Sunday, December 28, 2008

Dueling Immigration Strategies

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

For the past three decades, pro- and anti-immigration institutes in Washington, DC have battled for their policy positions. Although it was the restrictionists that first set up camp in Washington – with the establishment of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in 1979 – the pro-immigration forces generally had more success in gaining a hearing in Congress and in the media. 

Today, it’s the restrictionists who clearly dominate the policy debate, while the pro-immigration groups struggle to have their voices heard over the restrictionist din about border security, respect for the law, and the broken immigration system. 

It has been a variation of a left-right confrontation from the beginning – with the conservative foundations like Scaife and Smith Richardson historically funding the restrictionists and the liberal foundations like Carnegie and Ford funding the pro-immigration groups like National Immigration Forum. 

As the restrictionist institutes – FAIR, NumbersUSA, and Center for Immigration Studies – have expanded their influence, they broadened their funding base, drawing in wealthy private donors and hundreds of thousands of members. 

Meanwhile, the pro-immigration institutes continue to rely almost exclusively on a small set of liberal foundations. There are dueling ideologies at play. On the restrictionist side, the institutes are guided by a zero-population growth ethic, while on the pro-immigration side the ideological drivers of the leading NGOs are respect for human rights, internationalism, and humanitarianism. 

The pro-immigration organizations went into 21st century buoyed by a burst of immigrant organizing and a confidence buoyed by the rapid increase in the immigrant and Latino population in America.

Immigrants organized Hometown Clubs that helped new immigrants from the same towns in Mexico, banks started offering mortgages and other loans to illegal immigrants, day labor centers were established, and liberal foundations and academics popularized the notion of “transborder communities” that spanned national borders in this age of globalization. 

There arose a new sense of entitlement among the growing numbers of illegal immigrants that to a large decree merged with a deepening realization of the power – voting, economic, cultural, political – of Latinos. 

In recognition of the growing numbers of undocumented immigrants and in response to immigrant demands, many local governments and economic institutions adopted new practices that facilitated illegal-immigrant integration into U.S. life. While the anti-immigration institutes were established with the clear goal of dramatically reducing immigration levels, their counterparts are less about making a case for immigration than they are about representing the interests of immigrants.

This has been their central strength and central failing as advocates for immigration policy reform – a strength the immigrant-rights message creates a base among immigrants and immigrant advocates throughout the country, and a failing because the immigrant-centered framing of immigration reform identifies these immigration reform advocates as a special interest lobby rather than as a more widely based citizens’ pro-immigration movement. 

The “immigrant rights” identification is one that the leading pro-immigration organizations pin on themselves. The National Immigration Forum, for example, describes itself in these terms:

"Established in 1982, the National Immigration Forum is the nation’s premier immigrant rights organization. The Forum is dedicated to embracing and upholding America’s tradition as a nation of immigrants. The Forum advocates and builds public support for public policies that welcome immigrants and refugees and are fair to and supportive of newcomers to our country."

In the aftermath of the mid-2007 defeat of CIR, the pro-immigration groups, aided by their foundation sponsors, began readying themselves for next congressional discussion of a CIR proposal. 

“Immigration: The Reform Movement Rebuilds,” the cover article in the Fall 2008 issue of the Carnegie Reporter, examines the reconstruction of the liberal immigration reform movement in the aftermath of the failure of the last CIR campaign. 

The Carnegie article rightly notes that the “seeds of the pro-immigration movement are in the tradition of coalition relationships that began when the immigration reform debate started in the early 1980s.” From the beginning, the pro-immigration groups that formed to promote legalization of undocumented immigrants and refugees came to the immigration debate with an immigrant rights message. 

Many of the main figures in the movement were closely associated with the Central American and Caribbean (mainly Haiti) solidarity and sanctuary movements. 

As such, their primary focus was to protect the rights of immigrants fleeing wars and political persecution. To further these goals, alliances were established with business, labor, ethnic, attorney, and church organizations that each for their own reasons supported liberal immigration policies. The immigrant-rights movement surged early in the Bush administration –in response both to the deepening anti-immigration sentiment in the country (especially after Sept. 11) and to a major influx of foundation funding for immigrant-rights organizing. 

The surge in immigrant organizing was also in response to a surge of illegal immigrants who crossed the southern border to work in the booming constructions and service industries.

Finding themselves exploited and abused, immigrants organized themselves to demand decent wages and working conditions. Labor unions, notably the SEIU and Unite Here, not only made new commitments to organize immigrants but also likened their struggles to the civil rights battles of the 1960s -- organizing in 2003 the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride across the nation.

The Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR) coordinated the NGO drive to pass CIR. Established in 2003 and closed down in the aftermath of CIR’s defeat, CCIR was an immigrant rights initiative launched and sustained with financial support of Atlantic Philanthropies.

Three successive grants from Atlantic Philanthropies for a total of $10 million underwrote what Atlantic called a “joint legislative advocacy and grassroots mobilization initiative with the mission to enact rights-centered comprehensive immigration reform legislation in the U.S. 

This coalition effort is guided by a core set of rights-based immigration principles and priorities, including: a path to permanency for the undocumented, family re-unification and labor protection for future flows.”

Next in Border Lines' CIR Series: The Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform – Foundation Funding

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