Pivoting to Congress: What the immigrant rights movement learned in this state legislative cycle

Immigrants protest Kentucky's "Arizona-style" bill, photo credit Chillicothe Gazette

Despite the kind of grandiose title, I don’t hold any pretensions that I speak for the large and diverse immigrant rights movement. It has been an honor and a joy, though, to be back in the struggle for justice for immigrants in a more sustained way than over the past four years, since I left my work at El Centro, Inc., and I am very glad to have been a part of some of the fights over this past year.

And, now, with state legislative sessions wrapping up around the country, the task for our immigrant rights coalitions here in Kansas and, from what I observe, for many around the country, is to pivot from the very important work in state legislatures to the arena of greatest challenge and also greatest promise: Congress.

Only Congressional action can address the broken laws that create so much of the chaos and crisis observed by frustrated citizens and elected officials within the states, and lived daily by immigrants and their families in communities in every state. In fact, if Congress really wanted to, they could use trade and economic aid policies to even address some of the root causes of our broken immigration system by working international levers that affect “push factors” in countries of origin.

But, especially in this Congress, that’s going to take a huge advocacy lift, and, especially after the failures in the last (decidedly more sympathetic) Congress, that’s a tall order. It’s one felt, I imagine, by every immigrant and ally, and certainly one that weighs on me when I conduct trainings on immigration policy and immigrant rights within immigrant communities.

If we approach the challenges that await us as though we’re starting from scratch, or even picking up where we left off in December 2010 when the DREAM Act failed in the Senate, well…that’s enough to make me want to head back to the sandbox full-time.

But if we can leverage the lessons learned and the capacity built in dozens of state legislative battles over the past six months, we are much better positioned to pull off some real victories. Translating local and state activity to the national stage isn’t easy; coalitions often break down, communication between field and D.C. can suffer, and the intensification of power and prestige within the halls of Congress can intimidate even the most seasoned state activist. But it must be done, if we want to avoid reliving this session over and over again (please!), and if we want a real chance at real solutions, the kind only Congress can deliver.

  • There is tremendous latent power in immigrant communities. The conventional wisdom among some organizers, at least around here, has been that the racheting up of the anti-immigrant drumbeat, and the heightened official repression, has made immigrants too afraid to assert their rights in the political process. But this session saw significant activism among immigrants in Indiana, Kentucky, and other parts of the country once seen as unlikely locations for robust immigrant movements. That suggests that the key, nationally, is to craft a compelling vision for immigration reform that feels relevant to immigrants’ lives. They didn’t make it to the United States, and make it here every day, despite the fear and the danger, because they’re unwilling to risk in pursuit of a better tomorrow.
  • Compromises don’t make the best rallying cries. One of the most vivid memories of my immigrant organizing was when we had virtually spontaneous rallies of thousands of people, in Kansas City and around the country in the spring of 2006, opposed to H.R. 4437 (which, among other things, would have criminalized aiding an undocumented immigrant). But what was particularly instructive wasn’t just that incredible outpouring of activism, it was the comparative dearth of engagement in the “pro-comprehensive immigration reform” rallies that we organized in the following months. We had great turnout at the first one, building on the momentum from the earlier, grassroots effort (and our established organizing structure), but then, as people started to ask “what is comprehensive immigration reform, anyway?” and started to express some doubt and disappointment with the specifics of the legislative compromise, attendance tapered off. We know that what will take shape in Congress will be a compromise, and has to be, but the truth is that what worked for mobilizing in Kansas and elsewhere this year was much more of a “kill the bill” message, with relatively little nuance. Nuance doesn’t work well on protest signs, and we’ll have to figure out how to base legislation on core principles that resonate in people’s souls if we want to move them to action.
  • We need to invest in organizers to do the work between crises. In summer 2010, I was telling everyone around here that we needed to build a coalition to combat the anti-immigrant legislation we were going to see in 2011. That was before the November 2010 elections made those threats much more real. But, unless that kind of laborious organizing work is someone’s job, it doesn’t get done, not until there’s an emergency and it gets moved up the priority list. That’s what will be hard about upcoming Congressional battles, too; the landscape looks so bleak that it’s hard to sustain the momentum we need in between fleeting opportunities, but, unless we do, we’ll be behind all the time. When a coalition came together in Kansas, quite quickly, in February 2011, it was an impressive force, but it was never able to accomplish some of its goals, because they just required a longer timeline than we had. And now, of course, the challenge will be to keep it going, focused on those unattained goals, so that they can become attainable before 2012. That requires distinguishing between organizing and mobilizing, and knowing that the latter will always be harder without a strong emphasis on the former.
  • We need to expect more from our allies. In Kansas, some from the immigrant and faith communities were fairly shocked when some of the business groups with which we formed alliances of necessity actually turned out to be pretty committed, ideologically and not just pragmatically, to humane immigration laws. Sure, some were really focused on their bottom line and ready to cut deals that would minimize the impact on their businesses, regardless of the human toll, but others were definitely not. That experience, and others from my past, make me think that, if we get to know those with whom we’re working in a deeper way, figuring out why they’re in this struggle and connecting to them as fellow travelers, we might find some partners that are really kindred spirits, so to speak. And we’ll know who isn’t, so we can strategize around them, too. We need to bring law enforcement and business and faith and local government leaders into our work not just as figureheads for a press conference but as real allies, when and where we can, which is going to require doing some real organizing within these constituencies. Doing that in a way that preserves the authentic leadership of immigrant communities isn’t easy (I know, that’s a theme here, hunh?), but, if we don’t, we’re leaving some of our cards on the table. And we can’t afford that. Not this year.

    What about you? What are your goals for the national stage, as state legislatures prepare to come home? How are you working with your grassroots leaders to translate their skills and knowledge to battles in Congress? What do we need to do, and know, to win in both arenas? And how can we build on what we’ve lived this session to make changes nationally?

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  • One response to “Pivoting to Congress: What the immigrant rights movement learned in this state legislative cycle

    1. Your point about connecting Congress with State legislation and grassroots leaders is very important. The Affordable Care Act originated at the national level, but it is dying in the states. Many states are refusing to expand Medicaid and many individuals do not understand the act and are against it simply because it came from Obama. So I think it is important to remember, in your fight for immigrant rights, that it is important to have local support for national legislation, otherwise it will be an uphill fight.

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