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.
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.