This is a fight for all of us

Today's young activists are following in the footsteps of past civil rights struggles.

A REVIVED immigrant rights movement has the potential to turn back Arizona's racist law, renew the struggle for genuine immigration reform--reforms based on amnesty for undocumented workers, not their criminalization--and give inspiration to other struggles for justice throughout U.S. society.

The signs of that revived movement are everywhere--from the large size of the May Day marches for immigrant rights, to the baseball park protests against the Arizona Diamondbacks, to the boycott that's gathering support in cities and towns across the U.S.

Whether organized by established groups or improvised by first-time activists, these actions are evidence of the bitter anger at the attempt by Arizona reactionaries to turn back the clock with their racial profiling law, known as SB 1070. That and the fact that large numbers of people who voted for change in the 2008 election are tired of waiting and determined to bring it about themselves.

Increasingly, the face of the movement is of undocumented young people, who demand both that SB 1070 be overturned and that Congress pass the DREAM Act, legislation that would confer legal residency on undocumented youths who attend college or join the military.

Walkouts by high school students in Arizona and beyond recalled the youth activism of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. And when Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer followed up SB 1070 by signing a law banning ethnic studies, high school students in Tucson walked out again.

The immigrant rights movement that burst onto the national scene with mass marches in 2006 is being rejuvenated by new surge of activism.

Civil rights organizations such as the NAACP have made common cause with immigrants, pointing out the many parallels between the legal Jim Crow segregation of the South before 1965 to today's "Juan Crow" law in Arizona. Thus, a demonstration set for May 29 in Phoenix is expected to draw activists from across the U.S.--and solidarity actions will take place in cities around the country.

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UNDER SB 1070, scheduled to take effect July 28, police will have the power to stop anyone who, under "reasonable suspicion," could be a non-citizen--and, if they don't have papers, arrest them and hand them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

In response, labor and liberal organizations have spoken out. As AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka said, the law "severely undermines workers' rights: Any employer faced with Latino workers' complaints--in the form of a picket or a lawsuit--can simply call the police and have workers arrested under the guise of 'reasonable suspicion.' The law's chilling effect is all too clear."

These forces have also joined the protests against SB 1070, as well as initiating their own. For example, in Chicago, labor leaders and elected officials are planning a civil disobedience action on May 25 at Chicago's ICE offices.

The Chicago protests--part of a week of similar actions around the country--is focused not only on overturning SB 1070, but also insisting that Congress move forward with "comprehensive immigration reform" (CIR).

The big question, however, is just what CIR is supposed to mean. In Washington jargon, "comprehensive" is code for legislation that would also ramp up enforcement, further militarize the border and create a guest-worker program that would make a mockery of human rights.

To the extent that they back such a version of CIR, liberal groups and immigrant rights organizations close to the Democratic Party are way out of step with the demands at the grassroots.

That disconnect was on display at the 200,000-strong march for immigrant rights on March 21 in Washington, D.C., where the rally's organizers, Reform Immigration for America (RIFA), called for President Barack Obama to take up the version of CIR proposed by Sens. Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham.

Under the Schumer-Graham "framework," as they call it, enforcement would be greatly ratcheted up and a guest-worker program created. Schumer and Graham offer a so-called "path to citizenship" for undocumented workers that would tie applicants to employers and require them to perform "community service"--and subject them to deportation for even minor violations of the law. The senators also want a national ID card using biometric technology.

The Schumer-Graham proposals are actually the most regressive yet of the bipartisan immigration reform movements that have circulated since 2006. Back then, politicians were maneuvering to contain the mass movement that erupted in response to proposed legislation by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), which would have criminalized the estimated 12 million undocumented workers and anyone who assisted them.

When this extreme approach backfired, Corporate America tried to shape a version of immigration reform to suit its own interests: A guarantee that millions of workers it depends on would gain legal status, but through a guest-worker program that would make it impossible for workers to organize unions and defend their rights. At the same time, the legislation sought to appease the anti-immigrant forces by harsher measures on the border and other enforcement mechanisms.

All those efforts--McCain-Kennedy, Hagel-Martinez and others--failed, mainly due to opposition from the right.

For its part, the immigrant rights movement turned towards electing Democrats, helping that party capture Congress in 2006 and the White House two years later. Since then, however, frustration and anger has grown among immigrants and their advocates as Obama has done nothing to advance immigration reform. On the contrary, raids and deportations have only increased.

Where the George W. Bush administration used high-profile, military-style raids on workplaces, Obama's ICE has favored "briefcase" raids, in which government officials compel employees to terminate hundreds of immigrant workers at a time. E-Verify, the federal government's online immigration status database is one tool for this purpose; Social Security "no match" letters, which highlight discrepancies in the government's notoriously inaccurate database, is another.

Meanwhile, Obama has expanded the 287(g) program of collaboration between local law enforcement and ICE, as well as the Secure Communities Program, which uses arrest warrants for individuals as an excuse to carry out raids. Then there's Operation Streamline, which imposes criminal charges on all those accused of crossing the border illegally.

At this pace, according to Nativo López, president of the Mexican American Political Association, Obama's first two years in office will see 800,000 deportations and compel 2 million Mexicans to "voluntarily" return to their country of origin.

Arizona's SB 1070 is so awful that Obama was compelled to denounce it. But he has the power to do much more than criticize. As a New York Times editorial pointed out, the federal government can make the Arizona law a dead letter by withdrawing its cooperation with state authorities. So far, though, Obama has done nothing.

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THAT'S WHY the immigrant rights movement has to seize the moment to build and broaden the movement--and put forward the demand to overturn SB 1070 and for amnesty.

By contrast, moderate groups in RIFA argue that the emphasis of the struggle has to be on the passage of CIR--which, for them means taking the atrocious Schumer-Graham proposals as a starting point.

The more progressive wing of the movement looks to a CIR proposal sponsored by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), which has a far less onerous path to legalization and no guest-worker program. Yet even the Gutierrez bill contains harsh enforcement provisions in an effort to head off criticism from the Republicans and conservative Democrats.

By taking the initiative, the immigrant rights movement has the opportunity to change these political dynamics.

A broad movement to overturn SB 1070 provides the opportunity to counter right-wing myths about immigration and point out that immigrants are being used as scapegoats for an economic crisis generated by the wealthy and powerful on Wall Street.

The moderates in the movement will claim that we can't set our expectations too high--pointing at the Pew opinion poll showing that 59 percent of respondents supported SB 1070 and only 32 percent opposed.

What's often forgotten is that in the early days of the civil rights movement, attitudes were similar regarding the struggle against segregation. In May 1961, 57 percent of those polled told Gallup that the sit-ins and freedom rides against segregation would harm the struggle against segregation, and in 1964, a Harris poll found that 57 percent disapproved of the Freedom Summer campaign by civil rights activists in Mississippi.

Today, of course, the sit-ins and Freedom Rides are taken as iconic examples of the long march for progress in the U.S., and the three civil rights workers slain in Freedom Summer are seen as martyrs in the struggle for justice and equality. And in its own time, the civil rights movement provided inspiration and a model for others to struggle for justice around other issues, from the women's liberation movement to the mass protests against the Vietnam and more.

Today's young activists who are sitting in and protesting should see themselves following in the footsteps of those whose sacrifice and commitment did so much to sweep away American apartheid. For today's anti-immigrant backlash requires a new generation to rise to the challenge.