New challenges for our movement

April 30, 2010

Orlando Sepúlveda draws on the lessons of recent struggles for immigrant rights to analyze the state of the movement and the future of proposals for legislative reform.

THE NEW law in Arizona that practically mandates racial profiling of Latinos may help forge a new unity in the immigrant rights movement--much in the same way that proposed anti-immigrant federal legislation galvanized the mass immigrant marches of 2006.

"We won't tolerate racial profiling," said Gov. Jan Brewer a few minutes after she signed a bill that precisely writes into law racist enforcement practices. The new law makes it a crime to be in the state without papers, and gives authorization for unwarranted search of "suspected illegal" people and their vehicles.

For the movement, the Arizona question is a crucial one. "Todos Somos Arizona"--we are all Arizona--is not only a solidarity cry, but a warning, too. Today, the target is our brothers and sisters there--tomorrow, it may be immigrants everywhere.

Before the Arizona crisis, the immigrant rights movement had set two goals for the May Day mobilizations: one, to pressure politicians to introduce an immigration bill in the Senate; and two, to get President Barack Obama to write an executive order ending deportations and dropping the E-Verify system, the federal government's inaccurate method of confirming that workers have legal status.

Marching for immigrant rights
Marching for immigrant rights (Eric Ruder | SW)

The Arizona crisis makes these demands more urgent. It also creates a special need for solidarity with immigrants and Latinos in Arizona as the movement strategizes over how to defeat this attack. Most importantly, the Arizona law sets a new framework around which the questions about legislation and enforcement ought to be discussed and debated in the movement.

As the movement confronts these challenges, it is helpful to look back at the experiences of the movement since 2006.


IN JULY 2005, some 50,000 people came out in Chicago to protest Rep. James Sensenbrenner's attempt to criminalize not just the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants, but also anyone who aided them.

This rally was the prelude to the 300,000-strong demonstration in Chicago on March 10, 2006, that sparked the chain reaction of mobilizations in city after city, known as the "Immigrants' Spring." The protests culminated weeks later in the largest mobilization in U.S. history for May Day.

During those demonstrations, when a voice in the crowd would ask "¿Qué queremos?" (What do we want?), the unanimous answer was "¡Amnistía!" (Amnesty!)

But things didn't go that way. Immigrant rights organizations closer to the political process in Washington argued that the movement needed to demand Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR), because one, there were senators trying to introduce it, and we should support them; and two, because the a-word--amnesty--would alienate sympathetic but timorous politicians.

Out of this, the demand "legalization for all" came to the fore. The massive character of the organizing impeded the pro-CIR wing of the movement from steamrolling through with Washington's plan for immigration reform.

But the pro-amnesty wing of the movement, in order to maintain unity, agreed to change its demand. By putting forward the demand of legalization for all, the movement could sidestep the debate over guest-worker programs included in all the main CIR proposals. Guest workers--a group with few or no civil or workers' rights--are, after all, legal.

Despite those unresolved differences, May Day 2006 was a huge success on many counts. It was one of the largest mobilizations in U.S. history. The Sensenbrenner bill was definitively defeated. Many Democratic politicians scrambled to express their sympathies with immigrants, and legalization of undocumented immigrants became the cornerstone of any immigration reform talk.

In short, the immigrant rights movement established itself as a force to reckon with, and a giant step had been taken to revive May Day as a workers' symbol of solidarity and struggle in the U.S., where the May Day tradition began.

Once Sensenbrenner was defeated, the question of how to deal with CIR legislation remained. Various versions in the U.S. Senate included further militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border and strengthening of enforcement, a guest-worker program and a very restrictive and draconian path for legalization.

Within the movement, the coalition "Somos America" emerged to support such legislation. It got support of some unions, churches and community leaders, and immigrant rights advocacy groups linked to the Democratic Party. But the coalition didn't include the many grassroots "calendar coalitions" which took their name after the date of their first mobilization. Those groups largely dismissed the various CIR proposals as "Sensenbrenner Lite."

