Saturday, January 31, 2009

Finessing the Immigrant Crackdown

Like Michael Chertoff, her predecessor as chief of the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano doesn’t have the power to change immigration law. She’s there to administer the department, enforce the law, and keep the homeland secure. Like Chertoff, Napolitano knows that strict law enforcement alone will not solve the nation’s immigration crisis. The outgoing secretary repeatedly said that the immigration crisis would persist until Congress passes a comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). Chertoff made that case that he was “restoring integrity” to immigration law enforcement and border control. Once Americans were assured that the border was secure and that the government was truly enforcing immigration law, he argued, there would then be more political space for CIR, especially expanded temporary worker programs. With the enforcement-first approach in firmly place at DHS, the new secretary is now signaling her commitment to iron out the wrinkles of the enforcement-first approach, including detention standards and the efficiencies of federal-local collaboration. In a Jan. 20 directive on immigration and border control, Napolitano says: “Smart, resolute enforcement by the department can keep Americans safe, foster legal immigration to America, protect legitimate commerce, and lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive reform.” It is the last in an initial series of 11 directives issued by Napolitano. In this new directive, she poses a series of questions to departmental officials responsible for immigration law enforcement and border security and expects reports back to her by Feb. 20. The questions indicate a shift away from Chertoff’s hard-line approach, which often seemed devoid of any humanity or concern about the social, economic, and environmental consequences of the department’s immigrant crackdown.
Those who were expecting the former border governor and federal prosecutor to call a halt to the immigrant crackdown and to the post-Sept. 11 border build-up will be sorely disappointed. There will likely be some changes around the edges, such as improved detention standards and monitoring, but no rethinking of immigration enforcement and border security will likely come from Napolitano. No questions or concerns about the multitude of issues and problems that resulted from the security-driven campaign to fortify the border and round up suspect immigrants – the value of the border wall, the central role of private prisons in immigrant detention, the wisdom of U.S. drug policy with respect to border drug-related violence, the decreased attention to political asylum and refugee policy, the consequences of workplace raids, etc. A professional bureaucrat and politician, Napolitano is busy organizing, systematizing, and improving the crackdown that Chertoff so zealously spearheaded.

Read entire TransBorder Dispatch

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Homeland Security Colony

Dee Torres sees history in the making in the West Texas borderlands. The elementary school teacher wants to be part of the history of the borderlands, and wants her grandchildren to remember these times. Torres, a resident since a child of the border town of Ft. Hancock, is taking photos of the construction of the new border wall rising along the Rio Grande in this desolate stretch of West Texas. Construction crews are hurriedly completing the last major portion of the 670 miles of border fencing authorized by the Secure Fence Act of 2006. “I am taking photos of the wall for my grandchildren,” she says. “They will be able to say that they were here when this wall was built, and one day they will surely see it torn down – just like the Berlin Wall!” Torres is an activist who participated last summer in a march starting in Ft. Hancock that threaded its way along the border for sixty miles to El Paso to protest what area residents uniformly call the border wall. The wall, which runs through El Paso and extends east to the Ft. Hancock area and west to the New Mexico border town of Columbus, has not been well received.
Although relatively few inhabitants of this border region have actively protested the continuing construction of the wall, criticism of the “secure fence” is common and widespread. There is also an emerging movement that is demanding that the new wall be torn down. "The wall will surely hurt American interests all across the Americas for a whole generation," wrote State Senator Eliot Shapleigh, a Democrat and a fifth-generation El Pasoan, in a December Op-Ed in the Arizona Daily Star. "Is it too much too soon to ask that this wall come down or is it the right thing to do at the right time in history? If not now, when? If not under President-elect Barack Obama, then who?" Activists have taken to labeling the fence “The Wall of Hate” or the “Wall of Shame” (“Muro de Odio”, or “Muro de Verguenza”). But perhaps the most widespread criticism relates to the enormous cost -- $2.4 billion allocated thus far for the construction of the first 670 miles -- of the secure fence, whose benefits are few and downsides are many. “It’s a colossal waste of money,” Torres says, “They are spending millions dollars on this ugly wall dividing our community. It’s an insult.” Part of the insult is having the U.S. government construct a wall between cross-border communities, such as the one between Ft. Hancock and El Porvenir in Chihuahua, whose families and economies have been closely linked. Part of the insult is having their view of the river and mountains now scarred by a metal wall dividing the formerly wide-open landscape. But it is the sheer extravaganza of spending that is perhaps most insulting to the poor communities that dot the Rio Grande flood plains that unite the United States and Mexico. With 1800 residents, Ft. Hancock is the largest of three towns found in the vast distances that separate the 3500 people living within the 4500-sq. miles of Hudspeth County. Most are poor, very poor, and live in dilapidated houses and mobile homes. Per capita income in the county is about $14,000, which in less than half of the state average. Hudspeth County competes with a few other border counties for being the poorest in the state. As a border town, Ft. Hancock is the poorest town in the county and its poverty rate is quadruple the national level. Most of the homes are substandard, and nearly 50 percent live in poverty – and that was before the new economic downturn. The post-Sept. 11 focus on border security by the Department of Homeland Security has meant an infusion of infrastructure spending and the creation of hundreds of new jobs. But the DHS’ “tactical infrastructure” spending for the wall, deployment of sensors, new port-of-entry, and new Border Patrol station hasn’t trickled down. The workers come from elsewhere, don’t make their homes in Ft. Hancock, and speed back and forth (taking advantage of the 80-mile an hour speed limit) along Interstate 10 to El Paso every day. Seeing the federal government spend $1-5 million a mile to build a fence in West Texas doesn’t sit too well with local residents who lived on unpaved roads, many without water lines. Ft. Hancock is getting plenty of DHS’ tactical infrastructure, but it lacks the basic infrastructure of community centers, parks, paved streets, and water services. In border terminology it is a “colonia” (literally colony, roughly neighborhood or settlement), one of the scores of unincorporated settlements along the Texas-New Mexico border with Mexico. Ft. Hancock originated as an army post from which it took its name. But more than ever before, the town has the feel of an occupied town – a homeland security colony. The outsiders here are not the foreigners – aliens in DHS terms – who live across the river in El Porvenir, but the ever-increasing number of Border Patrol agents and other DHS officials (about one for every twelve residents) and the contingents of construction worker that arrive in their trucks every morning from El Paso to fortify Ft. Hancock. Meanwhile Ft. Hancock natives like Torres wonder about the government’s concept of homeland security. She tells of an El Porvenir woman who crossed the border three days a week for nearly twenty years to work as a housekeeping the Torres home. The now-elderly lady still lives on the Mexico side of the river, but because of the new homeland security regime she can no longer easily cross and risks imprisonment if she tries. Nobody along the border disputes the need for measures to control the rise of organized crime and drug smuggling, but they say that the billions spent on border security are wasteful and not well-targeted. Torres thinks there should be a better way to secure the border without occupying it and dividing communities. About her family’s longtime housekeeper, she asks: “What harm did she do? Twenty years without fail. What harm?”
Tom Barry Photo

