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

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