The last several months have been a period of soul searching for pro-immigrant groups. After the DREAM Act failed and Republicans took over the House of Representatives, the prospects for federal immigration legislation have diminished. But this can also be a time of hope, if pro-immigrant advocates take the opportunity to return to the base-building work that got them a seat at the legislative table in the first place.
Despite President Obama?s El Paso speech last month, neither comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) nor the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act will pass this Congress. President Obama himself has demonstrated an unwillingness to lead on this issue, most notably with his reluctance to grant administrative relief to DREAM-eligible youth. And, barring an unlikely Democratic sweep of Congress and the White House in the 2012 elections, any potential bill to legalize undocumented immigrants in 2013 would likely become extremely watered down.
Republicans might, for instance, press their advantage in the House to pervert these bills by transforming one of their pillars, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, into some version of legalization without citizenship. Already this year, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) proposed a revised DREAM Act that would grant eligible youth non-citizen status, and Newt Gingrich suggested solutions that offer legalization without citizenship for the country?s 11 million undocumented people.
Such compromises would be disastrous, opening the door for a neo-segregationist era in which our government systematically withholds rights?most notably, the right to vote?from a large, mostly Latino, class of people living within our borders.
But all is not lost. While national prospects are dismal and a host of anti-immigrant measures have surfaced at the state level, the present moment also offers a window of opportunity for movement building.
Over the past several years, many groups have made national legislation their primary target. The upside of this has been the emergence of an enormous national coalition, Reform Immigration FOR America (RIFA), with new infrastructure for communicating its message and mobilizing voters to contact congressional offices. But the downside seems to have been the weakening of grassroots power in certain groups? own backyards.
This is natural. Every organization and coalition has finite resources, and many RIFA allies went all-in for CIR. Pro-immigrant groups?including labor unions, business groups, and grassroots immigrant rights organizations?thought they could achieve a comprehensive bill that would include a path to citizenship for 12 million undocumented people and fix our system for legal immigration, and they understandably rallied behind these efforts. What they did not know was that they would come up against the largest economic crisis in eighty years and an emboldened and unified conservative bloc that decried any bill including legalization as amnesty.
Now, with their CIR bid thwarted, the question for those on the pro-immigrant side is: what now? The answer, for the time being, lies in a return to movement building at the local and state levels. As Republicans legislators and Tea Party groups push nativist measures in states, cities, and towns nationwide, pro-immigrant groups need to match, and indeed surpass, that energy.
Given the recent wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, much of the energy on the pro-immigrant side has been defensive. Groups have vigorously pushed back against anti-immigrant bills in dozens of states, like Arizona, Kansas, and Florida, winning important battles. And new fronts have opened in Georgia, Indiana, and Alabama, where draconian anti-immigrant laws passed (in Alabama, the governor has not yet signed the bill).
Immigrant rights organizations have also raised serious challenges to Immigration and Customs Enforcement?s (ICE) ill-named ?Secure Communities? program?which forces local law enforcement to share the fingerprints of arrested people with ICE. Over the last week, Massachusetts and New York followed Illinois? lead in rejecting the program, but the fight continues in the rest of the country. And, later this year, there will almost certainly be a struggle in the House against a mandatory electronic verification (E-Verify) bill?which would require all employers to check job applicants? immigration status through a federal database still in its pilot phase.
But, to turn the tide, pro-immigrant efforts cannot just be defensive; they need to respond now with their own affirmative solutions. Student activists are already leading the way with campaigns for in-state tuition and work authorization for undocumented students who grew up in this country. Such legislation has already passed in Connecticut and Maryland, and similar bills have progressed in New York and Illinois. These youth-led efforts?which have relied on direct action tactics like marches, rallies, and even hunger strikes and sit-ins?exemplify how a grassroots movement can build power from below to win legislative victories. It?s a model that pro-immigrant groups have used before, and to which they should return.
Of course, mobilizing at the local and state level requires clear, winnable targets. Fortunately, the menu of possible local and state targets is long, including: tuition equity measures for DREAM-eligible students, drivers? licenses for undocumented adults, anti-wage theft legislation, and community policing initiatives that separate local policing from immigration enforcement.
Each target offers its own opportunity for building up the base, expanding alliances?for instance, with union locals, African-American groups, and religious communities?and strengthening coalitions. Victories on these issues could prove key for changing the national immigration conversation and opening the door for future pro-immigration national legislation.
To be sure, immigrant-friendly policies will not be possible everywhere. Immigrant rights groups will still have to spend most of their time playing defense in various states?like Arizona, Georgia, and much of the Southeast?where nativism runs strong and pro-immigrant organizations are in short supply. But the current political moment?scary as it seems for pro-immigrant advocates?does have a silver lining. With national legislative progress off the table for now, it?s movement building time.