We Need a New Way Forward



The 113th Congress and President Obama’s second term were expected to finally bring the passage of immigration reform. But for the third time — 2006, 2009, and now 2013-4 — the Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) strategy has failed to win a progressive change in U.S. immigration law. Our movement has fought hard for such a reform – for legalization in particular. It is long past time to move away from the CIR strategy.

That strategy is based on a dangerous trade-off. We are promised some kind of legalization, which gets more and more limited with every proposal. In exchange we’re told me must agree to increased enforcement – escalating militarization of the border and greater repression in our workplaces — and expansion of temporary and guest worker programs. The CIR strategy trades immigrants’ civil and labor rights, including those of the undocumented as well as the braceros employers always want, for the legalization of some of the people who don’t have legal immigration status.

Policies we have worked against since the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986 are included in CIR: employer sanctions, vastly expanded guest worker programs, police/ICE collaboration, I-9 audits, increased interior enforcement, drones over border communities including a 100-mile zone north of the border, more electronic surveillance, multiple fences, private detention centers, E-verify, operation streamline, new programs to detect and deport visa overstays, and more. And the CIR bill does not provide due process fixes for undocumented and continues to equate immigrants with terrorists.

While CIR languished in Congress, community and labor activists, mostly young, have refused to wait or compromise, and instead have organized on the ground to win rights and equality:

— People sat in front of ICE busses and vans, and chained themselves to vehicles, in Tucson, San Francisco, Phoenix, Chicago and other cities to block deportations and stop the Operation Streamline anti-immigrant court.
— Los Angeles, San Francisco and Berkeley passed resolutions demanding a moratorium on the huge wave of deportations – 2 million people in 5 years. The SF resolution also demanded an end to the tens of thousands of immigration-related firings.
— In San Francisco a DREAMER made national news by openly challenging President Obama during a fundraising speech to use his Executive powers to stop the deportations.
— In Burlington, Washington, immigrant indigenous farm workers from Oaxaca went on strike for rights, better pay, and to stop a grower from using the H2A guest worker program to replace them.
— For the past, week hundreds of people inside the Tacoma Detention Center have been on a hunger strike, demanding better conditions and a moratorium on deportations, while activists gather outside to support them.
— In Jackson, Mississippi, immigrant rights activists helped elect a radical African-American mayor, and their broad coalition again defeated a wave of state anti-immigrant bills.

These are just some of the widespread actions that point to real solutions — ones that are deeper and better for our communities than the CIR bills. When people stand in front of the busses, or go on a hunger strike to protest firings, they are calling for the right to live as equals in this society, as full participants with rights.

The CIR trade-off — giving up immigrants’ civil and labor rights to get legalization — has always been an unworkable strategy for immigration reform. The CIR bills serve the interests of employers, who have always seen immigration policy as way to satisfy their desire for workers at the lowest possible wages, with the fewest possible rights. Whether they’re looking for farm workers, construction workers or high tech workers, the corporate objective is to ensure that wages go down as workers compete for insecure jobs. CIR bills are a ‘deal with the devil,” with would-be contractors celebrating the $47 billion that the last senate bill proposed to spend on beefed-up enforcement.

Much of the immigrant rights movement has been led down a blind alley by President Obama and Democrats, who have been the strategists of CIR much more than Republicans. They have hijacked the immigration reform debate to turn our need for legalization into a tool for re-election politics. Historian Howard Zinn said, “When a social movement adopts the compromises of legislators, it has forgotten its role, which is to push and challenge the politicians, not to fall in meekly behind them.” Our movement needs to pull back from that brink.

The CIR strategy dominates the immigrant rights movement, not because it gets us what we want, but because it has the resources to “staff the movement,” to maintain a constant presence in Washington DC, (close to the ear of Congress, particularly Democrats), make deals with the US Chamber of Commerce and to cultivate relationships with an uncritical, pro-corporate national media. Over the last 25 years, this has led to a huge shift away from the grassroots origins of our movement towards a professional lobby accountable, not to the demands of immigrant and working-class communities, but to beltway politicians.

Instead of a more nimble movement, with the independence to criticize S 744 for its repressive enforcement programs and pull support for S 744 when it included $47 billion for border security, sections of the movement celebrated S 744’s passage and pushed for a similar bill in the House.

