Saturday, May 8, 2010

Activists Face Tough Choices on Immigrant Rights

Activists Face Tough Choices on Immigrant Rights
National Institute for Latino Policy, Commentary, Randy Shaw, Posted: May 01, 20

In April 2006, immigrant rights supporters took to the streets in an unprecedented public demand for legislation that would protect 8-12 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. The marches were followed by two national elections in which anti-immigrant Republican Congress members were defeated for re-election by increased Latino voter turnout, and heavily Democratic Latino voting brought Barack Obama four states won by Republican George W. Bush in 2004.

Yet comprehensive immigration reform remains an even more uphill battle than in 2006. Activists have set nationwide marches for today, May 1, and are aggressively pressing President Obama for action. But Arizona's new anti-immigrant law shows that opponents are also on the move, and that winning Senate passage in 2010 or beyond will likely require political compromises that many activists will reject.

Post-Election Optimism

After Latinos turned out in force for Barack Obama in Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, California and Florida in 2008, it appeared that comprehensive immigration reform would soon become an Obama Administration priority. Immigrant rights activists knew that the struggle for reform would be difficult, but I do not recall any doubting that legislation would pass during Obama's first two years.

But the hopes following election victories often turn to disappointment. And in the case of immigrant rights legislation, factors both within and outside activists' control have worsened the political landscape since Obama's election.

Outside factors include the health care debate crowding out other priorities throughout most of 2009, and the rise of the right-wing Republican "tea bagger" campaign whose stridently anti-immigrant agenda and backing of primary challenges moved even onetime legalization supporters like John McCain into the anti-immigrant camp.

Its easy to forget that President George W. Bush backed legalization in 2006 and 2007. The Chamber of Commerce and other corporate interests were also pressuring Republicans to support a form of legalization. While many progressives opposed the Chamber-backed approach, Republican Senators now face little constituency pressure to vote for any measure involving a path toward legalization.

Immigrant rights activists also made two strategic decisions that they no doubt regret.

First, they put too much faith in President Obama's ability to use his political skills and bully pulpit to get a measure passed. It was Speaker Nancy Pelosi, not President Obama, who ensured that health care reform ultimately passed (see, and activists overestimated Barack Obama's political skills in thinking that he could lead immigration reform across the finish line (nobody doubts Pelosi's ability to get immigration reform through the House, but it's up to Obama to win Senate passage).

Activists, as well as immigrant rights leader Congressmember Luis Gutierrez are now openly critical of Obama's efforts toward reform. But Obama's lack of focus on the issue was clear months before activists began publicly pressuring him, and reformers lost critical time for building political support in a period when anti-immigrant fervor was rising.

Second, activists overestimated the nation's concern with immigration reform.

Activists know the importance of "striking while the iron is hot," and it was very hot when millions took to the streets in 2006. It was also hot when Latino voters followed these marches by voting in record numbers for Democrats in 2006 and 2008.

But the sense of their being a national immigrant rights movement extending beyond Latinos appears to have dissipated as the economy worsened and unemployment and foreclosures rose. Instead of immigrant rights being considered central to the broader progressive agenda, the subject is not much discussed in the progressive blogosphere or on sites or offline media not focused on Latino concerns.

Obama's election brought a host of progressive issues to the forefront, and immigration reform would understandably not be the centerpiece. But this made it even more imperative for immigrant rights activists to use 2009 to strengthen and expand their grassroots and political base beyond the Latino community, instead of allowing the campaign to fall off the national radar screen.

The Arizona Opportunity

Arizona's passage of the most racist, anti-Latino law in modern history---likely to be found unconstitutional-- gives activists a chance to return comprehensive immigration reform to the national stage.

If any single act shows the desperate need for federal reform, it is Arizona's passage of a law that essentially transforms all Latinos into criminal suspects.

When Arizona passed an anti-farmworker law in 1972, Cesar Chavez brought UFW volunteers down to Arizona to launch a recall campaign against the Governor. This through a national spotlight on what would have remained a little-known state bill, and the UFW campaign ultimately registered enough Latino and Native-American voters to elect Raul Castro as Arizona's first Latino Governor.

Why shouldn't immigrant rights activists from across the nation now come to Arizona and engage in high-profile actions that increase national attention on the law? Cesar Chavez was not dissuaded by charges he was an "outsider," and nor should those coming to Arizona to highlight how this new law compels national action.

Imagine seeing nightly new stories of activists in civil disobedience in Arizona, getting arrested for not having documentation that they are legal residents. This would also give activists a chance to further highlight the Obama Administration's deplorable record on promoting deportations, a fact little known outside the immigrant rights movement and those receiving its emails.

If Not Now, When?

If legislation creating a path toward legalization and an end to deportations does not pass in 2010, will chances improve in 2011 or 2012? Not unless there is a far greater level of organizing against Republican Senators than has occurred to date (and even this likely won't be enough given fear of primary challenges).

So this leaves the best-case scenario as passing a bill like Schumer-Graham in 2010 that the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights has already strongly criticized. Some activists have argued that no reform is better than institutionalizing a structure that makes citizenship too remote while emphasizing harsh enforcement.

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has lent credence to such criticisms. It has continued and even intensified Bush Administration deportation and enforcement strategies without winning any Republican Senate votes for a legalization bill in return.

With the prospects for any positive reform bill receding, activists may soon face a difficult choice: accept the best that can be achieved in 2010, or wait for something that may or may not occur in the future to secure a far more progressive measure.

It's a tough choice, one activists did not expect to face when President Barack Obama took office as an outspoken advocate for comprehensive immigration reform.

Randy Shaw is an attorney, author and activist who lives in Berkeley, California. He is the executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, a non-profit organization in San Francisco that he co-founded in 1980. He is the author of "Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century" (just released by the University of California Press) and of "The Activist's Handbook," and editor of the online progressive daily, He can be contacted at

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