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.
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.