In the House, Republicans have proposed “single issue” bills that would increase enforcement and guest worker programs even beyond S 744 levels. Some Republicans have floated a proposal for legal status for the undocumented that would prevent permanent residency and citizenship. This also was greeted by some as Republican “flexibility”, or “a step in the right direction”. So much for a path toward equality for millions of people valued for their ability to produce wealth and profit for employers.

This year the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) turned 20 years old. Changing our pro-corporate trade policy — because of ‘free trade’s’ role in forcing the migration of millions of Mexicans, Central Americans and Caribbean — should be a part of the immigration reform debate. But CIR never addresses the root causes of migration. Instead of undoing the damage ‘free trade’ causes the Administration is trying to ram through yet another trade agreement, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). The CIR strategists are silent on this. Yet TPP will displace more people, who will then become the future generations of braceros or undocumented migrants subject to the criminalization we all want to stop.

A new trade treaty and punitive immigration bills are no solution to the problems facing immigrants and working people.

• • • •

Despite pressure from Washington lobbyists for the immigrant rights movement to line up behind the CIR bills, many groups have taken a strong stand against them — the Dignity Campaign among them. We and others understood CIR would continue to subject immigrants to the threat of deportation because many undocumented, possibly half the undocumented population, would fail to meet all the requirements in the tortuous and lengthy legalization process, or simply refuse to come forward. CIR’s real agenda is to create an ongoing flow of cheap, disposable labor for corporations that would increase unfair competition among workers, making it more difficult for workers to organize and build political power — for the undocumented, for guest workers and for people living and working in the communities around them.

We support all of the groups that have worked through the years against the deportations, detention quotas, enforcement programs, unfair and retaliatory firings, I-9 audits and e-verify implementation, guest workers programs and more. We support the many actions being organized in our communities, including vigils outside detention centers, hunger strikes, dignity dialogues, stopping ICE buses, and local ordinances to end enforcement programs. We also support groups that have come to the conclusion, in the process of this last CIR campaign, that this was not the way forward.

There is growing agreement that in order to halt the deportations, end the detention quotas, and end employer sanctions and workplace and community enforcement programs, we have to change the way we think about and organize for immigration reform.

We can fight and win a good bill by organizing a powerful, principled movement across this country, based on the efforts taking place on the ground in our communities. We can build on the legacy of immigrant struggles of the past. Most of us look to the Civil Rights Movement and try to learn from its experience. That movement was not only about negotiating a bill, although it eventually produced two of the most important laws we have – the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. It won those laws by organizing people to make change in their communities and workplaces, and because it fought for equality on the ground. It grew so large and strong it forced Congress to pass legislation that embodied the movement’s demands. It resisted the pressure to compromise for anything less than dignity, equality and justice for all.

The Dignity Campaign has proposed elements for an alternative immigration bill, not because we have all the answers, but to promote discussion in our communities and unions that might lead to general agreement on what we want, regardless of what Republicans or Democrats in Congress say they’re willing to vote for.

Those basic elements include (in summary – a fuller proposal is available at www.dignitycampaign.org):

1. Quick permanent resident status for all undocumented – with low fees – with the right to citizenship
2. Increase the number of family visas; re-issue all unused visas, and retain family reunification as the cornerstone of immigration policy; including LGBT families
3. Repeal employer sanctions, enforce labor rights, stop workplace firings and E-verify
4. End all existing guest worker programs after five years, and enforce workers’ rights
5. Renegotiate trade agreements to stop them from causing poverty and dislocation
6. End mass deportations, detentions, and police cooperation with immigration enforcement programs
7. End the militarization of the border and restore civil rights in border communities

After many years of struggle we know we are not alone in believing that we need an alternative strategy for immigration reform

— What can we do to fight for true immigration reform that promotes equality for all?
— How do we build an immigrant justice movement for future generations?
— How do we respond to a developing consensus among Democrats and Republicans for punitive piecemeal enforcement legislation, more guest workers, and no citizenship for the undocumented?
— How do we backup those engaged in civil disobedience to stop deportations?

If you share this perspective, we propose that we find a way together to discuss these and other questions, take account of the new situation, and lay-out a new strategy for real equality, and for worker and human rights. We propose an initial conference call to explore possibilities, and discuss a strategy for moving forward. We hope you will join us. If you would like to be involved, please contact Maru Mora Villapando at maruvillalpando@gmail.com, David Bacon at dbacon@igc.org or Bill Chandler at b.chandler@yourmira.org

“If there is going to be change, real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves. That’s how change happens.” — Howard Zinn.