¡Todos somos Arizona!

The revival of the immigrant rights movement since the passage of SB1070

AS MAY Day approached, and the immigrant rights movement was organizing marches for the rights of undocumented workers, a new law was signed by Governor Jan Brewer in Arizona. Senate Bill 1070 (SB 1070), as the law is known, makes it a crime for an immigrant to be in the state without immigration papers and gives authorization for the unwarranted search of “suspected illegal” people and their vehicles, thus writing racial profiling of Latinos into law. For many, the law resembles those passed in Nazi Germany against Jews and other minorities. As a result, the May Day marches of 2010 again had a mass character, much in the same way that the anti-immigrant Sensenbrenner bill galvanized the mass marches of 2006.

The law in Arizona imbued a sense of urgency in the ranks of the movement to come out in force and to state its demands. The signs, posters, banners, and placards at this year’s marches—particularly the handmade ones—are the best evidence of what these demands are. On them, people protested the ramping up of enforcement under Obama’s administration, and demanded an end to deportations, raids, and E-verify—the Internet-based government background check that tells employers whether their employees are authorized to work legally in the United States. Some signs reminded Obama of his promise to pass immigration reform, the assurance that immigrants will be able to work and live in this country without fear. They showed solidarity with immigrants in Arizona, declaring: “Todos somos Arizona!” and pointed out the racist nature of the law by asking the question: “Do I look illegal to you?”

Before the Arizona crisis, the movement’s discussions about what to emphasize as a demand for the May Day mobilizations centered on two, not necessarily exclusive, ideas. One wing of the movement, grouped around the Reform Immigration for America (RIFA) coalition, wanted to use May Day as a deadline for politicians to introduce an immigration bill in the Senate, after which the movement should escalate; the other wing, composed mainly by the independent networks that have emerged in recent years, wanted to focus in getting the Obama administration to issue an executive order ending deportations and E-verify. But before the movement could zero in on a single demand, SB1070 emerged, forcing the movement leadership to unite behind the need for solidarity with immigrants and Latinos in Arizona.

The Arizona question is crucial. “Todos somos Arizona”—We are all Arizona—is not only a solidarity cry, but a warning too. Today, the target is our brothers and sisters over there—tomorrow it may be immigrants everywhere. Thus, it also creates a new framework around which the questions about legislation and enforcement ought to be discussed. The Arizona law makes the need for an immigration reform that regularizes the status of all undocumented workers in this country all the more urgent. But at the same time, it makes the completion of such reform more difficult. As long as SB 1070 remains on the books, all negotiations for legalization will be made from a position of weakness, and it will make anything, even the current legislative framework that combines strong enforcement with weak legalization provisions, look desirable. If the system is broken, as the Obama administration and many politicians seem to recognize, then immigration enforcement should be stopped until it is fixed. The Arizona law makes this argument even more compelling and drives the mobilizing efforts of immigrants and immigrant rights advocates.

May Day showed that the movement has not lost its capacity to organize a mass response to racist attacks, but it still needs to prove that it can come up with common strategic goals. Some important questions about what to fight for, and when, will need to be answered. Arizona is a pressing issue, and defeating it now will build the strength and confidence of the movement to get a much better deal in the future. A total or partial moratorium on enforcement can free the movement up to fight for the legalization of all undocumented immigrant workers.
The most contentious question in the movement relates to the way in which legalization will be achieved. Proponents of Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) say that it will need to be part of a greater immigration overhaul, which includes elements of national security, law enforcement, and labor flow regulations. However, at the marches, undocumented immigrants and supporters brought signs that made no mention of the above, focusing on immigration reform based in ending their irregular immigration status.

The task of the movement to find common ground on how to move ahead with legislation is much more difficult than coming together to fight off racist attacks, but the unity forged by the events in Arizona can be used to achieve a way forward. Indeed, the fact that Arizona shines a new light on the question of enforcement creates an opening for those in the movement who oppose the draconian enforcement provisions in current immigration legislation to reinvigorate the debate over what we should be fighting for. As the movement attempts to provide answers to these questions, it is helpful to look back at the experiences of the movement since 2006.

Background to the current struggle
In July 2005, about 50,000 people came out in Chicago to protest HR 4437, Representative James Sensenbrenner’s attempt to criminalize not just the estimated twelve million undocumented immigrants, but also anyone who aided them. This rally was the prelude to the 300,000-strong demonstration in Chicago on March 10, 2006, which sparked the chain reaction of mobilizations in city after city, known as the “immigrants’ spring,” which succeeded in derailing the Sensenbrenner bill. The immigrant rights movement ended the spring protests by organizing the largest mobilization in U.S. history on May Day, when millions came out around the country. That date, May 1, is when workers all over the world commemorate International Workers’ Day, which is why this date is dear to immigrant workers. By mobilizing on this day, the new immigrant rights movement purposefully demanded solidarity from the whole class, and overwhelmingly found support from the country’s labor movement and progressive forces.

