Monday, January 5, 2009

Immigrant-Rights Movement Takes to the Streets

(Seventh in Border Lines series on the Movement for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.)

"Immigrant-rights" as a defining message in American politics received new prominence when millions of immigrants took to the streets in March-May 2006 to demand the defeat of the new anti-immigrant bills emerging from the House of Representatives and its restrictionist Immigration Reform Caucus.

The marches, organized by local immigrant-rights groups and ethnic organizations in close cooperation with Spanish-media outlets, piggybacked on the labor organizing of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides a few years early. Although depending heavily on the support of nonimmigrant groups such as labor, the church, and progressive activists, the marches that brought millions of immigrants to the streets were largely a self-organized response by immigrants to the deepening immigrant crackdown.

Paralleling the new activism by immigrants was a growing backlash movement that found harbor within the Republican Party. At the same time that CIR advocates were organizing, educating, and lobbying, the congressional Republicans, working closely with the restrictionist institutes in Washington, were mounting new initiatives to ramp up border control and interior immigration enforcement. 

Despite statements from the White House favoring a CIR that included legalization, the Bush administration was demonstrating its effective commitment to an “attrition through enforcement” policy by unleashing the Department of Homeland Security on the immigrant population.

The House’s approval of the Border Protection, Anti terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 signalled that the climate for immigrants might seriously worsen rather than improve as the prospects for CIR diminished. The December 2005 approval of the draconian "Sensenbrenner Bill," known after its sponsor, Cong. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) sparked a wave of immigrant-rights marches in early 2006.

The Sensenbrenner bill, which would have made all illegal immigrants felons, never made it through the Senate – which the immigrant-rights movement chalked up as a victory for its mobilization.

While CCIR was focused primarily on strategies to build support for CIR, numerous immigrant-rights groups, including many who were part of the 150-member coalition, were more focused on battling the rise of anti-immigrant vigilante groups like the Minutemen and other manifestations of the anti-immigrant backlash movement. 

The immigrant-rights marches from February through May 2006 brought unprecedented numbers of immigrants into the streets to demand an end to the mounting immigrant crackdown. But behind the apparent unity of these millions of immigrants and supporters protesting harsh immigration enforcement measures unleashed by the Bush administration and proposed by Congress belied deepening divisions among immigrant-rights activists. 

The “We Are America” and “No Human Being is Illegal” placards papered over differences in tactics and politics. "When the dust settles, we will see who the leaders are," said Jesse Diaz, an original leader of the March 25 Coalition that inspired the Los Angeles march, which put the immigrant movement on the map. 

Diaz told the Washington Post that while mainstream immigrant organizations were "complacently ignoring what was happening in Washington" last December, his coalition diverted its fight with the Minutemen in California and Arizona to organize protests against House legislation that would criminalize illegal immigrants and those who help them. 

"Where were they then?" questioned Diaz in reference to many of the leading groups in the CCIR coalition. Despite many internal divisions over politics, principles, and strategies, the immigrant-rights marches gave all immigrant-rights organizations a new sense of power and a belief that history was on their side. 

Emboldened by the Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides, during which immigrant workers were praised as the vanguard of a new civil rights and workers movement, immigrant-rights groups were further empowered and encouraged by the marches of spring 2006. In their December 2006 paper for the University of California (Davis), “The Immigrant Rights Marches of 2006 and the Prospects for a New Civil Rights Movement,” prominent immigration scholars Bill Ong Hing and Kevin R. Johnson summarized the new immigrant enthusiasm and hope.
“Activists proclaimed that the marches represented ‘the new civil rights movement.’ The leaders of the National Immigrant Solidarity Network, for example, saw themselves as the vanguard of the first civil rights movement of the twenty-first century….Many activists believed that the anti-immigrant tide that had dominated the national debate since the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, might have turned.”
Echoing a widespread belief among many leftist immigrant-rights activists, writer Justin Akers Chacón proclaimed, “Equal rights for immigrants would also help revitalize a labor movement in crisis, as immigrant workers are offering the best hope for all workers in this country.” In May 2006, many immigrant-rights leaders – most of whom were U.S. citizens – believed that mass mobilization was the best guarantee for the type of liberal policy reform they were demanding. As Chacón, the coauthor of No One Is Illegal, asserted:
“Only when the politicians are confronted by a mass movement of workers and students, backed by protests, strikes, walkouts, and other forms of direct political action, and one that doesn’t concede leadership to liberal power brokers, will they reluctantly accept our demands. That is why we must continue to build the immigrant rights movement independent of the Democratic Party and of the bipartisan legislative proposals that serve Corporate America. We must continue to organize and mobilize where we have the most power: in the workplaces, schools, and communities.”
This type of political rhetoric continued and the triumphalism that accompanied such “power to the people” policy analysis persisted on the left-wing of the immigrant-rights movement. But as the immigrant crackdown intensified and the immigrant demonstrators left the streets, divisions among the immigrant-rights activists grew and the path toward CIR became fraught with obstacles and compromises.

Next in Border Lines' CIR Series: Uncertain Path Toward Comprehensive Immigration Reform

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