Tag Archives: Congress

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?

  • Messages and Collateral Damage

    Photo credit: Reform Immigration for America

    Five months ago tomorrow (I know, who else remembers where they were?), the U.S. Senate proved themselves real Grinches, as they defeated, by a five-vote margin, the DREAM Act, which had passed the U.S. House the week before.

    And, in the intervening months, as we struggle for any traction around immigrant rights in the midst of an increasingly hostile climate, I find myself mourning most, not for the students whose dreams were so coldly turned back, but for their parents. And that has me thinking about messaging, and how we sometimes don’t do ourselves any favors, and also about parenting, and about how powerless we are, as parents, to protect our kids from the cruelty of the world.

    Around the same time that DREAM was defeated, I sat in a conference room in our local school district and heard an administrator actually say that “parents in our district expect more for their children than those elsewhere.”

    I know. Disgusting.

    Because I know a lot of immigrant parents who expected so much for their children that they WALKED ACROSS THE DESERT to give them a chance at a better life. Or RODE IN THE TRUNK OF A CAR for eight hours.

    If that’s not complete dedication to the well-being of one’s kids, well, you can imagine how I reacted to that bigoted statement.

    But even some of our greatest DREAM Act allies: immigrant rights organizations, champion Senators, and members of the Administration, have unfairly villified immigrant parents over the past several months, in an effort to win sympathy for DREAM-eligible youth. You’ve heard the claims, I’m sure: “children shouldn’t have to pay for the sins of their parents”.

    As if wanting more for your children, and being willing to risk your own life to get it, is a sin.

    And, so, as I’ve thought about what could have been, and what should have been, if the DREAM Act had won the support of just FIVE more Senators, I’ve thought about how those parents must feel.

    They’ve watched their children become all they had ever hoped and more: bright, accomplished, committed, brave, articulate, ambitious. And they’ve watched powerful people in their adopted country deny their children the most basic opportunities to build on those assets in pursuit of a better future. And then they’ve watched those who are supposed to be their friends throw them under the bus, in a desperate attempt to win what should by rights be theirs in the first place.

    And they can’t do anything to stem the tears or salve the disappointments.

    I’ve said it before, but I’m more convinced than ever: we need messages that work for the long-term, and across multiple issues. We can’t sacrifice principles for expediency. Because we often lose anyway, and, along the way, we’ve hurt people who are hurting enough already.

    Moms and Dads, I talk with your kids a lot. And, without fail, they credit you for who and where they are today. You instilled these values in them, and you inspire them every day.

    They know that they’re not atoning for your crimes; they’re living up to your legacy.

    Muy bien hecho, mamás y papás. Muy bien hecho.

    Dear Santa, please bring me immigration reform

    Dear Santa,

    Hi. Look, so maybe I haven’t been that good this year–I admit that I pretended not to hear the twins crying at night sometimes, so that Kory would get up with them, and I may have used the phrase “knock it off” a few too many times with Sam.

    But, still, I certainly haven’t asked for much lately, so it seems like you could, you know, cut me a little slack here?

    Because here’s what I really, really, really want for Christmas this year: an immigration policy that’s not an embarrassment, a tragedy, and an affront to justice. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit, I have selfish reasons for choosing this particular holiday request.

    I want to be able to go to sleep at night without thinking about little kids whose parents never came home from work. I want to check my email without reading heartbreaking appeals from honors students facing deportation over a broken taillight. I want to complain about the heat next August without haunting visions of people dying trying to cross the desert. I want to tell my kids about the Statue of Liberty without feeling like a fraud.

    But this is a real bargain of a gift, Santa, because, while I’m the one asking, I’m certainly not the only one who would benefit. We could use extra billions in GDP, new tax revenues, and the savings from reductions in wasteful enforcement spending. We’ll be safer once our immigration enforcement can focus on those who are real security risks. American workers will benefit from not competing with those so desperate they’ll accept a job at any wage. And, while I’ll grant that your mailbox may not be full of letters asking for CIR this year, polls show that I’m not alone in my wish.

    So, Santa, what do you say? I mean, stockings filled with toys and sugarplums are great, I guess, but wouldn’t you rather give the gift that keeps on giving–giving families a chance to live as a family, workers dignity on the job, communities the security of living as neighbors, and our country the chance to honor our past and restore our future?

    That’s what I thought, big guy. I appreciate it.

    PS. And my son wants a Lego cargo train, but I think he’d settle for cap and trade legislation, if you want to throw that in.