On the road to organizing the first mass May Day in the United States in decades, and with the Sensenbrenner bill already dead, the movement needed to raise its own demands. But to do this, it had to come to terms with the very wide range of forces that assisted in the defense of undocumented immigrants. During the spring demonstrations, when a voice in the crowd asked: “¿Qué queremos?” (What do we want?), the unanimous answer was “¡Amnistía!” (Amnesty!). Many thought it would be logical to make this the central demand for May Day. But immigrant rights organizations closer to the political process in Washington argued that the demand had to be for CIR, because one, there were senators trying to introduce it and we should support them; and two, because the A-word—amnesty—could alienate sympathetic but timorous politicians.

To solve the impasse, the demand of “legalization for all” came to the fore. The massive character of the organizing drive impeded the pro-CIR wing of the movement from steamrolling through with Washington’s plan for immigration reform, which prioritized enforcement and included weak legalization provisions. But the pro-amnesty wing had to concede to fold up its flag to maintain the movement’s unity. By putting forward the demand of legalization for all, the movement sidestepped the debate over guest-worker programs included in all the main CIR proposals. Guest workers—a group with few or no civil or workers’ rights—are, after all, legal.

Despite those unresolved differences, May Day 2006 was a huge success on many counts. It was one of the largest mobilizations in U.S. history; the Sensenbrenner bill was definitively defeated; many Democratic politicians scrambled to express their sympathies with immigrants, and legalization of undocumented immigrants became the cornerstone of any immigration reform talk; the immigrant rights movement established itself as a force to reckon with, and a giant step had been taken to revive May Day as a workers’ symbol of solidarity and struggle in the United States, where the tradition began.

During May Day, CIR advocates marched with “Yes to SB 2611” placards. The SB 2611 was the version of CIR introduced by Senators Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) weeks before. As with other versions of CIR that have followed, it included further militarization of the border and strengthening of enforcement, a guest-worker program, and a very restrictive and draconian path to legalization. The latter allowed CIR supporters to present the proposal as the legalization the broader movement demanded, and thus the coalition Somos America emerged to support it, with the backing of some unions, churches, and community leaders, as well as immigrant rights advocacy groups linked to the Democratic Party. But the coalition didn’t include the many grass-roots “calendar coalitions,” which took their name after the date of their first mobilization. Those groups largely dismissed the various CIR proposals as “Sensenbrenner Lite.”

It was not their opposition that derailed the bill, but the Democrats’ fears as the 2006 midterm elections approached. Thus, CIR advocates argued for marching to the voting booths to elect sympathetic politicians. Their effort paid off, at least electorally. In November 2006, the Republicans lost the leadership in both the House and Senate. The vote was mostly considered antiwar, but the Democrats’ success was also a result of a higher turnout of Latino and other immigrant voters.

Meanwhile, the calendar coalitions argued for keeping the pressure on the politicians by continuing to mobilize in the streets, seeking national and regional coordination, and protesting the border vigilantes, the Minutemen, and their ilk wherever they showed their faces. But with few resources and without the central focus that fighting Sensenbrenner brought to the movement, the movement went into retreat, giving space to the “activists” of the right. In this period the right became emboldened; unchallenged from the left and abetted by a permissive media, they gained legitimacy as the other side of the immigration debate. With it, a wave of anti-immigrant local legislation swept the country.

As the new Democratic-led Congress made itself comfortable in the Capitol, the calendar coalitions discussed plans for a new round of marches when spring 2007 set in. In doing this, they encountered arguments from CIR advocates to not rock the boat, give Congress time, and be careful not to scare Republicans and moderate Democrats away. The recent memory of defeating HR 4437 on the streets gave strength to those who wanted to march to demand legalization for all from the now “friendly” Congress.

However, weeks before May Day 2007, Illinois congressman Luis Gutierrez introduced in the House of Representatives a new version of CIR, the STRIVE Act. The movement splintered, exposing how difficult it is for the movement to deal with the issue of legislation in a unified way.  In city after city, pro- and anti-STRIVE Act activists split over the issue of whether or not to support Gutierrez’s initiative. As a result, many cities had two, three, and even four different—and very small—events on May Day 2007, except in Chicago, where at least 250,000 marched in a unified mobilization, the last truly massive demonstration of the immigrant rights movement for a while. The movement would have to wait until March 21, 2010, when more than 200,000 demonstrated in Washington, D.C., for immigration reform, to see another rally of that size. Between the two, and while major shifts occurred on the political landscape, the movement’s wings grew apart as the size of the mobilizations decreased.

