I, a US-born Salvadoran, used to lead an immigrant rights organization), I always try to find and include in my stories the voices of those most affected by immigration policies; many of them can be heard disagreeing with the DC consensus on immigration in the vast immigrant universe just beyond the Beltway.




Altschuler Replies

Amherst, Mass.

Movements are, by their nature, complex creatures. As people organize, it can be relatively easy to find agreement on what they are against. It is more difficult to craft consensus on what they support and which compromises they can accept. So I welcome Roberto Lovato’s comments and fully acknowledge the recent tensions among immigrant rights activists and advocates on matters of legislative strategy and how to respond to current enforcement policies. And while the limited length of my piece may not have permitted a full treatment of these divisions, I have explored strategic debates within the movement elsewhere and will continue to probe further in subsequent pieces.

But the core of Lovato’s comment concerns issues of representation and the Beltway–grassroots divide. Here, I think he oversimplifies. First, a clarification: although my article quoted only two leaders of national, DC-based organizations, it was based on interviews with leaders from national and grassroots groups across the country. The quotations expressed ideas broached by many with whom I spoke.

Second, and more important, the organizations and coalitions I referred to have unquestionably been the central actors pushing for immigration reform over the past few years. The Reform Immigration for America (RIFA) campaign has been joined by more than 800 organizations in its push for CIR ( Through this network, RIFA recently delivered nearly 200,000 contacts to Congress in four days to support the DREAM Act. (Incidentally, while RIFA groups have received a great deal of foundation support, I have not seen conclusive evidence of “more than $100 million.”)

Moreover, certain “DC groups” to which Lovato refers engage continuously with grassroots organizations. Take the Center for Community Change: far from just being a Beltway insider, CCC participates in the movement through its Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM) network, which consists of more than 200 organizations nationwide (full disclosure: in 2008, I consulted for CCC on an unrelated project). FIRM’s approach is shaped by a two-way dialogue between national leaders (themselves experienced community organizers) and groups like the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, the New York Immigration Coalition, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and CASA de Maryland. FIRM has worked not only on CIR and the DREAM Act but also on campaigns against punitive enforcement measures and for better state legislation. And, contrary to Lovato’s assertion, FIRM and affiliated groups have been mobilizing in response to Obama’s enforcement policies since his first year in office. Not all of the national groups under the RIFA tent share this structure, but to say that the DC groups have imposed their agenda misses this give-and-take and the vibrancy of the debates that have taken place within these networks.

Finally, Lovato suggests that the groups pursuing CIR have conceded too much. My article mentioned the unsettled debates about legislative strategy; whether other strategies over the past two years would have borne more fruit is certainly an open question. But without compromise, legislative victories are unattainable. The recent campaign for the DREAM Act is illustrative. Lovato has rightly railed against the “securitization” of the immigration issue. But even people he has worked with accepted that it was essential to keep military service as part of the DREAM package, and that the bill be introduced in September as part of a Defense Department bill. Given the country’s conservatism on this issue, DREAM activists were aware that overcoming a filibuster might require accepting additional enforcement provisions as the price of citizenship for roughly 1 million undocumented youths.

Advocates and activists will continue pushing back against draconian enforcement policies and the likely restrictionist surge to come. But, to paraphrase Saul Alinsky, they will achieve little progress—particularly in the legislative arena—if they mistake the world as it should be for the world as it is.