A critical voice in the immigration debate

Remember this?

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And what was he so angry about?

Not health care reform, not really.

But immigrants. Those, specifically, who are in the United States illegally.

I would really love to be wrong about this, but my first thought was, if there’s that much rage about immigrants in a bill that does NOT provide any benefits to undocumented (because no human being is illegal) immigrants (and may, in fact, even exclude Lawful Permanent Residents (those are “legal”) from the final bill), can we imagine how much vitriol will surround any attempt to reform our nation’s immigration laws in this Congress?

Even if we’re tired after all of the shouting about health care, and even if we’re not exactly sure why these immigrants are coming here in the first place, and what their presence means for our futures, we who care about social justice cannot sit this one out.

I just finished reading Illegal People, a book by David Bacon, a photojournalist focusing on Mexican migration, the U.S./Mexico border, and the economics of global trade. He’s going to be in Kansas City on Friday, September 18th, 2009, speaking at 6:30PM at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza Branch. You should come.

Because Bacon’s message, in this book and what I expect he’ll say, is that, while he may not have every answer for how policy should deal with the many details in immigration policy, his work in communities of workers on both sides of the border has made it clear that the status quo is morally indefensible.

On the second page of the book, he calls us all out: “Faced with poverty, migration, and deportation, nuetrality is not really possible. One either tries to understand and change social reality or one doesn’t…This book takes (immigrant workers’) side.”

I cringed several times during the book, when Bacon excoriates the compromises pursued by the coalition advocating for comprehensive immigration reform (subsequent to the historic mobilization of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride), lays bare the corporate motives of some of our unlikely bedfellows, and makes a compelling case for far more fundamental change than we ever even put on the table. I remembered the bitter debates we had over pragmatism vs. principle, over whether temporary worker programs ever belonged in a progressive immigration bill, and whether we needed to clearly articulate our support for an end to employer sanctions or talk about ‘smart enforcement’. And I know that I didn’t fight hard enough.

So when I read Bacon’s stirring accounts of immigrants organizing unions against huge odds, militantly fighting for higher wages and better working conditions (which ultimately, of course, benefit every worker in the country), I’m seriously chagrined. Day laborers boldly joining together to insist on higher wages, refugees facing down violent opposition to exercise their rights–they all courageously surpassed what they should have been able to accomplish, through the power of collective action and the audacity born of desperation.

Some of Bacon’s criticism is a bit unfair, I think; those with whom I worked closely were really, without exception, compassionate people committed to doing the most and best for immigrants that they could. The problem, I think, was in that last word, “could,” and the dangers that all advocates face in sacrificing the good for the possible, in limiting our horizons in pursuit of ‘viability’.

I hope that all of my former compañero/as are reading the book, too, and are emboldened to demand immigration reform worthy of these extraordinary people, and committed to organizing the power we’ll need to shout down the audacious likes of Representative Wilson.

Illegal People is full of evidence of how bad the status quo is, not just for immigrants but for their families and communities and for everyone who works for a living. The system intimidates people away from joining unions (the only right in the United States that people fear exercising), steamrolls Mexican farmers, uses Social Security “No-Match” letters to disrupt organizing campaigns, and brings in temporary immigrant workers to drive down wages of low-wage citizen workers. And it’s tragic and cruel and wrong, every single day.

But, despite my pangs of regret for what I didn’t do, didn’t accomplish, didn’t win, and despite how ugly the prospects are for really good, really progressive immigration reform in the current context, I mostly finished the book feeling inspired.

Inspired by the activism, the boldness, the tremendous optimism and courage of the immigrant workers who populate Bacon’s book. Almost without exception, their attitude is “we have nothing to lose, so we might as well go down fighting.” And, when I watch that clip again, and think about the horrific anti-immigrant rhetoric that fueled the summer, and think about the threats I received (as did many of my colleagues, including friends cited, like Bill Chandler and Marielena Hincapíe), I think that we’re really in just about the same place now–backs against a wall, nothing to lose, ready to stand on principle and push for what we know immigrant workers deserve.

Sí se puede. See you next Friday night.

Santa Maria Mixtec workers, credit David Bacon

2 responses to “A critical voice in the immigration debate

  1. Thanks for writing this…I wanted to shout back, “So what if it does cover them?” Here’s to “nothing to lose!”

    • So, Jen, I have been asked to introduce David Bacon on Friday night now! I’m excited, but also a little nervous. Have I forgotten how to speak to crowds without Powerpoint slides? 🙂

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