The Next Fight: Immigration Reform

Republicans have been running on immigration as a signature issue for the past several elections, so it’s ironic that progressives are the ones with the most to gain from solving the immigration problem. But before we can do that, we need to understand—and agree—on what the problems are, and what can and should be done.

That was the conclusion drawn by the four speakers at the “The Politics of Immigration: Workers, Justice, and Immigration Reform” panel at America’s Future Now! on Tuesday afternoon.

Moderator Gabe Gonzales of the Center for Community Change tipped his hat to the GOP for their role in galvanizing the Latino vote in recent years. He noted that the pro-immigrant demonstrations in 2006 brought over three million people out into the streets. “The Republicans have done something that hasn’t happened in 30 years, ” he reflected. “When they started making generalized attacks on Latino immigrants, everybody came together in self-defense. When this panel is over, I’m going to take up a collection for a statue of Pete Wilson and James Sensenbrenner — they’re the Number One and Number Two Latino organizers in the country.”

Still, it’s not going to be easy, especially as long as progressives themselves remain divided on the issue of immigration.


Watch the June 2 immigration reform panel discussion at the America’s Future Now! conference.

The Politics of Immigration at America’s Future Now! from AmericasFuture on Vimeo.

Angelica Salas of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles opened the discussion by describing the specific problems immigrants face in dealing with the US Government. Strikingly, an estimated 40 percent of undocumented immigrants do have an application for legal status pending. They’re in the system, and following the law; but processing takes so long (upwards of a decade in many cases) and the system is so chaotic that their cases simply haven’t been resolved.

Others have been through the process, and been denied—often for purely bureaucratic reasons. A 1996 overhaul in immigration law penalized people who waited too long after their arrival to start the application process. If you wait over six months, you can’t file an application for three years; and if you wait a year, you need to wait ten years to apply. In effect, this rule means that these people can’t apply for legal status at all.

And while they’re waiting, these immigrants have no protection against employer abuse, discrimination, or exploitation. Since they’re forced to live in the shadows, their ability to fully integrate into the mainstream of American culture is compromised, too. Immigrant parents with American-born children can be deported in an instant, forced to leave their children behind. And, Salas makes clear, as long as we tolerate this situation, these immigrants will be a perfect right-wing scapegoat that can be blamed for everything from a decaying health care system to falling wages to labor issues. Having these immigrants in our economy gives conservatives a too-perfect excuse for their failure to address a great many issues.

Empowering these immigrants can also be a major win for progressives as a movement. “Immigration will matter as long as labor issues matter,” said Eliseo Medina of SEIU, which organizes more immigrant workers than any other union in the country. He stressed that we cannot solve one issue without also addressing the other — and the way we solve both has serious implications for how we address our larger economic problems as well.

Even before the recession, said Eliseo, we were struggling with huge numbers of people without health care, growing income inequality, the erosion of pension plans, a shrinking middle class, and an increasing disregard for labor laws that drained away the size and political clout of unions. But in attacking Latino immigrants, he noted, the right wing has awakened a giant. They underestimated the number of Latino-American citizens, citizens who are now unified and voting in numbers never seen before.

“They’ve learned what it is to participate and win,” said Medina. “And they’re going to be a force going forward.” He pointed out that about two-thirds of Latino voters voted for Obama. Reforming immigration will put 12 million currently undocumented people on the path to citizenship, which will further expand the coalition of progressive voters.

“Will we win?” asked Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum. “Yes.” Noorani pointed out that last year, 20 out of 25 House races in swing states — and five swing state Senate races — were won by candidates who stood for comprehensive immigration reform. In North Carolina — not exactly a progressive stronghold — Liddy Dole spent half her war chest on anti-immigrant ads…and lost anyway.

Noorani noted that the right wing has no real coherent answers to the problem of immigration. They’re mostly interested in beefing up Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and deporting immigrants and their families. Real reform involves a much broader solution that brings the immigration system back under control; restores stability and responsibility; adds structure to the system; makes application for legal status mandatory; reunifies families; gives immigrants access to due process and the courts; and builds an enforcement system that’s efficient, effective, and humane both at the border and in the interior. And it needs to create a pathway that allows immigrants to integrate, and succeed.

“This is not the silver bullet to the economic crisis, but it’s a critical part of it,” Noorani said. Undocumented workers are a “trap door in the wage floor,” exploited by crooked employers. When we let immigrants slide through that door, we’re also leaving it open for those same crooked employers to exploit African-American workers, then white workers. “We close that trap door, and everybody can compete for a job on a level playing field, for a living wage.”

And, said Noorani, this fight begins right now. Next Monday, President Obama is convening Congressional leaders to start the push for an immigration reform bill, which he wants to get passed this year. The goal is to get 279 votes in the House, and 60 in the Senate. The fight will continue through the summer and fall, so this is the moment our representatives really need to hear from us.

What will that fix look like? Noorani offered three hard criteria for any successful bill. First, it must create a pathway for quick legalization of existing undocumented workers, so they can stop living underground and be counted. Second, it has to continue America’s tradition of family reunification. Point systems encourage solitary immigrants, who arrive without any community or personal support infrastructure. When families arrive together and join up into immigrant communities, they’re far more successful, and ultimately assimilate more smoothly. Third, it needs to be viable over the long run: if it doesn’t allow us to process future immigrants in a sane, reasonable, timely way, we’re going to keep having this conversation over and over in the future.

We also need to oppose any proposal to eliminate the Constitutional guarantee of birthright citizenship; recognize border-wall proposals as the boondoggles and gimmicks that they are; and reject any bill that makes undocumented workers into instant felons—a move that would drive them even further underground.

Ray Marshall, who was Jimmy Carter’s labor secretary and is now teaching at the University of Texas, concluded the panel with a positive vision what the world could look like if reform succeed. He sees immigration reform as an integral part of a larger shared prosperity, because our immigrants would be fully empowered to succeed and contribute to America’s culture and economy. And it’s the necessary first step to improving protections for native-born American workers as well.

But first, Marshall continued, we need to convince the other side that maintaining the status quo is no longer an option—and that if they oppose it, they will be overridden in Congress. “We will have more immigrants in five years. The question is: on what terms, and how do we use the immigration process to support our shared prosperity agenda? We need a system that’s fair, transparent, and in the best interest of the country.”

Furthermore, said Marshall, we need to think globally. Five or ten years on, we might include Canada and Mexico in this “shared prosperity agenda,” harmonizing the labor and immigration laws of all three countries in ways that discourage immigration from Mexico. “And then the world would be talking about the North American miracle, about how shared prosperity set a new standard of living for the entire hemisphere.”

As the panel ended, the panelists and audience reflected on how much more useful it is for progressives to organize around ideas and goals, instead of cultural identities. Salas talked passionately about the importance of finding strength in your own identity — but then reaching out beyond that to join with others to create a progressive vision we can all share. We all want the same things for ourselves and our children — but because our issues are all so deeply interwined, we can only get those things by working together.

Supporters of immigration reform are encouraged to text 69866 justice to sign up for updates from the immigration action network.

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