In the second half of 2007, the STRIVE Act was matched in the Senate by a compromise bill championed by Senators Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). As with other CIR proposals, it combined repressive measures with a path to legalization program, the Z visas, put forward by the Bush administration, which would only grant temporary status to a limited number of undocumented immigrants. But with the 2008 presidential elections looming on the horizon, a campaign of e-mails and phone calls from right-wing bigots was enough to scare sympathetic officials into withdrawing the legislation. This was the last time that legalization, CIR style, was on the Washington agenda.

The message was carried down to the base of the movement: the task was now the election of the Democratic Party candidates, from Congress to the White House. A second march to the voting booths was argued for to create more favorable conditions for immigration reform in Washington. Subsequently, CIR advocates, with very few exceptions, were largely absent during the 2008 May Day marches. With 25,000 marchers, the biggest mobilization was in Los Angeles, California, aided by the fact that the economic pressures of the coming recession were felt first on the West Coast. All through the election year, and all over the country, grass-roots activists were left by themselves to fend off the daily attacks on undocumented immigrant families: raids, deportations, no-match letters, the polimigra (collaboration of local police forces with federal immigration authorities), and local anti-immigrant legislation.

Meanwhile, those active in the election campaign became part of the most significant electoral victory in recent history. In November 2008, they helped to elect the first African American president of the United States, Barack Obama, who promised to make immigration reform a priority of his administration. But not only that, they gave Democrats a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. However, electorally oriented activists still argued for the movement to wait for Obama and Congress to put forward new legislation. The administration needed time, the argument went—so don’t agitate, and don’t embarrass Obama or congressional Democrats.

Consequently, the May Day mobilizations continued the shrinking pattern in 2009. Other trends could also be observed: in 2008, the May Day demonstration was more decisively for legalization for all rather than just reform, with groups and contingents clearly and politically delineated, pointing to the fact that with much fewer resources the wing of the movement advocating pressure on the streets as the main political tool was doing exactly what it professed. This wing was less visible, but remained active defending victims of immigration law enforcement instead of waiting. Around the country, workers fought back against the E-verify firings, and on the West Coast at Overhill Farms and elsewhere they created defense committees. Networks emerged in Maricopa County, Arizona, to warn folk about Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s checkpoints. In Chicago, starting in February 2009, students working to stop the deportation of Rigo Padilla, eventually formed what has become a model for a fighting organization, the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL).

Late in 2009, waiting gave way to disappointment. The Obama administration not only went through its first year without addressing immigration reform, but it also gave a new slap in the face to the people who had ensured its victory by ramping up enforcement through E-verify, and increasing deportations. According to Dan Froomkin on the Huffington Post, “The number of deportations each year more than tripled during the Bush era—and has kept going up since then. During fiscal year 2009, the first fiscal year of the Obama era, 387,790 immigrants were deported—almost 100,000 more during the last full fiscal year of the Bush presidency.” More recently, Obama has combined verbal criticism of SB 1070 with a nod to his right flank—pledging in May to send 1,200 National Guard troops to police Arizona’s border with Mexico.

By the end of the year, CIR advocates showed the first signs that the waiting period for them was near the end. In Chicago, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) took up Rigo Padilla’s deportation case and ran with it, and in mid-December, Representative Luis Gutierrez introduced the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act (CIR ASAP). This legislation includes some of the changes that the movement demands, but still contains harsh enforcement measures. Most notably, it writes into law the E-verify system.

But those in the highest ranks of the Democratic Party were not tired of waiting and told the movement to wait some more. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi assured Democratic Party representatives that they would not have to vote on such a controversial issue without the Senate acting on it first. Pelosi was waiting on Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Schumer was waiting on Obama. The undocumented youth were waiting no more.

On January 1, 2010, three undocumented youth and a fourth supporter started a long walk from Miami to Washington, D.C., to highlight their plight. On March 10, 2010, on the fourth anniversary of the first mega march, IYJL retraced the route of the 2006 march to end up in Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago in a Coming Out of the Shadows event, where seven students told the world about their undocumented status and how it affected their lives and dreams. This demonstration of courage and resolution put new blood and fire into the movement. A recently formed coalition, Reform Immigration for America (RIFA), which traces its pedigree back to the Somos America group that supported CIR in 2006 and 2007, used this fire to light up their March for America rally of March 21, 2010.

This march got politicians moving in Washington, who, in the middle of the height of the health care reform debate, took some time out to address the concerns of the immigrant rights movement. Days before the march, Senators Schumer and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) published a blueprint of their proposal for CIR legislation. Obama and the leaders of the House and the Senate came out quickly in support of it. Obama himself spoke to the crowd in Washington on huge TV screens. But the Graham-Schumer CIR version is the worst bill that the movement has been offered so far. It not only includes the standard hardening of enforcement and border security, as well as creation of a guest-worker program, but its path to citizenship proposal is more restrictive than previous ones. It even incorporates the creation of a national biometric Social Security card for all workers in the United States—basically, putting the burden of getting a permit to work not only on immigrant workers, but on native workers, too.

