NEW AMERICA MEDIA: Immigrant Rights Movement Fights On, Despite Obstacles
America’s Voice, Commentary, Maribel Hastings, Posted: Nov 17, 2009
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The pro-immigrant movement is in touch with the current media landscape, utilizing social networking and technology in its effort to mobilize the public to exert the political pressure necessary to make comprehensive immigration reform a reality.
Tomorrow, Wednesday, Nov. 18, for example, instead of conducting a traditional "town hall" to discuss the plan for reform he intends to propose, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) will conduct one by telephone. More than 700 "house party" events have been scheduled across the country (including in Puerto Rico ) so that the public can participate in the "national conversation" with Rep. Gutierrez.
The Reform Immigration for America campaign is using text messages to add followers and exert pressure on Congress and the White House.
Anyone interested can send the message JUSTICE to 69866 to be added to the national campaign.
"Never before have people at the grassroots level been able to connect so closely and directly with national advocacy efforts for immigration reform. The national campaign is investing in new technologies to put advocacy at the fingertips of anyone, anywhere that supports immigrants’ rights," declared Rich Stolz, director of the national RI4A campaign.
It hasn’t been easy.
The debate over the failed immigration bill of 2007 revealed divisions within the pro-immigrant movement, hampering its ability to respond properly to anti-immigrant arguments. Nor was it able to organize effectively enough at the district and state levels to influence particular members of Congress.
But according to Frank Sharry , executive director of America ‘s Voice, the political landscape has changed: the election of 2008, and above all the rise in immigrant voters, speaks to the movement’s political power.
"We’ve made the statement that our opponents aren’t as strong as people
think, and are more extreme than people know," he added.
After the failure of 2007, immigration enforcement intensified.
Many assumed this would change when Barack Obama was elected, but the reality is that families are still being divided and the immigrant community continues to live in fear. "That reality, I think, is pushing people towards unity of action and urgency of action," said Sharry.
The marches of 2006
The pro-immigrant movement demonstrated its organizing power most forcefully in 2006, when millions of people took to the streets to protest the proposed "Sensenbrenner Bill" (H.R. 4437), which would have criminalized undocumented immigrants.
But the pro-immigrant movement was attacked by immigration opponents, and discrepancies in message and strategy appeared among different pro-immigrant groups as well.
In the fall of 2006, pro-immigrant groups found themselves able to attract fewer people to their rallies than before, and the same was true in the first half of 2007.
The death of the reform bill
Divisions among pro-immigrant leaders, divisions in Congress, a lack of effective leadership from the White House and anti-immigrant rhetoric all contributed to the defeat of the reform bill in June 2007.
Divisions in Congress reflected the diversity of agendas and philosophies within the pro-immigrant movement.
Those in favor of comprehensive immigration reform include both farmers in need of manual labor (who support guest worker programs) and agricultural workers seeking improved labor conditions.
A similar split exists between the United States Chamber of Commerce, interested in attracting the "Hispanic market," and labor unions such as the AFL-CIO, whose membership would increase greatly with the legalization of immigrants. The Catholic Church and Protestant churches also share an interest in legalization, even as they compete for followers.
And within the progressive movement, splits can emerge between those who advocate for reform knowing that negotiation will be required to get it to pass, and others who oppose any sort of concession.
The 2000 Census documented the growth of the Hispanic population, and by implication the population of undocumented immigrants.
In September 2001, the Republican administration under George W. Bush planned to start discussion of immigration reform-but the September 11th terrorist attacks quickly brought those plans to a halt.
Since then, immigrants have been the target of attacks from members of Congress, ultraconservative radio and television personalities, and xenophobic groups.
The Freedom Ride and CCIR
At the end of 2003, the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride called attention to the difficult situation faced by undocumented workers.
The Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR) formed in 2004, and fought at least four legislative battles over immigration proposals between 2005 and 2007.
CCIR dissolved in early 2008, at the start of the presidential campaign that would end later that year with the election of President Obama.
Obama’s promise to pass immigration reform contributed to his receiving the support of 67% of Hispanic voters and 78% of Latinos born outside of the U.S.
In June, the RI4A campaign launched with the support of more than 400 organizations, encompassing groups of diverse agendas.
The challenge for the pro-immigrant movement in 2010 will be to avoid repeating the mistakes of 2007 – and when there is actual legislation on the floor for debate, the movement will be put to the test.
"My impression is that there is a greater recognition now that the status quo is a harsh, enforcement-only regime, and that the only thing that really will stop it is the passage of immigration reform," concluded Sharry.
Rafael Prieto Zartha contributed to this article. He can be reached at rprietoz.