Saturday, January 3, 2009
Immigrant Groups Raise Voices for Immigrant Rights
(Sixth in a Border Lines Series on the Movement for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.)
The labor-sponsored Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides of 2003 and the CCIR-sponsored New American Freedom Summer of 2004 contributed to a mounting conviction among immigrant-rights organizations that they were the vanguard of rising workers and civil rights movements in America.
With generous foundation backing from such foundations as Atlantic Philanthropies, Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, and other liberal foundations committed to empowering the country’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable sectors, the immigrant-rights movement has over the past thirty years, and especially over the past six years, become the chosen instrument to lead the popular and congressional campaign for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR).
Even after the total defeat of this campaign in mid-2007, when the Senate declined to move a compromise CIR bill forward to a vote, the same constellation of groups that have been the public voice for liberal immigration policy for the past few decades is being funded by these foundations to carry the CIR campaign into the Obama administration with their same immigrant-rights messaging and the focus on the same constituencies.
There is no doubt that the country benefits from having a strong immigrant-rights movement with DC institutes and grassroots networks spread across the country given the escalating scale of immigrant human rights abuses. But the history of failure in creating public and congressional support for liberal immigration reform should raise questions about the near sacrosanct strategy of transforming the immigrant-rights movement into an immigration reform movement.
Labor, Catholic Church, Democratic Party -- Major Players
At the turn of the 21st century, immigrants represented the fastest growing segment of U.S. society, and major institutions and interests were eager to attract the million-plus immigrants who entered the U.S. each year into their fold. Labor, the Catholic Church, and the Democratic Party together with the Spanish-language media and corporations eager to attract mainly Latino consumers hovered around the booming immigrant advantage seeking advantage and mutual benefit.
In this mix were also left political groups that regarded the new mostly working class population with foreign roots as a new constituency that could revitalize the American left given their proclivity for popular organizing and their internationalist consciousness.
At a time when immigrants were experiencing a mounting anti-immigrant backlash, they also found themselves welcomed into America by a constellation of high-powered U.S. institutions that declared solidarity with their plight as a vulnerable population but at the same time a great potential for strengthening such core American institutions as organized labor, the Catholic Church, and the Democratic Party.
Labor, particularly unions that represented restaurant and other service workers, were reviving their memberships with immigrant workers, while the Catholic Church regarded immigrants, particularly Latinos, as likely new congregants, and the Democratic Party had a compelling interest in incorporating as many new immigrants into the voting rolls because they tended to vote Democratic.
The self-interest in the outreach efforts and policy pronouncement of these powerful institutions can’t be denied, but neither should the heartfelt bonds of solidarity and empathy be underestimated as motivating forces in this new convergence between immigrants and their institutional supporters.
All three institutional actors that contributed to the reemergence of the immigrant-rights movement in the 2002-2007 period had their own special interests – as well as humanitarian and political principles -- in seeing a CIR proposal move Similarly, leftist organizations regarded the burgeoning immigrant-rights movement and in particular their mass mobilizations as a catalyst for a united front campaign that could bring progressives of all stripes together to advance common agendas.
Certainly the mounting immigrant crackdown and the rising anti-immigrant backlash constituted the political context for immigrant mobilization during the Bush administration. But many of the prominent political features of this new organizing were hardly new. The demands for worker rights, an internationalist view of the immigration issue, the rights messaging, and even the sense that immigrant struggles constituted the cusp of a new political movement were echoes of 20th century movements.
Origins of Immigrant Rights Organizing
Tracing the immigrant-rights movement can take you back to the Palmer Raids of the 1920s or the key role that immigrants played in organizing many of the nation’s labor unions. But perhaps relevant and instructive to understanding the foundation of today’s immigrant-rights movement were the splits that developed in the Latino movements and organizations in the late 1960s.
Some close observers and activists in the immigrant-rights movement trace often trace the origins of the civil rights and worker themes of immigrant organizing to the emergence of the Chicano movement in the late 1960s, in particular to its leftist flank. Groups like El Congreso broke with more conservative Latino organization like LULAC in insisting that illegal immigrants were part of a larger rights movement that included both Mexican-Americans and Mexicans.
Bert Corona, the co-founder in 1968 of the Centro de Acción Social Autónomo-Hermandad General de Trabajadores and Congreso member, popularized the political principle that just as there should be unity among all workers – citizen and noncitizens – there should be unity among all Spanish-speaking people in the United States, no matter their citizenship status.
“An attack on one Spanish-speaking group was an attack on all," wrote Corona, a member of the Congreso. Recounting the history of the immigrant-rights movement, Mexico specialist Dan LaBotz points to the internationalist, class-based, and civil rights perspective that groups like Congreso and La Hermandad brought to the debate about immigrants among unions and ethnic groups.
Citing activist historian Arnoldo García, LaBotz wrote that these groups focused on the needs of "undocumented Mexican workers and their families" and brought to the struggle the "conjugation of a class base with social justice and liberation aspirations."
The CASA newspaper Sin Fronteras (Without Borders) carried on its masthead the slogan, "We are One because America [meaning the continent] is One." This type of new thinking among Chicano activists contributed to building a new conviction among all Latino organizations and even unions like the United Farmworkers that immigrant-rights issues were less of a threat to established Latino organizations and more of an opportunity to expand their base.
At the same time, though, this type of thinking about crossborder unity and class solidarity injected new tensions within Latino movements that were inclined toward mainstream, moderate, and nonconfrontational strategies.
Immigrant-rights as an organizing strategy received a boost in the early 1980s, largely because of the eventually success in beating back more restrictive immigration legislation, slowing down the pace of deportations, and finding strong allies among Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and struggling for their “rights” to remain in the country because of the devastating role of U.S. foreign policy in the Caribbean Basin region.
In the mid-1990s, as U.S. immigration laws became more restrictive and punitive, an array of immigrant-rights groups and supporting legal networks arose to protect the rights of immigrants facing detention and deportation. Working with such groups as the National Lawyer Guild, ACLU, and the newly created Detention Watch Network, a constellation of immigrant-rights networks across the nation struggled to protect the due process rights of detained immigrants.
Although immigrants benefited from an array of immigrant-rights groups – including such prominent ones as Massachusetts Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Committee, National Capitol Area Immigration Coalition, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles – it was not until the Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides of 2003, the establishment of the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform CCIR in late 2003 and the closely associated We are America Alliance in 2005 that the immigrant-rights movement emerged as a main player in immigration reform issues.
Typical of this conviction that immigrant organizing was at the forefront of a new wave of progressive, rights-oriented mobilization was an analysis by Carmellia Phillips of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights published by Political Research Associates in 2002.
More than simply responding to anti-immigrant groups and policies, the movement was “bringing immigrant rights into the larger movement for racial justice, labor rights, global economic equality, and human rights,” wrote Phillips.
She summarized a widely believed conviction among immigrant-rights activists when writing that the proper framework for understanding the immigration issue was not law enforcement but rather human rights. “We must work consciously and collaboratively to avoid falling back on arguments that do not support the rights of all immigrants or that divide immigrants based on legal status or national origin,” she wrote.
Furthermore, “We must work to defend and expand human rights (which include labor, cultural, civil, social, environmental, and economic rights) for everyone, regardless of immigration status, and to recognize racial equality and justice as critical to expanding a progressive immigrant rights movement.”
Next in Border Lines' CIR Series: Immigrant Groups Raise Voices for Immigrant Rights