Drawing a line for immigrant rights

July 12, 2010

Roger Dyer looks at the challenges facing the immigrant rights movement.

ARIZONA'S HOTLY contested SB 1070 is set to take effect on July 29, barring a delay by a lawsuit from the Justice Department. But the story is bigger than just this one law--an anti-immigrant backlash is now being enacted at the federal, state and local levels through repressive laws, and with racist "blame it on immigrants" rhetoric and ideology. And it has polarized the nation.

Barack Obama's mild criticism of SB 1070 and the Justice Department lawsuit have helped to encourage those opposed to the new law. However, actions speak louder than words, and the federal government has actually added to the anti-immigrant sentiment and furthered the attack.

In late May, Obama arranged to have 1,200 National Guard troops sent to the U.S.-Mexico border, most of them bound for Arizona. And he has recently requested Congress for money to pay for 1,000 more Border Patrol agents. Deportations have increased significantly under the current administration; and the federal government is pushing ahead with its "Secure Communities" program.

For now, SB 1070 is the dividing line on views on immigration, and several recent opinion polls have shown that harsh measures of this sort have become broadly popular. On the other hand, the recent mass demonstration in Phoenix and solidarity actions around the country have shown that there is also a minority who are willing to actively fight against this attack.

The situation is complicated by support on both sides of the SB 1070 divide for legislative proposals often referred to as "comprehensive immigration reform" (CIR) that promise to include some form of a pathway to legalization. How can those who wish to deny the entry of immigrants into the country and limit their rights once they are here seem to make common cause with those who claim to promote and fight for the rights of the undocumented? Making sense of this apparent contradiction is essential.

IN THE wake of the mass upsurge in 2006 against the punitive Sensenbrenner Bill (HR 4437), the Democrats and some moderate Republicans, like John McCain (who has since shifted hard to the right on immigration), came in to craft legislative proposals that shaved off some of the most horrific aspects of HR 4437, and threw some crumbs to the movement--with the aim of shaping immigration law to better suit the interests of capital. These so-called compromise bills were the forerunners of the comprehensive immigration reform proposals that have come since.

Some CIR bills are more awful than others, but all are heavy on border enforcement, many promote a guest-worker bill or similar formulation that continues to deny basic workplace rights to immigrants, and all are heavy on fines and other barriers which are prohibitive to legalization for the vast majority of immigrants currently without documentation.

Yet the CIR bills also tend to include some possibility of legalization for the undocumented--though the path is often twisted and torturous. Taken all together, there appears to be a little bit of something for everyone in the big tent of comprehensive immigration reform, which is why these bills are able to draw support from very different sectors of society.

Big business and the political parties that represents it (the Democrats and Republicans), can get behind CIR because it'll be good for the profit margin--since it would deliver to capital a section of labor that is deprived of basic rights and is therefore more easily exploited.

The Democrats have tried to contrast their CIR proposals to SB 1070 and other harsh measures as the reasonable and fair response. Obama's mantra of a "land of immigrants and a land of laws" is typical of this rhetoric. Many mainstream liberal organizations and unions get behind the bills because they follow the Democratic lead, and then seek to draw in their constituents behind them.

There are also many people who support both SB 1070 and a CIR-inspired version of "legalization." Though it seems contradictory, the appeal of both is that they're crafted to address the "immigrant problem" on harsh terms.

For millions of workers who are being wracked by the economic crisis, the scapegoating of immigrants offers some sort of explanation as to what's happening to their lives. It's an explanation that is false, racist and serves to shift blame for the crisis away from the ruling class, and onto a section of the working class. For the rich and powerful, this kind of divide-and-conquer strategy is a time-tested method of disorienting and stunting potential opposition to their interests.

Yet it's also true that large numbers of immigrants have looked to CIR bills for some relief--in large part because the ongoing raids and deportations, which have increased under the Obama administration, have created a real sense of urgency and desperation.

Opposition to CIR proposals does exist within sections of the immigrant rights movement and among immigrants, a recognition that such bills as attacking immigrants. But the reality of the situation is that CIR is still broadly popular (or at least acceptable) among immigrants, the movement and those currently disoriented by the right's racist rhetoric--for the spectrum of reasons already outlined.

It's reasonable to argue that support for SB 1070-type laws is broader than it is deep. That is, presented with an alternative argument that can explain that the economic crisis is rooted in the nature of capitalism and the pursuit of profit, many people could be peeled away from immigrant bashing. But that would require bigger, bolder and more powerful immigrant rights and labor movements than we currently have.