Monday, January 26, 2009

Border Boom Times at Ft. Hancock

Ft. Hancock is not a typical boom town.
Not the typical town at all. In fact, it isn’t really a town, merely a census designated place (CDP), a move up from its previous designation as a census county division (CDD).
Despite being the largest town in Hudspeth County, it isn’t incorporated, doesn’t have a community hall or plaza or even a grocery store. Ft. Hancock Merchandise, like many of the town’s old stores, lies shuttered and forgotten. According to the census office, 47% of the 1800 Ft. Hancock residents live in poverty.
But the ghost-town pall of the town’s main intersection – where Texas 20 meets Knox Avenue – contrasts with the bustle seen at the other end of Knox Avenue – where it meets Interstate 10.
At the Ft. Hancock exit off of I-10, about 50 miles from El Paso, the boom times are evident. While a few of the cars parked at Angie’s Restaurant (which proclaims itself world-famous for its chicken fried steak) and at the adjacent convenience store are locals and interstate travelers, most now are construction workers stopping on their way back and forth from El Paso.
Ft. Hancock is booming today because of its border location. But it’s hardly cross-border trade and travel that is sparking the increasing activity. Rather, it’s all about the business of stopping cross-border traffic.
While the border bridge that connects Ft. Hancock and El Porvenir, Chihuahua hasn’t been improved or widened (not broad enough for two cars) since it was constructed in 1936, the other border infrastructure on the U.S. side is undergoing a major upgrade.
The average home (most are mobile homes) in Ft. Hancock is worth about $25,000, but the new home of the Border Patrol will cost taxpayers at least $19 million by the time it’s finished sometime this year. The palatial-looking concrete structure rising next to the U.S. port-of-entry station will be the new home for the 146 Border Patrol agents deployed in “line-watch operations” along this stretch of the Rio Grande.
Also contributing to the Ft. Hancock boom is the construction of the new border fence, which extends, with some gaps, from El Paso to the east side of Ft. Hancock. According to BP information officer, Lloyd Easterling, the government is spending about $3 million a mile to construct the fence in this area.
Illegals Don't Leave A Trace
“I don’t mind the illegals so much,” says Craig Miller, whose Miller Bros. cotton farm runs along the border next to the Ft. Hancock port of entry, “They don’t do much damage. In fact, no damage. It’s the Border Patrol agents who are the ones damaging our farms -- driving through our fields as if they own this land and four-wheeling it along our roads and levees, even when it’s wet, so they digging deep ruts that we have to repair.”
“But the Mexicans who pass through,” said Miller, “go through the irrigation channels, not leaving a trace, even covering up their tracks.”
The Border Patrol have long been part of the life on the border, but the relationship between the Border Patrol and community residents like Miller has changed with the recent buildup in the number of officers at the Ft. Hancock station.
“The Border Patrol used to be part of this community,” explained Miller, “but they no longer live here, don’t know the community, don’t know the land.” When he was a boy, he remembered fondly, a member of the Border Patrol was his Little League baseball coach. But now all but two of the 146 agents commute from El Paso, he said.
“Now they don’t even know where the post office is,” said Miller disdainfully, noting that a couple of station supervisors weren’t able to say where the post office is located.
He recognizes the need for a Border Patrol but like other Ft. Hancock residents now regards the Border Patrol as outsiders who don’t respect the locals, or worse don’t even know them. As a result, residents complain that they are repeatedly stopped by roving Border Patrol agents and asked all manner of intrusive questions.
Miller says that one day he was stopped four times when traveling along the border road connecting two of his farms. “By the fourth time, I gave them a piece of my mind,” said Miller.
(That morning I had addition reason to empathize with county residents who bitterly complain of Border Patrol practices. Earlier in the day, I myself had been stopped while traveling the border road and then interrogated by two agents. After providing the two officers with the requested identification and allowing them to search my vehicle, BP Agent McCraven checked my data on his computer and then came back two more times asking for additional forms of identification, my birth date, and social security number, as well as quizzing me where I had spent the night, what I had been doing in the county seat of Sierra Blanca, and where I was going next.
Finally, I, too, had enough when he asked me to roll up my sleeve to see if I had a tattoo on my arm, explaining that someone with my same birth date – but not same name, social security number, or place of residence – was wanted for some crime elsewhere in the country and had a tattoo on his arm. Indignant, I declined saying that had no right and had no reasonable suspicion. “Who do you think you are,” I said irritably, “an FBI agent? You have all my identification, you have already determined that I am not an illegal alien and am not smuggling any, as you can well see.”)
Just Plain Dumb
“They’re just dumb, plain dumb,” said Miller. Most of them he said are brand new and have never been in a rural area before. “They bring them in from Chicago, Philadelphia, wherever, and they don’t know anything about farms or this area.
Pointing out the Miller Bros.’ pump house, which stands near the border, he tells how one morning he saw 18 Mexicans crossing the border illegally near the pump house, each carrying a burlap bag on his shoulder. Taking them for drug runners, he phoned the Ft. Hancock Border Patrol Station, which is located about a quarter mile away.
Telling the officer about the border crossers, he explained that they were now walking past the farm’s pump house. Despite the farm’s prominence in the community, the answering officer didn’t know where the pump house was.
“Well, now they are walking up the dirt road past the Ft. Hancock ruins,” said Miller, recounting phone call. But the agent didn’t know where that was either, according to Miller, asking him if that was the old army post located some 15 miles to the east.
“I bet you know where the Ft. Hancock road is, don’t you?” he asked me, “and this is your first time through here– you can’t miss the sign!” As Miller guessed, I had seen the historical road marker just as I had spotted the Miller Bros. sign, both within minutes of the Border Patrol office.
Miller recalled that he called the Border Patrol again, after seeing the Mexican men pack into a large van that picked them up where the dirt road meets Highway 20. “They’re now coming your way,” he advised the agent, “All you have to do is step out of your office and stop the white van, which will be passing your way in a couple of minutes.”
Apparently, the illegal immigrants smuggling marijuana made it onto the interstate without being caught by the alerted Border Patrol.
Similar stories are told by Hudspeth County officials and other residents who seem uniformly angered and frustrated by the ineptitude of the Border Patrol. They see millions of dollars being pumped into this remote spot on the border but don't feel any more secure economically or any safer.
Tom Barry Photo

