By David Bacon

OAKLAND, CA  (2/6/13)

The Nation – web edition

For some immigrant rights organizations, President Obama’s principles for comprehensive immigration reform sound very familiar.  “The idea of the three-part tradeoff, that is, that we get some legalization in trade for guest worker programs and increased immigration enforcement, has been around for a long time,” says Lillian Galedo, executive director of Filipino Advocates for Justice in the San Francisco Bay Area.  “We need a new alternative, based on much more progressive ideas.  I don’t think the Dignity Campaign is the only alternative, but it’s an effort to get us to talk about what we actually want, not just what politicians in Washington DC tell us is politically possible or necessary.”

The Dignity Campaign is a loose network of over 40 immigrant rights and community organizations, unions and churches that has crafted an immigration reform proposal “based on human and labor rights.”    (Full disclosure: I am an active supporter of the Dignity Campaign.)   But it is more than a network and a particular proposal.  It is an alternative to the political strategy behind the tradeoff.  And the campaign’s member organizations support it because of what they call the bitter impact of earlier tradeoffs over the last 30 years.

In Tucson, Arizona, the Coalicion de Derechos Humanos calls comprehensive immigration reform, the shorthand name for the tradeoff strategy, “primarily a vague promise used to attract immigrant and Latino voters, [while] border communities have suffered the costs of irresponsible and brutal enforcement-only policies, resulting in death and violence.”  A recent study found the federal government spends more today on border and immigration enforcement than on all other law enforcement agencies combined.

When the first discussions of the Dignity Campaign proposal began four years ago, Derechos Humanos formulated the demands about border enforcement.  Instead of even more immigration agents, walls and now drones, they calls for dismantling the high tech wall, removing the National Guard, closing private mass detention centers, and restoring civil rights to people living in border communities.

Garcia is a public defender, and every day her fellow lawyers defend dozens of young people brought into Tucson’s Operation Streamline courtroom in chains, where they’re sentenced to prison terms for border crossing.  “That courtroom should be closed,” she says, “and the money redirected to healthcare and education, which our state is now busy cutting.”  Derechos Humanos wrote that demand into the Dignity Campaign proposal too.

Galedo and Garcia first saw the tradeoff in 1986, in the Immigration Reform and Control Act.  That law, signed by President Ronald Reagan, set up an amnesty that gave legal status relatively quickly to almost four million people.  Nevertheless, they and other immigration activists of the day, including Bert Corona — widely recognized as the father of the modern immigrant rights movement — campaigned against it.  The bill also contained employer sanctions, a provision that made it illegal for employers to hire undocumented workers, and expanded a limited guest worker program into today’s H2-A visa scheme.

“We’ve lived with the consequences ever since,” Galedo says.  “That’s why, when we look at Obama’s principles, or the CIR bills of the last decade, we think not just about our need for legalization, but that we’ll have another 25 years of enforcement and more guest workers.  Because we’ve lived with those costs we believe the best starting point for immigration reform is a discussion of what immigrant communities actually need and want, and what we know will actually solve the social problems around migration.  That’s the source of the Dignity Campaign.”

In San Jose, the heart of Silicon Valley, Local 5 of the United Food and Commercial Workers has been fighting the use of employer sanctions against workers at the Mi Pueblo market chain, where they’ve been organizing a union for three years.  The community coalition supporting the union declared in a letter to Janet Napolitano “It is clear that Mi Pueblo is using an I-9 audit [an administration enforcement tactic for employer sanctions] to terrorize workers because the workers are exercising their right to end labor violations and organize a union.”

Local 5 is a member of the Dignity Campaign, and, together with the Laborers Union, brought it to the South Bay Labor Council, which voted to support it.  One important reason is that the campaign advocates the repeal of employer sanctions, while every CIR proposal from 1986 on has called for even greater measures to criminalize work for the undocumented.

Anoop Prasad, staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, worries that President Obama’s plan for mandatory national use of the E-Verify database [another tactic for enforcing employer sanctions] “would in effect compel employers to act as immigration agents, responsible for verifying employees’ immigration status. This approach has not only proven ineffective in deterring people from coming to the U.S., it inhibits workers from exercising their basic workplace rights and protections.”  Another leg of the tradeoff, expanded guest worker programs, are also hotly opposed by Dignity Campaign organizations.  Some wanted them abolished immediately because of a long record of employer abuse, while others favored an approach based on ensuring that workers in those programs have rights.  In the end, the proposal called for their abolition after five years, and increased enforcement of worker rights during that period.

A resolution passed in 2011 by the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (the AFL-CIO’s constituency group for Latino union members), and by labor councils and local unions “supports the proposal for an alternative immigration reform bill made by the Dignity Campaign, because it is based on protecting the labor and human rights for all people,” and notes that guest worker programs treat migrants “as low wage workers with no rights, in conditions described as ‘Close to Slavery’ by the Southern Poverty Law Center,”

Even among the labor leaders surrounding President Obama as he announced his principles, some clearly did not agree with his call for expanding guest worker programs.  Communications Workers President Larry Cohen warned “CWA will monitor any proposed changes to visa programs like the H-1B visa, which are sought after by business but have cost U.S. technicians and other workers tens of thousands of jobs.”

Changing trade policy especially separates the Dignity Campaign and other grassroots proposals from beltway CIR programs, which depend on support from corporate employers.  The Dignity Campaign proposal was modeled on the Trade Act, introduced by Congressman Mike Michaud (D-ME), and calls for renegotiating all trade agreements to eliminate provisions that increase poverty abroad and displace workers and farmers, or lower their living standards.

