Immigrant Rights: A Question of Strategy and Vision

By Tram Nguyen May 30, 2007

This is a critical time in the Senate process for immigration reform legislation. Senators are hoping to move through crucial amendment votes this Monday, and to wrap up work on the bill by the end of next week. Especially now, there are urgent questions confronting the immigrant rights movement about strategy and vision. The Senate bill contains provisions that have been widely denounced by immigrants, advocates and the editorial pages of many major papers: an expanded guestworker program with no way to legalize, a point system in place of family reunification, along with myriad stipulations on border enforcement and restrictions on due process for immigrants. It presents us with a terrible bargain—desperately needed relief for 12 million people (an improvement over the status quo even with its hurdles), at the expense of whole categories of other people including family members waiting to join their loved ones, future foreign-born AND native workers who will be affected by the influx of cheap labor, and families here separated by cruel detention and deportation policies. I’ve been watching the debate closely for weeks, increasingly torn over the desire to denounce the injustice of these proposals like many allies and colleagues have done, and my growing conviction that denunciation by itself is not a viable strategy. One of the key questions immigrant rights activists have debated is whether to try to kill any bill this year, seeing how the political climate and the congressional negotiations have produced such noxious compromises. At various points last week, it seemed unclear whether the bipartisan coalition would hold and whether the plug might indeed get pulled among legislators themselves. But now, the momentum is on the side of pushing something through. Whether it’s because of 08 looming, the strength of the business lobby in demanding more disposable workers, Bush’s own lame-duck urgency to accomplish something, or the readiness of Democrats like Edward Kennedy rushing to make a deal…forces have converged to make immigration reform legislation a reality this year. And by only denouncing all of it for falling far short of a just and comprehensive reform, we sideline ourselves on a policy that will get made with or without us. I don’t think it’s conscionable to let 12 million undocumented immigrants bear the brunt of the broken system with attacks on their families and communities for the next three years, or however long it may take to come back to the table with a better deck of cards. But that doesn’t mean that we have to sign on for playing politics in backroom deals. We need to accelerate and escalate our tactics on the outside in a way that puts pressure on the inside players, and lays the groundwork for more organizing rather than the de-mobilization of our communities. In a recent press call hosted by the Leadership Conference, Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change laid out three points of agreement for grassroots immigrant leaders: 1. We should acknowledge that immigration reform is in response to mobilization from communities. 2. In order for the bill to move forward, we need to demand a family-based system and protection for future workers. Thirdly, he said: "We are hopeful but cautious and preparing to make our voices heard. We need this debate to happen—there are remarkable levels of suffering in immigrant communities—but we have to do it right." Those are actually smart and good rudiments for a guiding principle in this next phase. I don’t have all the answers, but my sense is that what our side needs most right now is to keep in focus the energy and hopes of the millions who marched and moved the debate this far in the face of hateful backlash and state violence, and to take action that moves in step with that slow and steady progress. What does that translate into? I think we need to unify around the agenda articulated by leaders such as Emma Lozano and Elvira Arellano of Centro Sin Fronteras, who, in a statement posted at, have emphasized the need to gain legalization in the best form we can get from the House and Senate reconciliation, and "provide for the security, dignity and empowerment of millions of our people so that we can continue the struggle in the years to come." Democrats and Republicans need to hear from us in the days to come, because the stronger the backlash against the Senate provisions, the more empowered legislators will be to fight for a better House bill. When the debate moves back to the House, we need to be on top of that, demanding that our representatives start working with the STRIVE act rather than the Senate version, and demand, demand, demand that stronger family unification, worker protection and due process rights are included in the bill. And while we fight for this relief and protection for millions, we keep building toward what Roberto Lovato calls in his recent ColorLines piece "a long-term vision, one that defines the immigration debate beyond Beltway politics and the U.S. border."