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

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