We asked Q—, a national immigrant rights advocate, to describe the current environment in her field.* Here’s her surprising answer …
“The immigrant rights movement is going through an overwhelming, tense, and confused time, which is hopefully setting the stage for changes that have been needed for a long time.
“The down side:
“A lot of people didn’t like the immigration reform legislation in the Senate this year. But now the only thing that might have been a solution is gone, and both political parties are saying they won’t pursue anything comprehensive and humane for at least the next several years. And that means the lives of immigrants are likely to get a lot worse before they start to get better.
“We’re facing the entrenchment and elaboration of a separate and unequal legal system for immigrants that doesn’t provide checks and balances necessary for ensuring that the government follows the law.
“We’re facing a lack of hope among Americans—including immigration activists—that the federal government can fix anything, let alone anything as complicated as immigration policy.
“We’re facing an overwhelming number of anti-immigrant measures introduced in cities and states. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures,
As of July 2, 2007, no fewer than 1404 pieces of legislation related to immigrants and immigration had been introduced among the 50 state legislatures. From January to July 2nd 2007, 170 bills became law in 41 states ... State legislators have introduced roughly two-and-a-half times more bills in 2007, than in 2006. The number of enactments from 2006 (84) has more than doubled to 170 in 2007 ... In the continued absence of a comprehensive federal reform of the United States’ challenged immigration system, states have displayed an unprecedented level of activity.
“We’re facing racial profiling, as people are being asked for their documentation on traffic stops if they look ‘foreign.’
“We’re facing attacks in Congress that keep chipping away at the rights of immigrants to argue their cases in court, the power of judges to make decisions about individual cases, and assurances that detention facilities keep people safe.
“We’re facing the enforcement of ‘material support’ laws that define immigrants and others as terrorists if they have ever provided any help to a rebel group, even if that rebel group fought alongside American troops, and even if the choice was to carry water for an army or be shot in the head.
“We’re facing a seemingly endless trail of death at the US-Mexico border.
“We’re facing the tangled interests and assumptions of African Americans, Latinos, labor, agribusiness, churches, and practically every other politically powerful interest group.
“Many immigrant rights activists are feeling overwhelmed and scared. A lot of people are angry, and some are more reflective than they had been.
“On the upside, this is a time when a long-needed reinvention of the immigrant rights movement is possible.
“Without the pressure to take a reactive stance towards a cumbersome piece of legislation, and with the mood of critical self-examination, we have the potential to find new ways to encourage people to be vocal about the principles that even ‘illegal immigrants’ are human beings with certain inalienable rights, and that systems need to be kept in place to ensure that the government is accountable for its actions.
“Like many other progressives, a lot of immigrant rights activists have become too used to communicating with people who already agree with them, and they need to refocus on systematically building their base of active support. Polls continue to show that the majority of Americans favor many reforms supported by activists, but in the past year they have not favored them strongly enough to take action by calling Congress or attending a city council meeting.
“It is easier to get people excited about opposing something (like ‘amnesty’) than about supporting something that only takes steps towards solving a problem (like this year’s Senate bill). But, honestly, vocal immigrant rights activists have been—to put it mildly— drastically less effective at making their voices heard than their opponents have been.
“Too much money and time have been dedicated to in-group meetings, as well as investing in communications and organizing campaigns that either taste like Kool-Aid or alienate potential champions.
“Too little has been invested in taking the concerns of potential allies seriously, which involves grappling with deeply troubling issues that lurk in the background (whether we like it or not) and give our opponents ammunition: issues like the relationship between terrorism and immigration, the fear that American culture and skin color are changing too quickly, and the reality that vulnerable immigrants often take jobs that employers would otherwise need to provide better conditions and pay for.
“By too often sidestepping minefields like these, immigrant rights advocates have demonstrated their fear of them, let faulty assumptions and misinformation go uncorrected, and implicitly lent credence to their critics. Increasingly, activists need to engage in the messy work of clearing the field of mines rather than awkwardly dancing around them.
“Immigrant rights activists need to dedicate themselves to a deceptively simple task: Helping specific groups of people see that the lives and contributions of immigrants are worth making a phone call for.
“The immigrant rights movement has hit what I think will soon be seen as ‘rock bottom,’ which is a good place for starting off on a new path.”
* My informant prefers to remain anonymous.