“Massive migration caused by poverty can only be addressed by changing those policies that cause poverty in the first place,” says Bill Chandler, executive director of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance.  “President Obama promised to renegotiate NAFTA before his first election, and that promise must now be kept as part of a humane immigration policy.”

The Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations is an organization of Mexican indigenous communities with a base in Oaxaca, and chapters in California and Baja California where Oaxacans travel as migrant workers.  For Jose Gonzalez, its binational vice-coordinator in San Diego, “the economic policies of the U.S. must be changed, because they are an enormous factor displacing people from our communities, forcing us to leave as our only way to survive.  Instead of trade policies causing displacement, new ways of dealing with the future flows of migrants should guarantee us rights and equality.”

FIOB held a long series of meetings among its chapters and at its binational assembly, and adopted its own program for progressive immigration reform.  It joined the Dignity Campaign at the beginning, and in addition called for protecting indigenous culture among migrants, and language rights.  FIOB also opposes guest worker programs

“As a binational organization, our members know migration because we experience it in our own lives,” it said on International Migrants Day last December.  “The Dignity Campaign makes a clear demand for a broad immigration reform, and deals directly with the situation in which we live in our communities of origin.”

Finally, the Dignity Campaign calls for legal status for the undocumented, in a rapid and inclusive process, without excessive fees, fines, waiting periods or a preliminary temporary status.  At the same time, it also calls for protecting the family reunification system. and eliminating the current huge backlog by issuing all pending visas within a short period.

The Obama proposal, like most CIR bills of the last decade, pits people applying for family visas against those needing legalization.  It proposes that the undocumented, “must wait until the existing legal immigration backlogs are cleared before getting in line to apply for lawful permanent residency (i.e. a ‘green card’), and ultimately United States citizenship.”  Today some applicants in Mexico City receiving family reunification visas applied over twenty years ago.  In Manila the line is even longer.  But no CIR proposal would issue more family visas to clear that backlog, while on the other hand they increase visas for guest workers.

“The only way to resolve this is by eliminating the backlogs,” Galedo says.  “In our community we have people who have been waiting for years, and according to the federal government, 280,000 undocumented Filipinos as well.  We need common ground here, not a fight.”

The Dignity Campaign is more than just a set of principles.  It is a critique of the politics and strategy of CIR, especially over process.  Garcia and others believe the CIR bills are products of Washington DC insiders, not the result of consultation with grassroots immigrant communities, unions and churches.  “Now that there finally appears to be the political will to address immigration, it is critical that the voices of these communities be central in the debate,” she urges.

Over the past few years, especially since the failure of the last big reform bills, this kind of process has taken place in many parts of the country. In addition to the FIOB consultations, in Washington State, Community2Community and Pueblo Unido por la Dignidad organized over 30 Dignity Dialogues to get input from immigrant communities.  The Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance talked about an alternative to the CIR bills at its annual Black/Brown conferences of African American and immigrant community leaders.

Even before the Dignity Campaign started, the American Friends Service Committee had extensive community meetings that resulted in a plan called “A New Path.”  The Dignity Campaign proposal drew extensively on its ideas.  There are others as well, but almost all have basic elements in common.

Campaign participants warn that the CIR proposals will move to the right as they go through Congress.  Political insiders in the nation’s capitol already say President Obama’s proposal will be the “left pole” in negotiations over immigration reform.  In other words, Republicans, employer groups and immigration restrictionists will bend it to the right.  This is what happened in the effort to pass the succession CIR billss over the last decade, and one reason why they died.  It is an important reason many groups outside of Washington have called for an alternative.

In the battles over those earlier bills, advocates for more progressive ideas were criticized for “making the perfect the enemy of the good,” discrediting what was “politically possible,” and dividing the base of support for CIR.  Yet with weak progressive pressure on Congress, every new restriction, enforcement measure or “labor shortage” program peeled away supporters.  They also lost some support on the right because they weren’t restrictive enough.  Eventually CIR had too little support to pass.

Yet immigration reform resonated when it was linked to a fight for greater rights in general, and for jobs.  Many of the organizations that developed the Dignity Campaign supported a bill introduced by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee that tied legalization to job training and creation programs, and bolstered workplace rights instead of increasing enforcement.  “Finding common ground between African Americans and immigrants is a key to winning immigration reform,” according to Bill Chandler.  “Fighting for jobs and rights is a much better way to do that than anti-immigrant enforcement and guest worker programs.”

MIRA’s base among immigrants and African American political leaders has a history of successfully defeating anti-immigrant bills in the state legislature.  Chandler says a movement-building strategy is necessary to produce real change.  “It was the civil rights movement that ended the old bracero guest worker program, and won the 1965 immigration reform that repealed discriminatory quotas and set up the family reunification system,” he emphasizes.

Whether the Dignity Campaign proposal, and others like it, become the basis of an alternative bill in Congress depends on the willingness of progressive members to act independently.  In the face of pressure to line up behind the President, it is unclear whether that will happen.  But Jackson Lee did introduce her alternative at the height of the last debate.  John Conyers sponsored a “Medicare for All” bill that many credit with keeping pressure on the President from the left during the health care debate.

The Dignity Campaign says, “We need to raise our aspirations, rather than simply criticize Congressional proposals.”  Its supporters argue that a progressive alternative gives the movement a goal and a vision to organize and educate the community.  Instead of being “the enemy of the good,” Rosalinda Guillen of Community2Community says, “A good proposal will rescue immigration reform from bad ones.”