    Most sincerely,


    The more things change: the case for CIR, then and now

    When I gave speeches about the need for immigration reform, I used to talk about how we were revisiting a lot of the same issues that plagued the nation in the early 1980s: the need for legalization for undocumented immigrants working in the country, the toll that family separation takes on our communities, and the insecurity born of a system showing obvious signs of strain. I used the point to reinforce the need to really fix the nation’s immigration system, so that we wouldn’t have to revisit these same debates and fears and tragedies every couple of decades.

    I should have gone a bit farther back in history.

    When I read The Woman Behind the New Deal last summer, there were several passages about Frances Perkins’ work overseeing the immigration department, which then fell under the Department of Labor (kind of interesting, really, given how we continue to view immigrants as valuable chiefly/solely for their labor contributions, but subsequently moved the INS to the Department of Justice (connected to our criminalization of immigrants) and then to Homeland Security (consistent with our conflation of migration and terrorism). My guess is that we’re not moving ICE to DHHS any time soon!)

    What I found most stunning was her statement to Congress when she was questioned about failures to deport some foreigners viewed by Congress as possible communists (and, therefore, deportable):

    “The problems which the immigration laws present are serious, intricate and of the highest public importance. They have a peculiar significance to the future of our country, for it is incumbent upon those who administer the immigration laws to aim at two important goals: First, to preserve this country, its institutions and ideals, from foreign forces which present a clear and present danger to the continuance of our way of living; and second, to show those aliens who together with their families are soon to become our fellow citizens that American institutions operate without fear or favor, in a spirit of fair-play, and with a desire to do justice to the stranger within our gates, as well as to the native born.” (p. 281)

    I’d stress the themes of family reunification and workers’ rights and civil liberties a bit more explicitly than she did but, in all, it’s almost eerie how easily this statement could have been made 70 years later. We still wrestle with immigration policy as a core question related to American identity: who gets to be “one of us”? And what does that decision say about the nation we present ourselves to be?

    Unfortunately, it seems that the prejudices and misperceptions about immigrants and their contributions to this country have not changed much in the past seven decades, either:

    “Many refused to believe government statistics, and they circulated reports alleging that 1 million foreign sailors jumped ship in the United States each year, or that five hundred thousand Mexicans strolled across the border in the previous decade. In her annual report in 1935, Frances blasted these accounts as “fantastic exaggerations”” (p. 191). I can picture her today, decrying those horrible “undocumented immigrants are stealing Social Security” email forwards that periodically get sent to me for debunking.

    So, here we are, generations later, still fighting the same struggles for basic decency, due process, and equal opportunity for those who happened not to share our good fortune of being born in the United States of America.

    And, here we are, as far away from an upcoming congressional election as we’re going to get, staring at two years to get comprehensive immigration reform done in this Congress.

    We’ve got to make it happen–for the families torn apart, for the bodies strewn in the desert, for the workers (immigrant and not) whose wages and bargaining position are undercut by the existence of so many who have so few rights, for the security we all deserve in knowing who’s in this country and allowing law enforcement to focus on those who truly mean us harm, and for the still-salvageable American Dream, which has never been limited just for those who’ve always been here.

    And we’ve got to make it happen because, otherwise, we could still be making the same case, and combating the same myths, in 70 more years. Except that I’m not sure we can withstand it.

    Call your members of Congress today. Tell them (you have three–call all three!) that now is the time. Do it for those who long to call America home, for those who long have but are still afraid to come out of the shadows, for those who fear change but know that this isn’t what welcoming the stranger looks like. Do it for social work, which can’t afford to sit out this important struggle for social justice and the definition of what our nation will mean. And, do it for Frances.

    Forest for the Trees: Social Innovation Fund

    So have you heard about the Social Innovation Fund?

    The Fund, an initiative of President Obama’s, would have (SPOILER ALERT: BIG CATCH HERE: Congress has to appropriate the money!) $50 million to grant to promising nonprofit strategies aimed at addressing elementary or secondary education for low-income students, child and youth development, poverty reduction, health, resource conservation, energy efficiency, civic engagement, or crime reduction. Here are some other bloggers’ posts on the Fund, what it is, how it would work, and what purpose it serves.

    I’m not going to rehash those discussions, but you should check them out. Some of the major questions that I do think deserve some consideration include the conflict between ‘innvoation’ and proven legitimacy; the wisdom of funneling the money through grantmakers who will then grant to subgrantees vs. direct granting; and whether the federal government will use the outcomes of the projects funded through the Fund to direct additional appropriations. Under ‘steps in the right direction’, I’d file the requirement that grants be made for at least 3 years, that grantmakers provide technical assistance to grantees, and, most importantly, the requirement that the grants be used as ‘growth capital’ rather than restricted programmatic funds.