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Newly Fortified Ft. Hancock

(This is the first in a series of reports on the Texas-New Mexico-Chihuahua borderlands.) The river runs slow and shallow through the Chihuahuan desert as it flows 1200 miles from El Paso/Juárez to the Gulf of Mexico. Bearing two names, the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo forms the natural divide between the United States and Mexico. Now, another divide – a decidedly unnatural one – is marching west from El Paso, tearing through the farms and riparian zones that turn the desert green. The Department of Homeland Security’s border fence already marks most of the national boundary from San Diego to El Paso. But -- armed with federal waivers to bypass the opposition of borderland communities, farmers, and environmentalists -- DHS and its Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency have expedited the construction of an 18-ft. steel barrier along the Rio Grande. Ft. Hancock, an impoverished U.S. border town about 60 miles downriver from El Paso, is bustling lately from all the new attention to border security. The town’s center, such as it is, lies slightly east of the old U.S. Army’s frontier outpost, which in 1886 was named after Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, who was wounded in Gettysburg and later commanded the 5th Military Department in the Texas territory. But as the Indians were removed and the area settled by prospective farmers, the fort was abandoned and the town developed to serve the riverfront farmers, mostly Anglos, who depended – and still do – on Mexican farmworkers. Today, Ft. Hancock remains largely a town -- really only a "census designated place (CDP)" -- of white farmers and Mexican-American laborers.
Ft. Hancock is easy to locate on a Texas map because there is not much else around for scores of miles. But it might have proved difficult for Red (Morgan Freeman) in the 1994 film "The Shawshank Redemption" to get to, when, after leaving prison, he is told by his buddy Andy (Tim Robbins) to cross into Mexico at Ft. Hancock to hop a bus for the Mexican coast. (Wouldn't it have been easier to cross in El Paso and go to the bus terminal in Juárez?)
Until recently, Ft. Hancock was a close twin city of El Porvenir, a slightly larger Mexican town on the other side of the river. Today, the twins have grown apart as Ft. Hancock has again become fortified with a large contingent of 146 Border Patrol agents and with what the BP officers call “Tactical Infrastructure.” This TI (in BP jargon) includes a formidable fence that is now rising on either side of the port-of-entry bridge and the network of sensors deployed along the river. Reinforcing the town’s name, there is a newly fortified port-of-entry station and an adjoining a $19 million BP district headquarters building that is under construction.
On both sides of the river, longtime residents are alternately bemused and angry at the border security buildup.
(Next: Where's the Post Office in Ft. Hancock?)
Photos by Tom Barry: New Border Patrol headquarters and the fence under construction in Ft. Hancock.

Brown Can Stick Around in Nashville

Nashville listened to its leaders — the governor, the mayor, and a vast coalition of churches, businesses and universities — and defeated an English-only measure by nearly 10,000 votes in Thursday's special election.” That’s the report from the Tennessean the day after the city referendum on an amendment that would have made Nashville the largest city in the nation with an “official English” law.
With financial and logistical support from the Arlington, Va.-based ProEnglish, Nashville councilman Eric Crafton founded Nashville English First to spearhead a charter amendment that would have obligated the city government to conduct all government business in English. While the main case for the English Only measure was that it would save the city in translation costs, the issue of identity set the tone of the debate.
Did Nashville want to affirm that it was typically white Southern city, or that it was an inclusive, diverse city that was open to residents and visitors who speak other languages? In the end, after heated debate that energized a strong opposition coalition, the city rejected the identity politics of English only. "Voters are not duped anymore," said Maria Rodriquez of the Florida Immigrant Coalition. "They know when they see bad policy that is going to be costly and that's not progressive. I guess brown can stick around in Nashville." At a time when other cities and states are instituting anti-immigrant measures, the people of Nashville spoke for diversity and inclusion.
It’s likely that the election of Barack Obama underscored the argument of the opponents of the English First measure was “mean-spirited” – as Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen said – and not worthy of a city that values and promotes its diversity.
The day after the landmark vote in Nashville, ProEnglish with its Liberty Bell logo still had a running banner proclaiming that “Official English is sweeping the nation.”
ProEnglish, the organization involved in the Nashville campaign, is part of a closely linked network of “official English” and anti-immigration organizations that are based in the Washington, DC area and are involved in local and national campaigns to restrict immigration and to institute English as the official and only language for government business.(See TransBorder Profile: ProEnglish)
A central figure of these groups is John Tanton, who was a founding director of ProEnglish and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Among the other groups in which Tanton, a former president in the 1970s of Zero Population Growth, are English First, Immigration Reform Law Institute, and Numbers USA. As the principals of these groups readily acknowledge, the movements to restrict immigration and to restrict the use of languages other than English are closely connected organizationally and ideologically.
If the Nashville vote is any indication, the issue of the increasing presence of other languages in the country may be losing its emotional and ideological hold on Americans. Both at a national and local level, diversity not uniformity has a new power in American politics.
Image from ProEnglish

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The New Political Economy of Immigration