Looking to the pro-SB 1070 majority right now does not offer us a way forward. We need to relate to the sizable minority that is opposed to SB 1070, and in particular, the smaller layer of people put into action in opposition to this law. Building the movement with those most in agreement now is essential if we are to contend for the hearts and minds of other workers confused by right-wing rhetoric in the future.

THE SITUATION here in California is illustrative. San Francisco was one of the first cities to pass a boycott resolution against Arizona as a symbolic protest against SB 1070. While this is a positive development, it also hides the skeletons in our own closet. San Francisco is also one of a relative handful of cities in the U.S. to enact the federal Secure Communities (S-Comm) program ahead of its 2013 national implementation date.

S-Comm has been called SB 1070 on a federal level--and that's not far from the truth. With this program in effect, anyone fingerprinted by the local police for any reason will automatically have their prints digitally checked against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) database to see if there has ever been an immigration violation on the individual's record.

This will result in more deportations, more broken families, a climate of fear, and no doubt increase racial profiling by police. Secure Communities has effectively ended the status of San Francisco as a sanctuary city for immigrants.

There has been already been some local activism against S-Comm, and some officials have spoken against it as well. However, the California attorney general is upholding the program and driving through its implementation. The attorney general is none other than Jerry Brown, Democratic candidate for the governor's office. His Republican opponent is the multi-millionaire CEO Meg Whitman. Though neither candidate has offered support for SB 1070, neither deserves the support of anyone who believes in the right of immigrants to justice and dignity.

Whitman's self-styled "tough as nails" stance on immigration puts her in the company of the rabidly anti-immigrant wing of the Republican Party. Yet Whitman and Brown have both voiced support for some version or other of comprehensive immigration reform. Which means that the way it looks right now, there will be no candidate for pro-immigrant forces. There will only be a choice between the lesser of two evils. The greatest loss for the movement in the gubernatorial election will be in the acceptance of these limited options.

Yet here in San Francisco, as in other places around the country, SB 1070 has reactivated the movement and brought others into activism for the first time.

In late May, there was a caravan that brought together dozens of activists to ride from the Bay Area to Phoenix to participate in the May 29 rally. Nearly 500 people who couldn't make the trip to Phoenix rallied at AT&T Park in San Francisco on the same day to protest the arrival of the Arizona Diamondbacks--the major league baseball team owned by a wealthy backer of SB 1070.

Members of the caravan to Phoenix have continued to work together to organize a town hall on June 19. Over 70 people attended, and speakers put forward presentations on the experience of protest that we shared in Phoenix, on S-Comm and SB 1070. Afterward, we opened the floor to discussion on next steps.

Though the meeting was smaller by that point, and the discussion was at times a bit heated, we came through it with a call for "a strike/day of action" in the Bay Area set for July 29 to oppose Secure Communities, fight for sanctuary and to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Arizona who will also be taking action on that day.

Now is the time to reach out to all pro-immigrant forces to build as broad a fight as possible against SB 1070 and S-Comm, and for San Francisco to become a true sanctuary city. We need to reach out to everyone who is outraged about these attacks and who is looking to get active. We need to patiently engage with the many people who are drawn to CIR, from a position of wanting more for immigrants.

At the same time, while building broadly, we also need to build a strong left in the movement that can argue and organize for political independence of the twin parties of capital and for demands such as "amnesty" that would truly begin to deliver justice for immigrants.

We can draw lessons from the other movements as we go. The best organizers in the fight against the California budget cuts this past spring knew that stopping and reversing the budget cuts last March or April was not possible. But that was not a recipe for passivity.

Their guiding strategy was aimed at tapping into the developing opposition to the budget cuts on campuses and in unions to fight as best we could at present, and to build the networks, organization and politics necessary to have a chance to win in the long run.

A similar moment is upon us now in the movement for immigrant rights. We may not stop SB 1070 from going into effect; and S-Comm is already in operation in San Francisco. The anti-immigrant forces seem poised to take this round, and they've built a broad layer of support among the population for "tough on immigration" measures. This is not good news, but it's not the end of the story either.

Gathering our forces for smaller battles now is essential to the process of building the movement we will need in the future to win an amnesty and full legalization for all.

Further Reading

From the archives