Since 2006, the immigrant rights movement has been divided on how to deal with CIR proposals. The Democratic capture of Congress in 2006, in part because of a big Latino turnout, brought the debate to a head.

In 2007, the STRIVE Act, a bill proposed by Rep. Luis Gutierrez, combined a guest-worker program with resuscitated elements from the failed Sensenbrenner bill.

So three weeks before the May Day march of 2007, the movement splintered. In city after city, pro- and anti-STRIVE Act activists split over the issue of Gutierrez's initiative. Many cities had two, three and even four different--and very small--marches and rallies that May Day. Every city, except Chicago, where at least 250,000 marched.

The 2008 May Day marches were small, overshadowed by the November elections. And in 2009, the turnout was again small as much of the movement waited for Obama to act on immigration reform.

So grassroots activists were left almost to themselves to fend off the daily attacks on undocumented immigrant families. These included Social Security "no match" letters to government employers of workers whose Social Security numbers don't match those on file, the "polimigra" collaboration of local police and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, and local anti-immigrant legislation at the state and local level.


YET WHILE organizations linked to the Democratic Party urged patience, another wing of the movement advocated pressure from the streets as its main political tool. And with few resources, it did exactly that.

Around the country, workers fought the E-Verify-driven firings. Networks emerged in Maricopa, Ariz., to warn people about Sheriff Joe Arpaio's racist checkpoints. In Chicago, beginning in February, students had been working to stop the deportation of Rigo Padilla, eventually forming what has become a model for a fighting organization, the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL).

As a result of such pressure, in mid-December, Gutierrez introduced in the House the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America's Security and Prosperity Act (CIR ASAP). This legislation includes some of the changes that the movement demands, but still contains harsh enforcement measures.

In any case, the movement was told again that it needed to keep waiting. But undocumented youth were waiting no more.

On January 1, three undocumented youth and a fourth supporter started a long walk from Miami to Washington, D.C., to highlight their plight. On March 10, 2010, on the fourth anniversary of the first mega-march, IYJL remade its route to end up in Federal Plaza in a Coming Out of the Shadows event, where seven students told the world about their migratory status and how it affected their lives and dreams.

This demonstration of courage and resolution put new blood and fire in the movement. A recently formed coalition, Reform Immigration for America (RIFA), which traces its roots back to the "Somos America" that supported CIR in 2006 and 2007, used the renewed energy to mobilize for the March for America rally on March 21, which drew 200,000 people to Washington.

Days before the march, Sens. Chares Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) published a blueprint of their ideas for CIR legislation. Obama and the leaders of the House and the Senate came out quickly in support of it. Obama himself talked to the crowd in Washington through a set of huge TV screens.

But the Graham-Schumer CIR version is the worst that the movement has been offered yet. It not only has the standard hardening of enforcement and border security and the creation of a guest-worker program, but also a legalization proposal that is more restrictive than previous proposals. It even incorporates the creation of a national biometric Social Security card for all workers--basically, putting the burden of getting a permit to work not only on immigrant workers, but on native workers, too.

Still, the RIFA coalition strategy around this blueprint is to get it introduced in the Senate this year. RIFA doesn't support the provisions of Schumer-Graham. But according to its logic, a bill--any bill--needs to be introduced. The fight to modify it into something acceptable for the movement can come later. RIFA even put resources into mobilizing for May Day, and threatened civil disobedience if legislation isn't introduced by April 30.

But then came Arizona. Obama's condemnation of the new law opens a window for activism and radicalization from the bottom up.

Yet the ominous nature of the attack can make even Schumer-Graham's framework seem acceptable by comparison. If the senators' proposals go unchallenged, the entire debate on immigration reform could be shifted to the right.

A conversation about really progressive immigration reform needs to start by strategizing about how to stop the Arizona scare, and how to force Obama, who repeatedly has recognized that the system is broken, to stop deportations and the use of E-Verify.

The activism needed to achieve this can buy time for the movement to push for legislation from a position of strength. But the movement shouldn't back just any proposal--only one that puts the interests of the entire working class, immigrant and native-born alike, up front.

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