(Here's an excerpt from my article published in the current issue of Dollars & Sense.)
Since Sept. 11, 2001 immigrants have become America’s most wanted. The terrorist attacks altered the traditional political economy of immigration. The economic forces that historically drive the demand for unskilled and skilled immigrants – and shape immigration policy -- suddenly lost their dominance. In the wake of Sept. 11, the rightist political forces that had long called for nationwide immigration enforcement, heavily restricted immigration, and fortified borders moved from the margins into the center of the immigration debate. In the public and policy debate, immigrants were increasingly defined as threats to the nation’s security and its cultural identity. The millions of illegal immigrants – those who crossed the border illegally or overstayed their visas – who were living and working in the United States were no longer simply regarded as a shadow population or as surplus cheap labor. Categorizing immigrants as national security threats gave the government’s flailing immigration law-enforcement and border-control operations a new unifying logic that has propelled the immigrant crackdown forward. In the name of national security, responsibility for immigration law-enforcement and border control passed from the Justice Department to the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In Congress Democrats and Republicans alike readily supported a vast expansion of the country’s immigration control apparatus – doubling the number of Border Patrol agents and authorizing a tripling of immigrant prison beds. The $15 billion-plus DHS budget for immigration affairs has fueled an immigrant-crackdown economy that has greatly boosted the prison industry. Immigrants are now the nation’s fastest growing sector of the U.S. prison population. Across the country, but particularly in the Southwest, new prisons are hurriedly being constructed to house the hundreds of thousands of immigrants caught each year in the intensifying crackdown. Local governments are vying with each other to attract new immigrant prisons as the foundation of their rural “economic development” plans. Also part of the immigrant crackdown are many states and local governments that -- pressured by anti-immigrant activists and prodded by the federal government -- are eagerly collaborating with federal agencies in enforcing immigration law. Dozens of county and city governments -- often in partnership with private prison firms -- are also expanding their jails to accommodate detained immigrants. High per-diem payments offered by the federal government for each immigrant incarcerated drive this new market. Immigrants are behind one of America’s fastest growing, most profitable industries. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Immigrants have always been a core factor in U.S. economic development. Mining, railroads, agribusiness, and recently construction have been among the many U.S. industries that historically been driven by an abundant supply of immigrants. But now, when the economy is imploding, most industries are shedding immigrants. The demand part of the supply-and-demand equation is faltering, leaving a large supply of unwanted and vulnerable illegal immigrants. The private prison industry, however, is booming, largely because of the ever-increasing supply of immigrants supplied by the federal government. While the Department of Homeland Security is driving immigrants from their jobs and homes, U.S. firms in the business of providing prison beds are raking in record profits from the immigrant crackdown. It’s all part of a new political economy of immigration that will continue to shape immigration policy under the Obama administration.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Obama's Immigration Challenge -- More About Words Than Policy

(Border Lines CIR Series #16) 

President Barack Obama could quickly go a long way toward resolving the immigration policy crisis. But it’s not the path that the leading liberal immigration reformers are demanding. At this time the introduction of new comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) bill would, even if supported by the president, would be disastrous.

Many of the forces that supported CIR last time around are calling for the Obama administration to support liberal immigration reform within its first year. They say it’s what the voters want and what’s needed to solve the immigration crisis.

But another divisive debate over the details of a new immigration policy is not what the U.S. public needs, and it’s not what immigrants need. Even with an increased Democratic majority, there isn’t the political will or political capital to pass a liberal immigration reform.

What’s needed is not another unwieldy CIR bill. What’s desperately, urgently needed is simply the power of words – and this is a power that the president has in abundance. Before dealing with the controversial specifics of a new immigration policy, Obama needs to weave a new narrative about immigration in 21st America.

A central reason why the immigration debate is so contentious, so deeply bitter is the absence of common terms of discourse. Each side in this debate has set out to frame the issue in terms that reflect its own distorted worldview. The result is a nation that is variously divided and confused. Some say that the immigration crisis is at its heart a national security crisis in which the homeland is threatened by porous borders and millions of illegal immigrants in the heartland.

Others say that it a crisis of supply and demand in the laws of the market clash with unrealistic immigration laws that turn workers into illegals.

Some say it is a social and cultural crisis in which stability and identity in America are undermined by a pervasive presence of illegal immigrants, while others say that it is a crisis in which there is a massive violation of immigrant rights – the right to work without exploitation and the right to be treated fairly.

Adding to the confusion about the immigration issue is that opposing sides employ some of the same conceptual frameworks to mean different things. Both pro-immigration and anti-immigration institutes in Washington, DC now sprinkle their messaging with appeals to the “rule of law” and “worker rights.”

For the pro-immigration forces, the only way to restore the rule of law is to bring illegal immigrants “out of the shadows” of the law through a legalization process and to provide more legal paths of entry. In contrast, the anti-immigration groups say that only by enforcing immigration law consistently – both at the border and in the country’s interior – will the rule of law be restored.

Worker rights for the immigrant advocates means enforcement of labor laws to protect immigrants (and by extension all workers), while anti-immigration organizations say that the large presence of illegal workers undermine the rights of legal workers who are forced into a competition that drives wages and working conditions downward.

Each side claims the virtue of common sense.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the nation’s oldest restrictionist institute, boasts in its slogan that is "Restoring Common Sense to America's Immigration System." Meanwhile, the competing slogan of America’s Voice, an immigrant-rights organization created in the wake of CIR’s defeat in 2007, is “The Power to Win Common Sense Immigration Reform.”

Each side tells America that its vision of immigration reform is the fair one. It’s the acronym of the leading restrictionist organization, and it kicks off the name of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, the networking branch of the immigrant-rights institutes in Washington.

As it became evident in the CIR congressional battles in 2006 and 2007, comprehensive immigration reform, even if passed, would fall far short of establishing a new immigration policy that was both sensible and fair. While attempting to be comprehensive – border security, temporary workers, family visas, employment verification, immigration law enforcement, citizenship conditions, etc. – the last CIR bill of the Bush administration came to the Senate floor as patchwork of compromises and contradictions.

No doubt there is an immigration crisis in America. No doubt that the system is broken, as contending sides both assert.

It’s out of control.

The budget being thrown by both Democrats and Republicans at border control and immigration law enforcement increases every year by more than a billion dollars. Thousands of newly hired and inadequately trained border patrol officers in an armada of new vehicles roam the borderland, which is booming with construction of border walls, fortified ports of entry, and imposing new headquarters for an occupying arm of Homeland Security agents.

Private prison firms and local governments rush to build dozens of new prisons for immigrants stopped at the border or rounded up in the interior. Most major and medium-size cities now host Homeland Security “fugitive operations teams” that in their hunt for criminal and fugitive (who have not responded to immigration court orders) immigrants are banging down doors in dawn raids and collecting as collateral nontargeted immigrants, legal residents and immigrant-looking citizens.

It’s shameful.

In the name of restoring the rule of law, immigrants are being pulled from their families, communities, and employment and the outsourced to private prison companies that own and operate the country’s new array of immigrant prisons. Immigrant settlements that have revitalized urban centers and dying rural towns are being shorn apart

But in the absence of a national consensus about immigration, the government says it has no recourse but to enforce the law.

It’s up to President Obama to forge that consensus with new words about immigration. Just as he is bringing rivals and parties together and just as bridging other ideological divides with a vision of common hope for a renewed America, he needs to create a new common language about immigration.

