thoughts from the AILA conference

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It can be stressful working in a field where my clients, and I by extension, feel constantly under siege from government agencies, the courts, and even members of the public.  So sitting at the opening session of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) annual conference with 3,000 or 4,000 other immigration attorneys yesterday was an empowering experience.  We are fed up!  Both the outgoing 2007 and incoming 2008 AILA presidents took a vocal and rousing stance against the egregious violations of constitutional rights and basic human rights we have seen recently from ICE and the other immigration agencies.

Marshall Fitz, advocacy director for AILA, said what most immigration attorneys have come to realize in recent years, that 9/11 changed the entire immigration landscape. 

After the attacks, many Americans felt threatened and they, and politicians especially, looked for someone to blame for that lost feeling of safety.  In the public mind, something--anything--needed to be done.  Unfortunately, as we know from the war in Iraq, too frequently the people the government went after turned out to be not the right targets but the easy ones.  Not members of al-Qaeda responsible for the attacks, but instead foreign nationals inside the U.S. who had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11, but happened to be close at hand, legally vulnerable, and convenient scapegoats with whom to soothe an anxious public.

It took a few years for the full effects of 9/11 to be felt.  It took time for existing restrictionist organizations to fully capitalize on the feelings of insecurity spawned by the attacks.  Just as Bush served as the vessel to promote an existing neoconservative agenda to project American military power into the Middle East, Congress and the executive branch acted as tools of a longstanding movement that used the new landscape to promote its nativist agenda. 

This series of events may not be obvious to everyone, but it is painfully apparent to migrants in the U.S. and their attorneys.

Fitz made some interesting comments about current prospects for comprehensive reform (CIR).  He said CIR will not be decided by the Obama/McCain race, but by who wins downticket.  The “New Southern Strategy” of demonizing migrants for political gain has demonstrably failed just about everywhere it has been tried.  But, inexplicably, politicians continue to use the strategy. 

As Publius likes to point out, the only thing politicians can be counted on to respond to is fear of political death: defeat at the ballot box.  Fitz said politicians have to be shown they need not fear touching CIR the way they do now.  They have to be afraid of not doing something to fix the unholy mess that currently masquerades as our immigration system.  The next few months will be very important in this respect, and the Latino vote will play a big role in how that issue plays out in the election.  My view is that Obama needs the Latino vote to win, and to get it he needs to show that he will fight for issues important to the Latino community.  A good way to do that is to vocally support CIR. 

Likewise, advocates of CIR should give up the dream of slipping favorable immigration legislation into omnibus bills and realize that CIR will only be won through hard-fought battles in the public sphere and at the ballot box.  We should not settle for mushy positions from both candidates with the expectation that if they can get through the election without drawing too much attention to immigration, either one will do “the right thing” after winning and push for CIR.  This hasn’t worked before and is unlikely to work now.  

If McCain continues to obfuscate his position on CIR, if Obama continues to triangulate and avoid the issue, Democrats risk losing enough of the Latino vote to affect the outcome in November, and migrant advocates risk losing a crucial chance to secure a commitment to real immigration reform.  Also, the debate at the top will filter down to other races, and recent history shows that in general elections, candidates running primarily on a restrictionist platform lose.  Advocates should make a strong, very public case for the benefits of CIR and not run from the issue this election cycle.

But that's my take.  What do you think?

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This page contains a single entry by David Bennion published on June 28, 2008 2:53 AM.

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