Battles ahead for immigrant rights

Shaun Harkin reports from Houston on the discussions at a conference of activists.

HOUSTON, Texas--The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR) held its national conference here, the first of its kind in 10 years, on January 18-20.

More than 600 people attended (100 more than expected) from across the U.S. for a weekend of education, debate and discussion in plenary sessions and workshops on diverse issues ranging from "Organizing Against the 'War on Terror,'" "Guest Workers and the New Slavery," "Raising Women's Voices: Immigrant Women and Health Care," "15 Years After NAFTA" and "Youth Organizing: Beyond DREAM."

The beginning of the conference coincided with the release of NNIRR's new report "Over-Raided, Under Siege: U.S. Immigration Laws and Enforcement Destroy the Rights of Immigrants."

"The DHS (Department of Homeland Security) is subjecting immigrant and refugee communities to a deliberate and distinct form of 'collective punishment,' resulting in widespread violations of basic constitutional and human rights," according to the report.

What else to read

The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights Web site is filled with information. You can also download a pdf file with the NNIRR's report "Over-Raided, Under Siege."

The report demonstrates how the U.S. government continues to implement new policies and laws that systematically violate the human rights of immigrant and refugee members of our communities.

"Working in tandem with local, county and state governments," the report concludes, "law enforcement agencies, employers and private citizen groups, the U.S. government has advanced hundreds of new measures that deny immigrants and refugees due process rights, a living wage, housing, labor protections, and proper health and safety."

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THIS DEVASTATING report accurately captures the multi-pronged attack immigrant communities face today. Resistance to these attacks was foremost on the minds of conference participants.

Following a disappointingly conservative speech in the opening plenary by liberal Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), NNIRR executive director Catherine Tactaquin reconfirmed the network's opposition to various "comprehensive immigration reform" proposals debated by Congress in recent years.

Tactaquin argued for the necessity of a different vision--one opposed to militarization of the border and the interior, any expansion of guest-worker programs and harmful free-trade agreements.

Isabel García from the Coalición de Derechos Humanos based in Tucson, Ariz., concurred. "Our communities are being decimated, beginning at the border. Death at the border is not acceptable," said García. "There is tremendous pressure on our movement to give in on enforcement, but we have to steer away from being a pawn in their chess game that they call 'Operation Endgame.'"

Last year alone, the bodies of 237 migrants were found near the Arizona border; since 1994, some 5,000 bodies have been recovered at the border. Also last year, the DHS reached its goal of adding nearly 70 miles of new fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, with a goal of completing 370 miles by the end of 2008. Additionally, DHS aims to increase the number of border patrol agents from 15,000 to 18,300 by the end of 2008.

García ended by saying the way forward is to "educate our communities, organize at the base and tell Congress what to do."

Monami Maulik from Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) in New York City talked about the connection between the attack on immigrants, the "war on terror" and the war on Iraq, and placed these issues in the context of U.S. imperialism and corporate globalization. "We can't get full justice for everyone until we get more organized, and we can't compromise more enforcement for more legalization," she argued.

In the "Deportations and Detentions" workshop, presenters from the American Friends Service Committee and the New York-based Families for Freedom explained that up to 2 million immigrants have been deported since 1996 when the Clinton administration implemented new immigration laws. That's a fourfold spike in deportations.

If immigrants who accepted "voluntary departure" are included, the number of deportees jumps to 5 million. In fiscal year 2007, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) claims to have deported a record 276,912 immigrants with close to 30,000 held in detention centers on any given day.

Melissa Nalani Ross from the Center for New Community (CNC), in a workshop on "The Forces and Faces of the Anti-Immigrant Movement," described the politics and connections between reactionary groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Pioneer Fund, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and Numbers USA.

A myriad of such groups operates behind the scenes to influence public discussion of immigration and push politicians to adopt anti-immigrant initiatives. According to a new CNC report, "As these national groups have expanded their influence, the number of state and local organizations has jumped up. Between January of 2005 and January of 2007, such groups increased in number by 600 percent."

When armed Minutemen appeared on the Arizona border in 2005, there were 37 anti-immigrant groups in 25 states; by September 2007, the number had increased to 332, located in almost every state.

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DURING THE well-attended workshop "Immigration Reform, the 2008 Elections and Beyond," many participants displayed a determination to continue the fight for genuine social and economic justice for the undocumented.

But the session also revealed varying levels of demoralization, disorientation and frustration among activists. This is no surprise given how much the immigrant rights movement has been pushed onto the defensive since the mass marches in the spring of 2006.

"What happens in Arizona doesn't stay in Arizona," said Kat Rodriguez from Tucson. "Groups have difficulty understanding why we resist accepting many aspects of the STRIVE Act. One of the greatest successes of the right wing has been to marry the concept of legalization to border security. No immigration bill is acceptable if it includes militarization of the border."

Similarly, there was frustration at the lack of any pending progressive legislation--and the deafening silence of politicians willing to support such a bill. Tactaquin argued that a Democrat in the White House might avoid immigration in its first term in order to get elected to a second term, summing up the skepticism many at the conference felt toward the political establishment.

Participants discussed why they believed it was correct to oppose "comprehensive immigration reform." They talked about the difficulties in explaining their position to undocumented immigrants in their communities who are desperate for some form of legalization.

However, organizers said, when they were able to explain the full ramifications of the bills, many became convinced that it wasn't what the undocumented needed or deserved.

When discussing the mass mobilizations in recent years, some argued that they had "failed," that people "were tired of marching" and that new strategies were needed. Frustrated with mounting crackdowns on the undocumented and the conservative immigration framework that dominates discussion around Election 2008, some argued radical "direct action" would be necessary this year to make an impact.

The bigger-than-expected turnout indicates activists came to be part of something larger in an attempt to overcome the fragmentation and disorientation many feel and to discuss how to move the struggle forward in the difficult context of an election year.

While discussions emphasized that the next year will likely be full of challenges, there was little in the way of explanation for why the election is making it so difficult to organize, how to challenge the anti-immigrant positions of Democratic Party candidates or what the relationship is between mobilizations and base building.

For example, there was little discussion of whether to mobilize on May 1 this year in order to insert the demands of the immigrant rights movement into the election debate and what such a mobilization might or might not accomplish.

With pressure on grassroots activism to take a backseat to "getting out the vote," the next 10 months is going to be tough for those who have concluded that real change will come from below.

But if the U.S. economy goes into recession, an emboldened right wing can employ the politics of scapegoating to greater effect--and immigrant rights supporters will have to find effective ways to respond and seek, in whatever way possible, to turn the tide.