The immigration debate that is raging in America is suffused with many valid terms: immigrant-rights, nation of immigrants, justice for all, nation’s right to control its border, identity theft, overburdened social services, etc.

Cobbling all these terms and associated policies together into a comprehensive immigration bill is one approach to solving the immigration crisis. But in a post-Bush America it’s old approach that doesn’t rise to this new hopeful political time.

No one else has risen to the challenge, but Obama is a natural for the task of creating a new framework for understanding immigration and managing it in the national interest. What he needs to explain, as perhaps only he can, is that the nation needs a healthy debate over immigration.

But not a debate shaped and driven by pro- and anti-immigration groups that are irretrievably entrenched in their own narrow rhetoric and convictions. Rather a debate and a discourse that is positive, inclusive, and pragmatic.

The terms used to frame the new national discussion about immigration can be common ones – like justice, community, sustainability, rights, national interest, and yes common sense and fairness – but Obama can infuse them with a new vitality, a new urgency, and an invigorating personal relevancy.

It’s his challenge now to create a new narrative to immigration that brings Americans together. With his power of words and ability to evoke hope, he needs to help us determine together how and how many immigrants contribute to our national interest and our nation’s future.

Next in Border Lines CIR Series: Latino Path to Immigration Reform

Friday, January 16, 2009

The "More Effective Political Approach" for Immigration Reform

(15th in Border Lines series on Movement for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.)
How is the immigration reform movement working to ensure that comprehensive immgration reform (CIR) succeeds this time around?

They have a “four-pillar” structure that the Carnegie Reporter describes in a recent feature article: “Immigration: Reform Movement Rebuilds.” According to the Carnegie Corporation report:
“Now these advocates are using the sometimes painful lessons learned from their legislative battles to build alliances on a local and a national level and to bring together disparate voices. Seeking to overcome the hurdles involved in merging hundreds of organizations, several leading groups, including those who are cited in this article, have been working to develop a re-energized and re-focused structure that consists of “four pillars,” which center around: a more effective policy approach, more effective work in the media, a stronger grassroots effort better linked to the nationwide effort, and successful efforts to promote citizenship and encourage civic participation.”
Central to the policy approach are a priori demands for immigration reform. That the United States should have a liberal immigration policy that legalizes illegal immigrants and has an open door for new immigrants is the common assumption on which their policy advocacy is based.

This a priori case for liberal immigration reform perhaps best illustrated by the policy approach of the National Immigration Forum, which describes itself as “the nation’s premier immigrant rights organization.”

Its case for a pro-immigration policy and comprehensive immigration reform is crystallized in its mission statement: “The Forum is dedicated to embracing and upholding America’s tradition as a nation of immigrants.” Its slogan, “Immigrants Are America,” echoes the organization’s core belief: namely, that America was, is, and should always be a “nation of immigrants.” In other words, if we believe it is so and others believe it is so, then it must be so and should always be so.

They may be right, but they will certainly need a more effective policy approach if they are to convince the American people and Congress. But there is little sign that these immigrant-rights advocates are prepared to go beyond their beliefs and convictions to make a comprehensive case for comprehensive immigration reform.

One might think that after more than a quarter-century enmeshed in immigration policy debates in Washington that groups like the National Immigration Forum, America’s Voice (an offshoot of the forum), and National Council of La Raza would have a policy agenda that not only made the case for liberal immigration reform but also set forth specific policy proposals. 

But that’s not the case. Instead, what they offer are a set of principles that double as agenda items, including Reunite Families, Protect Workers, Give Undocumented Workers a Chance to Get Right by the Law, Restore the Rule of Law, and Promote Citizenship and Civic Participation.

But the more effective policy approach of these immigration reform advocates does include at least one new thrust – the campaign to discredit the restrictionist institutes as “hate groups” and an increased emphasis on instrumentalist argument that the expanding Latino electorate makes voting for liberal immigration reform politically imperative.

Meanwhile, as the immigrant crackdown continues, there are increasing signs that immigration reform is a fading priority not only for the citizenry as a whole but also for Latinos.

One can only hope that the more effective policy approach of this immigration reform movement is still being fine-tuned and that it includes convincing argumentation why liberal immigration reform is in the national interest – not just immigrants, not just Latinos, but all Americans.

Otherwise, this movement will likely be as marginal to the national policy debate over CIR as it was last time around.

Read Entire Border Lines' CIR article. 

Next in Border Lines’ CIR Series: The Latino Path to Immigration Reform

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Strategic Pause for Immigration Reform?

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

Isn’t it past time for a pause?

We certainly need a campaign for liberal immigration reform. But shouldn’t there have been one of those strategic planning sessions that NGO consultants and meddling board members are continually advocating? Isn’t it time to look back before marching forward? 

  We are told by the Carnegie Corporation – one of the major funders of the liberal immigration reform movement – that the movement is rebuilding. The leaders of this movement are telling each other and the media that their time has come. It all adds up, they are saying. 

The record Latino vote (but doesn’t the Latino vote routinely exceed its past record?), friends in the new administration, results from polls they themselves commission, their interpretation of the election results, even what the departing and badly discredited president says about immigration reform. It all signals, for them, that this is the time for CIR. 

Certainly there were a series of meetings among themselves and with their funders to chart new directions in the aftermath of the collapse of comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) in June 2007.

But rather than pausing for a hard look at the new political realities in America and to reflect on why their immigrant-rights message was failing so miserably as a policy framework for immigration reform, they patted themselves on the back and pushed on with a new infusion of foundation funding. 

Rather than to consider the wisdom or validity of their own messaging – immigrants, legal or illegal, have an intrinsic right to be granted U.S. citizenship since America has been and will always be a nation of immigrants – these immigrant-rights leaders (centered around National Immigration Forum, National Council of La Raza, Center for Community Change, and the newly formed America’s Voice) blamed the opposition for their own failures

Now, with a new grassroots and lobbying campaign underway to reintroduce CIR, there seems to be little time to consider some basic questions about message and strategy. 

If there were wide-open strategic planning session of the kind that seems so badly needed, some of the questions and issues that deserve consideration might include the following: Does it make good sense to fashion the immigrant-rights movement as a policy reform movement? 

 There is an immigrant-rights movement because the rights of immigrants to due process and equal protection are routinely (and increasingly) violated. 

But should this movement, which rightly represents the rights and interests of noncitizens, be tasked to make the case that liberal immigration reform is in the best interests of citizens? 

