Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Reasons for Immigration Reform's Failure

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

Liberal immigration reform failed in the Bush administration for many reasons. The leading immigrant-rights organizations that directed the grassroots and policy advocacy campaigns for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) during Bush’s second term stress two external and two internal factors in CIR’s defeat. 

These organizations grouped together in the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR), which disbanded last year. Central to the policy advocacy work of CCIR were the National Immigration Forum and National Council of La Raza. Its national networking with immigrant-rights groups was spearheaded by the Center for Community Change through its Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM). 

The leading labor partners were SEIU and Unite Here, unions with a large immigrant base. Outside the organizing and advocacy umbrella created by CCIR were many other immigrant-rights groups, unions, ethnic, and community organizations that also campaigning for CIR. Scores of these organizations came together in another short-lived immigrant-rights coalition called Unity Blueprint. (More in a forthcoming article in this series about divisions within the immigrant-rights movement.) 

 The post-Sept. 11 security climate and the anti-immigrant backlash led by restrictionist institutes and the sectors of the media are the two external factors frequently cited by CCIR principals as determinants in the CIR struggle. 

As Cecilia Muñoz, outgoing senior vice president for the office of research, advocacy and legislation of the National Council of La Raza, told the Carnegie Reporter in its "Immigration: The Reform Movement Rebuilds" cover article: “September 11 changed everything. It made the hill we need to climb much higher and added a whole new dimension on national security to the debate and increased the government’s ability to persecute particular people using immigration law.”

The other external factor that made immigrant-rights organizing in support of CIR more difficult was the ever-expanding and more powerful immigration-backlash movement – which most observers cite as the principal reason why Congress failed to pass CIR. Frank Sharry, director of America’s Voice, told the Carnegie Reporter

“Let’s not miss the fact that one of the reasons we lost the last time [in 2007] is that the anti-immigrant forces mobilized their advocates and the pro-reformers did not.” Echoing this conclusion, Ali Noorani, who in 2008 took Sharry’s place as the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said: 
“Rather than clearly laying out the reason why immigration reform is necessary, we found ourselves in a box created by the language and goals of the opposition.” 

 The two internal factors that hindered CCIR’s work, according to its principals, were the lack of an adequate communications infrastructure and an insufficient networking strategy. 

 Sharry synthesized these two internal factors as two of the main questions and challenges facing the immigrant-rights movement: “How do we strengthen and build a communications effort that has more volume and velocity and, most importantly, how do we have a grassroots operation that is nationwide and is effective?” 

 Essentially, the immigrant-rights movement that emerged from the failed CCIR campaign is proceeding with a ‘more of the same’ strategy as it moves forward. More grassroots networking, more communications, and more funding. 

Same message, same partners, and same backers. 

 Convinced of the wisdom, humanity, and morality of its goal – passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill that includes legalization of illegal immigrants and more visas for new immigrants – these same actors are now confident that a new, improved CIR will be considered by Congress by Thanksgiving 2009

 The well-funded, well-established, and self-assured national leaders of the immigrant-rights movement are not given to self-reflection or self-criticism despite decades of failure. Apparently never considered as other possible reasons for the continued failure to advance a pro-immigration platform is their own lack of credibility as voice of the American people or their tone-deaf messaging about immigration.

Unfortunately, their upgraded strategy for advancing CIR aggravates these problems, creating yet another reason to doubt that liberal immigration reform will happen any time soon. 

  Next in Border Lines' CIR Series: Time for Strategic Pause in Immigration Reform?

Photo: Ali Noorani, executive director of National Immigration Forum


Minute Man Pete said...

Good article. My question is why are they not credible? Do you think that the public perceives them as extreme in their positions? Are they considered "racists? I keep hearing about how racist La Raza is so is that why CIR came nowhere to fruition?

Do you think that other national players, with less baggage, need to lead any future attempts at CIR?

I ask these things in seriousness.

Tom Barry said...

I think they are credible voices of immigrant communities, at least some of them. But not credible as a voice of the American people on immigration reform, since, for one thing, they define themselves as immigrant rights groups.

Not extremist, but predictable, having argued the same immigrant-center positions on immigration for decades.

Yes, new players are needed, with new message and new connections to other civic organizations that believe that some form of legalization is necessary and just.