Trajectory of U.S. Immigration Reform

By Sarah Gold*

On May 26, immigration experts and activists gathered for a forum on immigration reform at The Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies to address critical questions regarding the trajectory of immigration reform in the United States. Panelists included Chung-Wha Hong of the New York Immigration Coalition, Gonzalo Mercado of El Centro del Immigrante, Ana Avendano from The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), Walter Barrientos, an MPA Student and immigration activist, and Allan Wernick, Director of CUNY Citizenship Now! and Professor at Baruch College. The panelists were asked to share their thoughts on immigration reform, guided by the following questions:

  • Can reform happen before 2012?
  • Should pro-immigrant activists support a partial program that includes the DREAM Act?
  • What tactics will best advance the fight for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants?

Chung-Wha Hong made the point that because the issue of immigration reform is so incredibly complicated, any discussion around reform needs to be simplified into analyses of policy, politics, and people. For instance, the the policy questions that need to be addressed when envisioning widespread reform include:

  • What will the United States government do with the 12 million undocumented people living here outside of the law?
  • How will immigrants be allowed into the United States moving forward? How will they be treated once they’re here?
  • How will immigration policies be enforced?

With regards to politics, Hong referenced President Obama’s promise to pass immigration reform in the first year of his presidency. We’re now 16 months in and Obama already has a worse enforcement record than Bush with billions of dollars being channeled into what Hong calls the detention-enforcement appararus and 400,000 deportations in the last year. That’s 1,000 deportations and 30,000 people detained each day.

Which brings us to people: the immigrant rights movement relies on mobilizing people, brining people to the streets, and universalizing the issue of immigration to all Americans. We need to make this an issue that is accessible to everyone by ramping up the moral, economic, and political pressure for reform. This means involving civil disobedience and dramatic action in the movement, working with clergy, boycotting Arizona, and ongoing strategizing and coalition building. The immigrant rights movement has historically been at the leading edge of social change and Hong believes it is the responsibility of this movement to realign U.S. immigration policy with the fundamental values of this country.

Gonzalo Mercado echoed many of Hong’s points and expanded the discussion to include the centrality of day laborers to the immigration debate. Mercado's organization, El Centro del Immigrante, is a day laborer center in Staten Island that now focuses largely on community organizing and leadership development. He articulated the relevance of SB-1070 as a state-wide mandate. The deputizing of local law enforcement as immigration officers has been taking place in localities across the country for years, but SB-1070 represents the first time this practice has been sanctioned state-wide.

Mercado urged activists to consider the relationship between domestic immigration policy and U.S. foreign policy. Many U.S. politicians who are against immigration reform support foreign policies that crush foreign economies and workforces, essentially creating the impetus for immigration to the United States. Mercado also believes that discussions about immigration too often stay confined to the illegal vs. legal paradigm while there are many nuanced issues that need to be addressed in order to have a truly authentic discussion about immigration in the U.S. It is critical to respond to what is happening today (ubiquitous human rights violations in New York City's detention centers, for example) rather than remaining confined to a theoretical discussion of what widespread reform might look like.

Ana Avendano initiated her remarks with a look into the poultry industry. Its labor force is now predominantly Latino and presumably undocumented; the Obama Administration recently authorized a study to evaluate the industry's compliance with basic wage and hour laws. The study found 0% compliance and Avendano believes this is because the industry's labor force exists largely outside of the law. Avendano believes that the immigration movement needs to be viewed through the lens of worker’s rights and that immigration reform policies must be developed using this framework. The labor movement is critical to the immigrant rights movement, because it creates an institution that can preserve its gains.

In 2006 and 2007, when immigration reform was last attempted, the stage was very different. While there is now a united labor movement and we have a community organizer as our President, the economy is suffering and the current job crisis is creating an additional challenge to immigration reform. It is going to be a difficult and slow process. Avendano reminded us that this is not a national debate that relies on rationality. While immigrant rights activits unrealistically hope for a transformative moment, we are ignoring the fact that the issues around immigrant rights are founded in a deep-seated resentment and distrust of immigrants. Immigrants are the common enemy and using the word illegal makes this easy to justify.

Walter Barrientos, a student and activist, first became active in the immigrant rights movement when his mother sought information about how to send her undocumented son to college. That’s when he learned about the DREAM Act. Under this bill, students who came to the United States before the age of 16 and have lived here for at least five years would qualify for conditional legal status so long as they graduated from high school or obtained a general equivalency diploma. Then, if they attended college or served in the military for two out of the next six years, they would qualify for permanent legal status. He spoke of fellow students who couldn’t complete their degrees in nursing or medicine because they were ineligible for healthcare or couldn’t fulfill necessary work placements requiring social security numbers. Barrientos believes that immigrant youth can play a major role in this movement by talking to fellow students, teachers, and pastors about their status. The broken immigration system relies on our collective silence. Becoming well-versed in the issues and knowing the facts (like the fact that more than 5 million citizen youth have at least one parent in deportation proceedings), will facilitate the broader conversation that needs to take place in order to advance the immigrant rights movement.

Allen Wernick, who had the final word, provided a sobering reality-check to an otherwise fairly optimistic discussion. As someone who has been active in immigrant rights for decades, he is not optimistic that Obama can make immigration reform happen during his presidency, or that widespread reform will happen anytime in the near future. He argued that what Arizona shows us is that a large percentage of the American population is afraid of immigration reform and immigrants and that Republicans are willing to throw the Latino population under the bus. He’s tired of hearing that what’s happening in Arizona is a great opportunity for mobilizing communities and advancing the movement. We can’t pretend that things are going great. He believes that discussions around immigration need to be raised more often in the context of civil and human rights violations, not solely in pragmatic terms like how legalization will impact the economy, education, and the workforce. Wernick believes that it is important to leave the door open for partial immigration reform. The passage of bills like the DREAM Act and AgJobs, which would provide a legal and stable labor supply and help ensure that farm workers are treated fairly, would not only allow the American people to see that immigration reform can actually be good for the country, but it would also allow for our immigration systems to adjust to processing an increased volume of legalizations.

When the discussion was opened to audience members, one audience member made a critical point, which I felt went largely unnoticed: It is imperative to address the role that racism plays in the immigration reform debate. It is not possible to have an authentic discussion about immigration in the United States without addressing this country’s ongoing legacy of slavery, White supremacy, and institutional racism. There is no race-neutral way to enforce laws like SB-1070, and trying to approach the issue of immigration reform from a race-neutral perspective hinders efforts to advance a social change movement for immigrants and at large.

*Sarah Gold has worked as a Domestic Violence Case Manager and Community Organizer in New York City for over two years. She is currently a research intern with the National Council for Research on Women.

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