Shaping the debate on immigration reform

April 15, 2009

Roger Dyer reports on a meeting of immigrant rights activists in San Francisco that discussed a bold proposal for progressive legislative reform.

BARACK OBAMA will weigh in on immigration reform next month, according to the White House.

But it's far from clear whether his proposals will provide a pathway to citizenship for all of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants--or whether the new administration will try to resurrect proposals for guest-worker programs proposed in legislation that failed in recent years.

For the immigrant rights movement, the election of Obama last November, along with the Democratic sweep in both houses of Congress, has put the question of broad legislative reform back on the table and raised the expectations of many immigrants and movement activists who want to see Obama make good on his campaign promises of pro-immigrant policies.

Obama has recently indicated that he will speak publicly on immigration in May and convene bipartisan working groups to address the issue over the summer. While some sections of the movement seem to be holding their collective breath to see what will happen, there are still some who are acting right now to shift the debate in a progressive direction.

Marching for immigrant rights in Chicago, May Day 2008
Marching for immigrant rights in Chicago, May Day 2008 (Mark Goudkamp)

Most notably, the AFL-CIO and the breakaway Change to Win labor federations have agreed on a joint framework for immigration reform.

In the past, the two federations split over the issue. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the dominant force in Change to Win, teamed up with employers to support guest-worker programs that would have consigned millions of workers to jobs in which they were totally dependent on their employers and that denied basic democratic rights. The AFL-CIO rejected guest-worker programs.

On April 14, however, Change to Win and the AFL-CIO released a statement outlining a common approach to immigration reform that calls for the "adjustment of status" of the undocumented, rejects guest-worker programs and opposes enforcement-only proposals.

"The development of a unified labor position, a position centered on workers' rights, puts us on the path to a legislative solution," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. "The labor movement will speak in one voice to address this pressing issue with Congress and the White House to create a system that protects all workers--those who work in our shadow economy and those who have full rights."

A unified labor opposition to guest-worker programs is a welcome change--and, predictably, it was immediately denounced by employers. "If the unions think they're going to push a bill through without the support of the business community, they're crazy," said Randel Johnson of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, foreshadowing the next battle over immigration legislation.

TO PREPARE for that fight, Bay Area immigrant rights activists and organizers gathered in San Francisco April 2 to initiate work on a proposal for national immigration legislative reform.

More than 50 people attended, representing organizations such as the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR), Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Other attendees included members of SEIU Local 1021, UNITE HERE Local 2 and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Many other groups and activists were present as well, from political organizations to church-based groups to community service providers.

The meeting, initiated by members of NNIRR, WIRC (Worker Immigrant Rights Coalition) and the Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition (BAIRC), had the stated goal of creating an alternative to the "mainstream" version of comprehensive immigration reform.

The full-day conference included discussions on the state of the movement, and on the principles and strategies for moving forward.

Cathi Tactaquin, executive director of NNIRR, and Lillian Galledo, of Filipinos for Affirmative Action, led a discussion on the history of U.S. immigration law and the current debate on reform. A panel discussion titled "Building a Multi-Sector/Multi-Ethnic Immigrant Rights Movement in the Bay Area" featured local activists and organizers: Lamoin Weirlein Jaen (UNITE HERE), Phil Hutchins (BAJI), Renee Saucedo (La Raza Centro Legal and San Francisco Day Laborer Center), Chris Punongbayan (Asian Law Caucus) and Brenda Vaca (San Francisco Interfaith Coalition on Immigration). The speakers touched on the issues and challenges that confront the movement in general, and what their respective organizations are acting on specifically.

All the participants started from an understanding that independent grassroots struggle will be key to winning changes that are in the real interests of immigrants. Rather than try to make our message dovetail with corporate-backed proposals that include guest-worker programs and draconian enforcement provisions, activists at the April 2 meeting approached legislative reform from an entirely different angle. There was a consensus that if it will require a fight to win any immigration reform at all, then it only makes sense to fight for what we actually want.

To that end, organizers and attendees made repeated arguments that the proposed legislation should be used as an organizing tool for base-building and grassroots struggle. Hope for the passage of a truly progressive bill lies in the power of a movement to make it happen. As labor writer and conference organizer David Bacon put it, "the [proposed progressive] bill and the movement are two sides of the same coin."

The April 2 convention generated seven key principles around which they hope to build the legislative proposal. These include:

1. Broad legalization of the undocumented without onerous burdens, as well as family reunification.

2. Opposition to guest-worker programs.

3. A halt to raids and deportations.

4. An end to the criminalization of immigrants, and the restoration of due process for those detained on immigration violations.

5. Demilitarization of the U.S.-Mexico border.

6. Protection of workers' rights, including an end to employer sanctions; cancellation of the E-Verify program and Social Security "no-match" letters used to check immigration status; and support for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and the right to organize unions.

7. Addressing the root causes of immigration.

IT WAS acknowledged at the meeting that even legislation that met these principles wouldn't solve all our problems. It won't eliminate the racism that many immigrants deal with on a daily basis. Nor would it end the dynamics of capitalist globalization (expressed in trade deals such as NAFTA) that drive most immigrants to leave their homes in the first place.

Moreover, there are a lot of unanswered questions about how to advance this proposal. Will someone in Congress back it? If not, then how do we proceed? How exactly do we go about connecting these principles to a movement in the streets? Can we win this? These questions will have to be answered in practice.

More urgent, though, is the question of legalization. One of the challenges that faces the movement is the false "good immigrant/bad immigrant" argument that serves to divide our side and leaves all immigrants open to attack.

In this context, the phrase "broad legalization without an onerous burden" could prove problematic. Who will decide what is "onerous"? And how far does "broad" go? Instead of that formulation, why not say "legalization for all?" That demand of the immigrant rights movement has been brought up in coalitions and rallies around the country.

The real strength of these principles is that they come from the movement itself. This is the exact opposite of how it's gone with the mainstream version of "comprehensive immigration reform."

Go to a rally for immigrant rights and count how many placards you see on the pro-immigrant side with the demand, "Guest Worker Program Now!" or how many T-shirts that say "Please Take Away My Rights!" You won't find these things, but mainstream political forces would have us believe that their corporate-approved version of immigration reform is what we really want--or at least, the best that we can get.

Clearly, there's a lot of work to be done to move the fight forward, and a follow-up meeting to plan out the next steps is already scheduled. The organizations that met in San Francisco are connected to other groups around the country, and they're actively reaching out to others to build this initiative.

Of course, the other side in the immigration reform debate is incredibly well funded, organized and connected. Ours will not be an easy task.

Still, the significance of our side putting forward its demands so clearly shouldn't be underestimated. What was started at this gathering in San Francisco has the potential to become part of a big step forward for the movement. With this year's May Day demonstrations just around the corner, the opportunity to connect this initiative to grassroots mobilization and struggle can begin right now.

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