 No doubt the immigrant-rights message should be part of the campaign for liberal immigration reform, but should it be central? If liberal immigration reform – as opposed to a restrictionist immigration reform – is in the common interest of the U.S. public, then why is the networking of this reform movement focused almost entirely on immigrant constituencies and special interest groups (business, labor, immigration lawyers, among others)? 

 Wouldn’t an immigration reform movement have greater credibility and impact if its voices were those of teachers, police chiefs, mayors, state legislators, social service providers, and other civic leaders rather than almost exclusively of those whose organizations have a special rather than common interest in such issues as legalization, family reunification, and increased visas? 

Shouldn’t the liberal foundations, in addition to their essential commitment to immigrant rights, be more focused on helping give voice to these constituencies for liberal immigration reform? Why is it that the anti-immigration forces were able to mobilize their members with such great success to oppose CIR in 2007, when the so-called immigration reform movement was barely heard? 

Immigrant-rights organizations operating largely autonomously brought millions of immigrants and their supporters out into the streets of America to demonstrate their outrage at the intensifying immigrant crackdown in 2006 and as a call-out for sympathy and solidarity. 

Why didn’t the leaders of the immigration reform movement recognize then that the greatest need was to reach out to citizens with a pro-immigration message rather than focus on the networking of already deeply concerned, mobilized groups and communities? 

 Is a movement really a movement when it depends so heavily on foundation funding, and may not exist without that funding? All too clearly there is an immigration backlash movement in the United States. There is also an inspiring immigrant-rights movement that both supports the integration of immigrants in U.S. society and increasingly defends the rights of immigrants. 

Does it make good tactical sense to pit the latter movement that is concerned with the plight of noncitizens against the former which is a movement of citizens? 

 The immigrant-rights groups – National Immigration Forum, America’s Voice, and National Council of La Raza – are the dominant voices of the NGO movement for immigration reform and are important, highly valued voices on behalf of immigrants. 

But how does the U.S. public react when these self-described immigrant-rights groups position also presume to be the voices of all Americans when speaking to Congress and the media about immigration? When does the message about the rights, plight, and history of immigrants stop being a useful political strategy to advance either the common interests of U.S. citizens or the specific interests of immigrants? 

There are, of course, many other questions that need to asked and answered. None are easy, and nobody has all the answers.

It is incumbent, though, on the organizations that claim to be America’ voice on liberal immigration reform and on the foundations that empower them to pause to consider the wisdom and efficacy of their standard positions on immigration reform. Instead, they push so confidently, so heedlessly forward, and expecting all of us to follow -- onward to another CIR defeat. 

  Next in Border Lines' CIR series: “Four-Pillar Structure” of Immigration Reform Movement

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

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Pro-Immigrant Principles of Comprehensive Reform

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

Comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) is once again the central goal of the immigrant-rights movement. 

As it was during the Bush administration, legalization of the 11-12 million illegal immigrants living and working in the country is the sine qua non of any comprehensive immigration bill the movement would support. 

In considering the feasibility of a new CIR campaign, it is helpful looking back to the failed 2004-2007 campaign to pass CIR. The steward of this campaign was the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR), whose leading organizations were the National Immigration Forum, Center for Community Change, National Council of La Raza

Going into the campaign, a key problem for the involved groups was the absence in their ranks of a proposed immigration policy. These groups, particularly the National Immigration Forum and NCLR, were in the odd position of having worked for decades on immigration reform but of never having formulated a cohesive immigration reform policy they could take to Congress. 

Their abiding interest was not to lead the way toward a sensible and sustainable immigration policy but rather to represent the interests of immigrants and their families. Other key CCIR organizations like the Center for Community Change and the labor union Unite Here were newcomers to immigration struggles and approached immigration not as a policy issue but as a community or labor organizing issue. 

In other words, these groups and most others in the CCIR were concerned mainly with immigrant rights not immigration policy. When it came to forging an immigration reform that was comprehensive, they were – and are – not credibly situated. Immigration policy is necessarily about limits as well as openings to U.S. society and economy. 

Representing primarily immigrant communities, they were – and are – primarily about opening America to more immigrants. In a policy debate over immigration, a pro-immigration lobby is essential to ensure that the debate is not controlled by the anti-immigration lobby. 

But, in effect, CCIR was less a pro-immigration lobby than a pro-immigrant lobby. As such, it was well-situated to advance the interests of immigrants – legal and illegal – but less prepared to advance a pro-immigration position that spoke for the interests and concerns of citizens and voters. Nonetheless, as part of the CIR campaign, these groups did begin to articulate a pro-immigration position on the various CIR bills before Congress. 

Whereas their mission with respect to immigration reform was for various reasons to protect the interests of immigrants and would-be immigrants, they were obligated in the CIR debate to take positions on components of comprehensive reform that were fundamentally restrictive, such as border control, employment verification, national security, and the conditions of legalization. 

Understandably, they weren’t inclined to stand behind immigration restrictions but for the sake of their credibility in Congress and with the media, they increasingly adopted at least rhetorical positions of the restrictive components of immigration reform. 

But these positions came not from well-developed policy statements but largely as reactions to the demands of the changing policy debate. From the outset CCIR in 2004 gave a nod to enforcement, rule of law, and security issues in its formulation of CIR principles. 

But these restrictive components of a proposed CIR were clearly dependent on an immigration reform that legalized the illegal immigrants, facilitated family reunification, and greatly increased visas for legal immigration.

The coalition said that it “organizes and mobilizes the voices and power of the pro-immigrant movement in support of national legislation that incorporates key principles for immigration reform:

* Reform Must Be Comprehensive 
* Provide a Path to Citizenship 
* Protect Workers * Reunite Families 
* Restore the Rule of Law and Enhance Security * Promote Citizenship and Civic Participation and Help Local Communities

“Participation in the campaign,” said CCIR, “simply requires a commitment to a set of immigration reform principles and to engage in coordinated activity, as appropriate.”

As it evolved, CCIR added more flesh to its reform principles, reflecting the rightward direction of the immigration debate.

Next in CIR Series: Reasons for Failure of Liberal Immigration Reform

Monday, January 12, 2009

Immigration Change Some Can Believe In

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

The leaders of the immigrant-rights movement are once again mobilizing in support of comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). The same figures that created the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR) in 2004 are now organizing to move a future CIR bill – as yet not introduced or even proposed – through Congress in late 2009 and early 2010. More than sixty reporters participated Jan. e in a briefing via conference call – titled “A Movement for Reform, Making Immigration Reform Happen with the new President and Congress” -- sponsored by the National Immigration Forum. 