Republican senator Graham then declared immigration reform “dead” because the health care battle had “poisoned the well.” He argued that forcing a discussion of it would jeopardize the a bipartisan climate change bill, now also on hold. On the eve of May Day 2010 mobilizations, with Graham declared out, three Democratic Party senators (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Schumer, and New Jersey’s Robert Menendez) released their own outline for immigration reform. Hastily put together, the outline is mostly dedicated to enforcement and security, vague on how regularization of status would occur, but maintains much of the original Schumer-Graham framework about which immigrant rights supporters have been so critical.

Still, the RIFA coalition’s aim is to get the Schumer-Graham or Reid-Schumer-Menendez blueprint introduced in the Senate this year. RIFA doesn’t necessarily support the provisions of Schumer-Graham, but according to its logic, a bill—any bill—needs to be introduced before we can debate its content. The fight to modify it into something acceptable for the movement will come later.

This is a misguided strategy. Recent legislative action shows that a bill almost always changes for the worse in Congress—case in point, the health care reform. But it also begs the question: if the goal is to get something debated in the Senate, why not pressure the House to pass the more lenient and already introduced Gutierrez CIR ASAP bill? The right declared CIR ASAP dead on arrival, so it may be that the common sense knowledge within the coalition is that concessions must be made, or perhaps because in order to reach a compromise with it, the right must be portrayed not as a loser, but as a player. Whatever the reason for backing Schumer-Graham, RIFA’s Illinois director looked at this author with confusion when asked about pressing for Gutierrez’s bill, replying: “I don’t know. I will have to ask about that.”

Started by grass-roots coalitions around the country, the 2010 May Day organizing was already underway when RIFA, and the liberal and labor groups within it, got involved. RIFA has taken leadership in pushing for immigration reform, specifically getting a bill introduced in Congress, and they saw May Day as the next step. They participated in May Day with a strength not shown, by most of its members, since 2007, and added a great deal to the mass character of this year’s mobilization. In their strategy, April 30 was a deadline for introducing a bill. The plan was that if no bill was introduced, the movement should escalate, starting with mass actions and civil disobedience on May Day. In Washington D.C., Luis Gutierrez and members of the RIFA coalition, wearing shirts that read: “Arrest me, not my friends,” got arrested in front of the White House.

Actions like that spread quickly around the country, from Arizona to Chicago to Los Angeles. But the one that stands out in recent weeks was the sit-in and arrests at Senator John McCain’s office in Arizona. Four youth, three undocumented, threatened not to leave McCain’s office until the Republican senator expressed his support for the passage of the DREAM Act. The DREAM Act is a bill initiated by undocumented students, which eventually was taken up by Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who has introduced it a number of times. The act would allow for youth who arrived in the United States at an early age to apply for legal status while attending college or serving in any branch of the military. Durbin added the military element to the bill. This has become a contentious issue among immigrant rights activists.

Those who are critical of the DREAM Act see it as a means of drafting young immigrants into the military because very few of them ever have the opportunity to attend college. Those who support it argue that its passage can be a stepping stone for bigger gains. But under electoral pressure, McCain is pushing for an enforcement-only bill, a deal could be reached between “moderates” of both parties to pass both bills, after which the political class will want to close the immigration chapter, leaving millions still in the shadows.

The willingness, courage, and determination of undocumented students and youth to escalate the struggle and take risks flows from a genuine sense of urgency for change and the beliefs that the timeframe in Washington, D.C.—not just the timeframe of the White House and Congress, but also establishment immigrant advocacy groups—is unacceptable and action from below can inspire people to join the struggle, forcing politicians to act. The movement should extend its fullest solidarity to undocumented youth who seek to emulate the decisive role student activists played in the 1960s when they sat in at lunch counters throughout the South at great personal risk to break Jim Crow laws. 

As the ISR went to press, at least 50,000 people mobilized in Phoenix, Arizona, on May 29, in solidarity with immigrants in Arizona and against SB 1070. Mobilizations also took place in many other cities around the country and internationally. Immigrant rights leaders are using the opportunity to meet and strategize about the next steps, and across the country activists independent of the Washington-linked political machine anxiously await a lead that can take the fight for immigration reform ahead. A conversation about this kind of reform needs to start by strategizing how to win a repeal of the Arizona bill; how to pressure Obama, who repeatedly has recognized that the system is broken, to withdraw federal cooperation with Arizona in enforcing SB1070, and to stop deportations and the use of E-verify. A win against SB 1070 will allow the movement to put forward a legislative proposal from a position of strength—not just any proposal, but one that puts the interests of the whole working class, native and immigrant, up front.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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