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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Immigrant Rights Movement Gets Organized


(Fifth in a Border Lines' Series on the Movement for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.)

The country needs an immigrant-rights movement – a movement that fights back against the many abuses suffered my immigrants on the job and as part of the immigrant crackdown. Time and again, immigrants have organized themselves to demand fair treatment and to better themselves. Immigrants have unionized, organized community development associations, marched and demonstrated to secure their rights as workers and members of U.S. society. In their struggles, immigrants haven’t been alone. 


Immigrant aid societies, legal associations like the ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights, churches, and labor unions have long provided critical support and credibility for immigrants, legal and illegal. Throughout U.S. history, the country has benefited from immigrant-rights movements. But what Carnegie Corporation calls the “immigration reform movement” led by immigrants is a more recent phenomenon. 


The foundation in the cover article in its Carnegie Reporter, “Immigration – The Reform Movement Rebuilds,” situates the groups and individuals that led the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR) at the center of this immigration reform movement. The concept is that immigration policy reform should be driven by an immigrant-rights agenda and by immigrant-rights groups. It is a concept that has been generously embraced by liberal foundations like the Carnegie Corporation. 


What’s so striking is that this strategy – having immigrant-rights groups spearhead immigration policy reform -- remains unquestioned by immigrant-rights groups and the foundations that fund them, despite its repeated failures. 


 In keeping with their commitment to protect and empower the disadvantaged sectors, liberal foundations have since the early 1980s nurtured immigrant-rights and ethnic groups as their voice in the immigration debate. As a result, there is a national network of immigrant-rights and ethnic organizations that work on behalf of the immigrant population. 


Early in the Bush administration these immigrant-rights and ethnic groups, principally National Council of La Raza, began discussions among themselves and with the foundations about using their networks to advance the cause of comprehensive immigration reform. 

An Atlantic Philanthropies planning grant in 2003 brought together a dozen immigrant advocacy organization – “from labor, community development, ethnic identified groups, national immigration advocacy, and regional immigration coalitions” – to establish the coalition and set a common strategy. 


The result was the creation in 2004 of CCIR, which as a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt entity could engage in legislative advocacy and lobbying. Atlantic Philanthropies also granted money to establish a related 501(c)(3) public-education organization called the New American Opportunity Campaign to work on “leadership development, advocacy, organizing, and base-building efforts at the national, regional, and local levels.”

Describing the initiative to other foundations in 2005, Atlantic’s Reconciliation & Human Rights Program director Rebecca Rittgers said, “To galvanize the movement, and further the human rights of all immigrants in this country, we also need to further grassroots mobilization, judicial advocacy, research and dissemination, and the key to everything is communications. And communications tools and capacity building are great vehicles for funders to work together.” 


 “What’s important to us,” said Rittgers, “is we’re trying to give a voice to those who have never had a voice. There’s no better group that fits that criterion than the undocumented people in this country.” The goal of this funding was to get CIR passed. 


As Rittgers stressed, immigration reform “needs to be comprehensive and address the issues of family reunification, enforcement, and future guest worker policy.” With its headquarters in Washington, CCIR set out to build a grassroots movement to support CIR and to mount a lobbying campaign in Congress. 


The Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR) was self-described as “a new collaborative developed by national and local community, immigrant, labor and policy leaders in 2004. Based in Washington, DC, the mission and central purpose of the CCIR is to pass progressive comprehensive immigration reform.” 


  CCIR had a six-person board: Deepak Bhargava, Center for Community Change; Cecilia Muñoz, National Council of La Raza; Frank Sharry, National Immigration Forum; Chung-Wha Hong, New York Immigration Coalition; and Eliseo Medina, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and Tom Snyder, UNITE HERE


 From its beginning, CCIR was beset with tensions. As the Carnegie Reporter article recalled: “Initial meetings of what became the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform meetings brought together 150 groups to discuss strategy, and some devolved into tense sessions of finger pointing and accusations of bad faith, turf and resource hoarding and general positioning for power. 


On the other hand, meetings of small groups of people brought accusations from colleagues that these relatively few leaders, many of whom were based in Washington, D.C., were not being held accountable for their decisions by members of the coalition. 


 “In a quest to improve the situation, a decision was made in late 2006 to form a 43-member strategy council with a mandate to coordinate on fast-breaking developments and hold informational conference calls to keep others around the country in the loop. 


This helped develop a sense of transparency and trust. In addition, the Coalition organized regular conference calls involving 100 to 200 people.” With the collapse of CIR in the Senate in mid-2007, CCIR also shut down. 


As the Carnegie Report notes, “Despite all this intense effort the coalition was unable to develop a broad and strong enough movement to prevail.” 


  Next: Immigrant-Rights Movement in Action 2003-2007

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