The featured presenters were Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles, Janet Murguia, president of National Council of La Raza; Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, and John Wilhelm, president of Unite Here. 

 If we are to believe the directors of the National Immigration Forum, America’s Voice, and National Council of La Raza, CIR is around the corner in the Obama administration. However, the past political and analytical failures of this same circle of immigrant-rights groups – to say nothing of any more measured evaluation of the country’s economic and political realities -- leave plenty of room for skepticism. Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, told reporters that “2009 will be the year for immigration reform.” 

According to Noorani:
"At this moment we are on the cusp of a sea change in the United States of America, and I think it is fair to say that this sea change that we’re about to see is due in large part to the power and the vitality of the immigrant and Hispanic votes."
Certainly the country needs a sensible and sustainable immigration reform. But these DC groups seem more interested in appealing to their own circumscribed constituencies than reaching out to America with a persuasive pro-immigration message and political strategy.

Read entire TransBorder commentary

(Next in Border Lines' CIR Series: Immigrant Principles of Immigration Reform.)
Photo: Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice

Friday, January 9, 2009

Rebuilding the Immigrant-Rights Movement with More Money, But the Same Message

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

Summarizing the fate of the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR), the Carnegie Reporter in a cover article about the Carnegie Corporation grantees who led the coalition, concluded: “Despite all this intense effort the coalition was unable to develop a broad and strong enough movement to prevail.” 

 The article, “Immigration: The Reform Movement Rebuilds,” then describes the new strategy adopted by America’s Voice, National Immigration Forum, National Council of La Raza, Center for Community Change – the same groups that led CCIR – to rebuild the immigration reform movement. 

Basically, the strategy is to do the same type of outreach, advocacy, and communications work as CCIR but to do more of it and to do it better. Unquestioned as they move forward is their immigrant-rights message. 

 Reflecting on the past, Frank Sharry, who directed the National Immigration Forum for 17 years before moving over to become director of the newly created America’s Voice, said the movement is working to answer such questions as: “What is the best policy approach going forward? 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?” 

Sharry and other immigrant-rights leaders blame CCIR’s failure on being outgunned by the opposition. “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,” said Sharry. 

To ensure that the immigrant-rights movement has a “communication effort designed to more directly challenge those who oppose immigration reform,” the Carnegie Corporation provided a $6.5 million two-year grant for the establishment of the America’s Voice Educational Fund. As the Carnegie Reporter noted, the CCIR “closed in February 2008 [and] America’s Voice (, an organization that grew out of this coalition, opened in March 2008 as a communications effort.” 

As the immigration reform movement, which the Carnegie Corporation and other liberal funders are generously backing, is rebuilding, there has been little reflection on the resonance, appropriateness, or wisdom of its messaging. 

Instead, the emphasis is amplifying its immigrant-rights argument for immigration reform through new funding for a barrage of communications instruments – blogs, videos, media releases, polls – with variations of the same message that failed so miserably in the CIR campaign. 

Rather than forging a message aimed at U.S. citizens, the reconstituted movement continues to equate immigrant rights with immigration reform. Despite the “America’s Voice” name, that’s not a message that’s likely to win citizen support for liberal immigration reform. 

 Also central to the reconstituted movement is a concerted campaign to delegitimize the leading restrictionist organizations – Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), NumbersUSA, and Center for Immigration Studies – as nativists, hate groups, and racists. Meanwhile, these institutes have reshaped their anti-immigration message to adapt to the changing economic times and to the Obama administration. 

  Next in Border Lines CIR Series: Immigration Change Some Can Believe In

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Excited About Coalition's United Front Strategy

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

The coalition and its organizers adopted a “united front” strategy aimed at bringing together immigrant-rights and community groups, ethnic organizations, labor unions, and church organizations. Describing the coalition, Rebecca Rittgers, human rights program director at Atlantic Philanthropies, wrote:
“I’m very excited about the people we have at the table and the period in which we find ourselves. I am extremely excited about the Hispanic leadership, the Latino leadership participating in the coalition, in addition to the whole spectrum of groups that are involved because it’s so important to have a united front on immigration issues.”
A central challenge in creating a united front is adopting a consensus message. In the case of the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR), consensus was built around common support for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). But CCIR members were largely immigrant-rights groups, or other organizations – ethnic, labor, community organizing – whose entry to the CIR issue was immigrant rights.

While some like the National Immigration Forum and the Immigration Policy Center wrote and spoke out about immigration policy, none of the groups came to the coalition with an immigration policy agenda that extended beyond their own special interests, such as protecting immigrant rights, expanding the immigrant voting bloc, strengthening the position of illegal immigrant workers. In other words, what united the members of CCIR was their conviction that what was good for illegal immigrants and prospective immigrants was what was best for America.

The coalition’s support for CCIR was based on their belief that legalization, family reunification visas, and expanded visas (all with a path to citizenship) were central to any comprehensive immigration reform worth its name. While there was some rhetorical support for effective border control and a workable immigration system, the coalition’s members were hardly enthusiastic supporters of what CIR came to mean in the several years before it went down to defeat in mid-2007.

 The new concern about homeland security and the building anti-immigration backlash pushed CIR proposals further away from the kind of liberal immigration reform that CCIR members advocated. While still including a provision for legalization, successive CIR proposals in Congress ramped up the border security and employment-verification components.

 At the same time, the amnesty provision – which CCIR considered central – became increasingly restrictive. Partly in reaction to the successful restrictionist campaign to eliminate “amnesty” as a policy option, CIR proponents adopted a new terminology, such as “earned citizenship” and “pathway to citizenship,” to signal that citizenship would not come quickly or easily.

 The adoption of a new terminology and approach to legalization also reflected awareness that all immigrants didn’t support a quick path to citizenship for the illegal immigrants. Many legal immigrants believed, as is now reflected in Democratic Party rhetoric, that the illegal aliens should go to the back of the line in their application for citizenship, making way for the many family members of legal immigrants who had been waiting for many years to have their applications processed. But this distancing from “amnesty” proved a slippery slope.

As part of CIR negotiating in Congress, the proposed “path to citizenship” became daunting, including not only the expected obligations of learning English but also punitive fees and “touchback” provisions that caused some within CIR to withdraw their support for the compromise bill in 2007. In an aim to win conservative and moderate support for CIR, the leading members of CIR have continued down this slippery slope away from amnesty.