    As an advocate, what I think is most significant, is the fact that there is this much talk about how the nonprofit world is going to use this grant money once it starts flowing, whether this Fund will really be the transformation in the nonprofit sector that many hope, and the degree to which, so to speak, we should all be cheering for it…WITHOUT ANY DISCUSSION of the fact that Congress has not yet even appropriated the money, that that is, in fact, a necessary step for any money to exist, and, perhaps most importantly, whether or not this is the best use of the government’s $50 million in the budget (so, basically, very little apparent understanding of the finite nature of the federal budget or the process by which it is appropriated). It’s far from a done deal, and, yet, rather than working to ensure that it will be (or entering the highly ‘uncivilized’ but far more urgent debate over health care reform), we’re already tearing it apart on details.

    And, let’s talk honestly about that $50 million. Or, as you might prefer to think of it, less than 10% of the direct payment subsidies for upland cotton producers in 2007 (we spent $50 billion on total farm subsidies in 2004–billion, with a b). “Fifty million dollars is better than nothing,” most nonprofit leaders have been arguing. Sure, but, what about instead of nothing, we were really at the table, with the kind of organized power to not only increase our appropriations ($50 million is, after all, almost $31 million less than the earmarks secured by Senator Richard Shelby alone!) but also reform how government tackles social problems in ways that would be deeply and widely felt.

    Truthfully, some of the nonprofit voices have been raising these questions. What if the Obama Administration focused its reform energies not on the nonprofit sector but on government itself: changing how departments award contracts, changing rules for reporting, improving transparency, changing tax rules that restrict nonprofit accounting, and, most importantly, revitalizing the eroding social contract so that nonprofits are no longer expected to pick up so much of the slack created by government abdication of responsibility?

    I don’t mean to sound like the Grinch that stole the Social Innovation Fund. I do recognize that people are hungry for signs that better days are coming, and I concede that this can be seen as one such sign. I just worry that we’re missing the boat a bit. And if we allow ourselves to lose sight of fundamental questions of justice everytime we get the chance for a little more match money, then we’ll always find ourselves fighting for crumbs to sustain the really excellent, even ground-breaking work that many nonprofits manage to do despite the odds.

    The FY2009 budget contained more than $6 billion in earmarks for ANONYMOUS defense projects. Anonymous. As in we have no idea what they are, who requested them, how much goes to each, what they are even supposed to do. Imagine if those who care about social justice in our country directed all of our collective passion and intelligence and thoughtfulness at changing our democracy, so that we no longer debate over ‘national leveraging capital’ and ‘evidence-based, randomized trials’ while the defense industry walks away with $6 billion for their secret wish list?

    Now THAT would be innovative.

    Back to School & DREAMing

    As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, I have an opinion on just about everything. My dad once laughed outloud when I was giving my views on the new Pope (Benedict)–he said that it figured that I, a non-Catholic, would of course have this whole argument about the new Pope.

    I am often guilty of over-advocacy–since quitting my full-time advocacy job, I haven’t felt as much of a compulsion to limit myself to core issues in order to avoid weakening my impact (a cardinal rule of nonprofit advocates). I admit to responding to just about all of the ‘urgent’ action alerts that come across my email–from human rights in Burma to extension of unemployment benefits to climate change regulations.

    Still, it would be hard to think of very many advocacy issues that matter more to me than the plight of immigrant youth in the United States. I personally know dozens of kids in these circumstances, and they are, almost without exception, extraordinarily bright and talented and promising young people. They are inspiring and generous and very brave.

    And, right now, they need our help. As students (including mine!) head back to school all over this country, hundreds of thousands of immigrant students in the U.S. prepare for their final year of high school, without knowing what life holds for them after graduation. Thousands more are plugging away at college, achieving a remarkable feat made more notable by the controversy surrounding their enrollment. And Congress has the rare opportunity to do something good to help a vulnerable population while also helping all of us, by giving these kids a chance to fully contribute to our society. It’s a win-win, literally, and we need to make it happen THIS YEAR.

    So, please, take three minutes and contact your member of Congress to ask him/her to support the DREAM Act. I’ve linked to talking points and an action alert, both of which are generated by the awesome students and advocates leading the charge on this issue. You can also make a financial contribution to the United We DREAM campaign. I’d love to hear feedback after you make your call–what did your member of Congress tell you? With whom did you speak? How was your experience?

    Have a great school year, everyone, and let’s make DREAMS come true.