Thursday, January 1, 2009

Immigrant-Rights Organizing 2003-2004

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

The creation of the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR) came on the heels of the labor-initiated and -organized Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride of Sept. 20 – Oct 3, 2003.

 As part of a strategy to build mulitsectoral support for undocumented immigrants, the AFL-CIO and other labor unions, notably Unite HERE and SEIU, organized a national caravan of immigrants and sympathizers to highlight the plight of immigrant workers.

Freedom Ride organizers sought to liken the struggle of immigrant workers for fair treatment on the job to the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s and, in particular, to the Freedom Rides campaign launched by students in 1961. The goal was to mobilize students, church activists, and progressives, just as the struggles of Blacks in the South sparked a nationwide civil rights movement.

Underlying the new immigrant-rights movement was a conviction that mass mobilization and a rights-based messaging about immigration would propel comprehensive immigration reform forward. Organizations that were central to CCIR were principals – including National Immigration Forum and National Council of La Raza -- in the associated Immigrant Workers Freedom Coalition. In its proclamation about the Immigrant Workers Freedom Campaign, the AFL-CIO embraced an immigrant-rights position on CIR:

“The AFL-CIO believes that such legislative reform must include, at a minimum: (1) legalization, including the right of immigrant workers in the United States to live and work in this country and become its citizens; and (2) the right of immigrant workers to unite their families in the United States if they wish.”
CCIR put its newly acquired financial and organizational might behind the Freedom Ride strategy of immigrant mobilization. In 2004 it sponsored the New American Freedom Summer, which was made possible by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund.

The New American Freedom Summer, which brought immigrant-rights speakers to summer organizing sessions with students and others, was self-described as a program of the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform and the New American Opportunity Fund, a project of the Tides Center in San Francisco.

 According to CCIR, the Freedom Summer project drew inspiration from the student activism of the 1960s around civil rights issues in the South. It modeled its summer organizing and education campaign on the states of Arizona and Florida, saying that it was standing “with immigrant communities in their struggle to live in safety, secure the right to vote, and to win equal treatment and full citizenship. Once again, a group of committed Americans, many of them young people, answered the call and participated in this generation’s battle for the soul of America.”

 Its primary goals were “to build on the unprecedented success of last year’s Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride and take another step forward in forging a movement strong enough to win a safe, legal, orderly, and fair fix to our nation’s broken immigration laws,” and “to build the next generation of immigrant-rights leaders.” The Freedom Rides mobilization of 2003 and follow-up educational and organizing effort by CCIR in the summer of 2004 did energize immigrant-rights organizers and their supporters, but this left-of-center activism also drew the fire of the restrictionists.

Mark Krikorian, director of the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies, pointed to the backlash potential of this immigrant-rights organizing in 2003 in his “Freeloaders” commentary in National Review online – an assessment that echoed over the next few years in the wake of immigrant-rights organizing that brought millions of immigrants to the streets across America to denounce the incipient anti-immigrant crackdown and to demand legalization. Krikorian wrote:
"If you wanted a way of persuading Republican congressmen to support something, the last thing you'd do is have the AFL-CIO organize a bus convoy of illegal aliens appropriating the rhetoric of the civil-rights movement, endorsed by the Communist party. “And yet, this is just what the open-border crowd has done. Busloads of ‘Freedom Riders’ converged on Capitol Hill Thursday and are now headed for New York. The group will meet at Liberty State Park in Jersey City today and go to Queens on Saturday to press its list of demands, including amnesty for illegal aliens, higher levels of legal immigration, and an end to the distinction between citizens and non-citizens.”
From its beginning, CCIR had integral ties with the liberal Center for American Progress policy institute in Washington, DC founded and directed by John Podesta. A key CAP figure in CCIR and in the DC immigrant-rights organizations like National Immigration Forum was Maria Echaveste, a senior CAP fellow and founder of the Nueva Vista Group.

Echaveste’s office at Nueva Vista was given as the primary contact for CCIR by Atlantic Philanthropies and CCIR itself. Nueva Vista was paid by CCIR to provide lobbying and consulting services. At a forum sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation on the future of Hispanics, Echaveste told the forum: “Citizenship is in their interest for a stake in society.” Given the impressive numbers taking part in recent mass mobilization, she said she was hopeful that “the stage has been set for comprehensive reform.”

Next in Border Lines' CIR Series: Immigrant Rights Organizing 2003-2004

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