Led by America’s Voice and the Center for American Progress, together with NDN (a Democratic Party policy institute), the remnants of the CIR coalition have organized a new messaging stressing that the onus to get legalized is borne by the illegal immigrants themselves: “get right with the law” and “requir(ing)” immigrants to register. As the immigration backlash intensified, the leading CCIR members moved decidedly to the right in their advocacy of CIR.

As part of a strategy of compromise, the pro-CIR message moved from promoting a “nation of immigrants” toward insisting that America should be a “nation of laws.” The increasing willingness of the Washington, DC leaders of CCIR disgusted and frustrated many CCIR members, while the DC organizations – including National Council of La Raza, National Immigration Forum, Center for Community Change – believed that CIR was doomed without the compromises demanded by conservatives and moderates in Congress.

 By the time CCIR shut down in late 2007, the “united front” of its formative years was badly frayed. But the principal organizations behind CCIR remained a team and regrouped with new strategies, as described in the “Immigration: The Reform Movement Rebuilds,” published in the Fall 2008 Carnegie Reporter

Unquestioned, either by the CCIR principals or by those who dissented with the CIR compromises, is that “immigrant rights” should remain at the center of an immigration reform movement.

See related analysis:

 “Democrats to Immigrants: “Get Right With the Law”

“Contradictions of Comprehensive Immigration Reform”

Photo by Andy Carvin

Next in Border Lines' CIR Series: Rebuilding the Movement with Same Message

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Uncertain Path Toward Comprehensive Immigration Reform

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

“We’ve made every mistake imaginable. We’ve been at times too big and too democratic; at times we’ve been too small and too insular, and neither works very well.”

That’s what Frank Sharry, dean of the immigrant-rights movement and chief of America’s Voice, told the Carnegie Reporter, when describing the movement’s recent history and its campaign for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). 

Initially, a planning grant in 2003 from Atlantic Philanthropies did provide for a discussion among some 150 immigrant-rights, community, and labor organizations interested in organizing to secure approval of a CIR bill. 

 Initially, the resulting Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR) had twelve board members from the following organizations: National Council of La Raza, Center for Community Change, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE), National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, National Immigration Forum, Service Employees International Union, Piñeros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, New York Immigration Coalition, and United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. 

 Later, as part of the process alluded to by Sharry (then-executive director of National Immigration Forum), CCIR’s leadership was narrowed to six individuals: 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

In an attempt to keep these high-powered national groups from overly dominating the coalition, a larger strategy council of some forty members was established and there were national conference calls involving all CCIR partners – a practice that the National Immigration Forum has continued. 

Aside from the issues about the CCIR’s structure, there were persistent concerns about the political compromises that were negotiated into the various CIR proposals under congressional considerations.

Javier Rodriquez, a leading organizing of the March 25, 2006 march in Los Angeles, typified the radical, uncompromising spirit of much of the immigrant-rights organizing in 2006. 

Writing in 2007, Rodriquez advocated militant organizing to have immigrant rights respected:

“Today this movement, on par with the developments in Latin America moving away from the neo liberalist economic model and against transnational imperial dominance, is once again at a crossroads. The millions who marched in 2006 and 2007 did so to demand their rights for immediate legalization and empowerment, not to continue being near second and third class and near slaves. 

“We need to push the right buttons. Set the network of forces on the chosen targets which could give premium political results that will essentially force the political establishment to concede. For this to advance, all targets in the political arena are fair game, including the Republicans, the Democrats, the Latino Establishment and brokers. The fundamental tactics of mass expression including, mass street demonstrations, the boycotts and civil disobedience exist in our political memory and our history.”
In one of the few reviews of the immigrant-rights movement, Dan LaBotz described a central tension between social idealism and political realism that runs through the movement – and most popular movements that have a policy agenda. LaBotz in his “Immigrant Rights Movement” essay doesn’t hide his own left political sympathies, but his broad schematic of the movement is nonetheless helpful in understanding at part of the tensions that underlay the movement for CIR. 

 According to LaBotz:
"On the one hand a coalition of the major religious, labor and immigrant organization pushes for the passage of the best possible realistic compromise on an immigration reform bill, while on the other hand grassroots community groups, leaders of some congregations, and some local labor unions push to more radical and confrontational strategies aimed at winning full civic, political and labor rights for all now. The conflict within the Latino immigrant community between political realism and social idealism has deep roots."
Furthermore, LaBotz postulated:
"One could say that these represent two poles of the Latino movement: one that tends to focus on citizens, fostering citizenship, voting and party politics, and the other that focuses on immigrants' labor and social issues, includes citizens and non-citizens, and even has an international dimension, and tends to become a social movement.

The first alternative tends to promote a politics of political realism since its objective is the election of Democrats, while the latter tends to engender a more radical politics, even when not explicitly articulated, implicitly raising the goal of a society where all, irrespective of borders and citizenship, have freedom, rights, and political power.

"The former naturally works to focus all energy on political reform and partisan politics, while the latter tends to push for an activist social movement that puts forces in the street and looks to use the power of immigrant workers and consumers through the strike and boycott. The first aims at inclusion in America's capitalist democracy, the second, consciously or unconsciously, struggles to create a society which would be more democratic, more egalitarian and more just."
In conclusion, LaBotz asked:
“Will the Latinos and other immigrants flow into the channels of institutional power, or will they create an independent Latino social and labor movement? Under pressure from the mainline Latino organizations, the Church and the unions, but also linked by family and friendship to vast communities of immigrants, filled with hope for themselves, but also concerned about their loved ones and their workmates, the Latino immigrants themselves will ultimately make their own decision.”
Much of the populist, leftist energy for a national immigrant-rights movement that would not only lead the way forward to CIR but also energize new workers’ and civil rights movements dissipated by the end of 2006. Marches planned for September 2006 and through mid-2007 didn’t attract the same massive numbers seen in the March-May 2006 demonstrations. 

Among the reasons cited for the declining numbers were the continuing immigrant crackdown, discouragement with the CIR bills in Congress, the ever-building immigration backlash, and the clashing views of immigrant-rights leaders. 

 A major problem that confronted the immigrant-rights movement – both the radicals and the reformers – was that the main constituents of the movement were noncitizens. While the large numbers in America’s streets did impress, the immigrants who were proclaiming that “We Are America” didn’t have the power of the vote. 

 The sad fact was that they weren’t certified Americans until legal Americans and their representatives stood behind them – which hasn’t yet happened.

Next: The United Front Strategy of the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform