Pro-Migrant Reticence As U.S. Migration Reform Process Begins

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I'm still reeling off the heals of the Reform Immigration for America Summit and the National DREAM Act Graduation, for which I have a great deal of material to share.  Still, with President Obama finally convening his twice postponed meeting to begin the process of U.S. migration reform and the subsequent reactions, it's clear that there is a need for some informed pro-migrant commentary on what is happening. 

I personally have been having trouble finding my voice with Obama.  I don't think it's a secret that I have not been happy with his administration.  Still, Obama hasn't completely sold migrants down the river, yet.  There is still a chance he'll come through on his campaign pledge to "make it a top priority" in his first year as President.  I will believe it when I see it.  I haven't seen it yet, but Obama still has five months to prove otherwise.

There are two issues that migrant advocates have to face in trying to push for just and humane migration reform.  The first issue is convincing politicians and the U.S. public that migration reform should be taken up in the first place, which has proven to be no small feat after the U.S. economy almost collapsed.  The second issue is pushing the debate as far to the pro-migrant side as possible, so that when the legislative battle does begin, we have a good starting point unlike with the attempt to pass migration reform in 2007.  Migrant advocates and allies have been doing a decent job with the first issue, but a horrible job with the second issue.  I will discuss both in this post.
I became involved in the campaign for U.S. migration reform in 2005, when an extremely punitive and anti-migrant bill, H.R. 4437, passed in the U.S. House, causing some of the largest demonstrations the U.S. has ever seen in protest of the bill.  My naive 19-year-old mind thought migration reform would soon follow as attempts were made to pass migration reform in both 2006 and 2007.  When both attempts failed, I then watched in utter horror as the Bush administration under Michael Chertoff at the Department of Homeland Security made good on it's pledge that it would enforce the broken laws on the books if Congress failed to pass migration reform. 

Raids such as those in New Bedford and Postville were the most visible manifestation of the humanitarian disasters that resulted from that decision.  But raids represented just the surface of a campaign of mass terror against unauthorized migrants in the United States, best articulated by nativist groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the Center for Immigration Studies, and NumbersUSA as "attrition through enforcement." Growing up, I used to smirk at advocates who would "waste" a good portion their lives trying to get just one piece of legislation passed in Congress.  I can now easily see myself turning into one, as I have become utterly convinced that passing U.S. migration reform is essential to correcting not only what I consider to be one of the biggest humanitarian disasters in U.S. history, but also essential for the betterment of the world. 

Needless to say, the world cannot wait another year or two for U.S. migration reform.  People are dying, lives are being ruined, and families are being torn apart, now.  I would hope U.S. Congress and the Obama administration would sense this urgency, too, but since the near collapse of the U.S. economy, a steady stream of naysayers has appeared in the media to dampen expectations.  There were many, but the largest blow to this sense of urgency, I felt, were the comments of Vice President Joe Biden in Costa Rica:

"It's difficult to tell a constituency while unemployment is rising, they're losing their jobs and their homes, that what we should do is in fact legalize (illegal immigrants) and stop all deportation," Biden told a news conference in the Costa Rican capital.
John McPhaul - Reuters (30 March 2009)
There's been a steady stream of ridiculous comments like that have been emerging from both members of the Obama administration and Congress.  The first major problem with these comments is factual.  The buy into elementary school, 2+2 economics, in which getting a job is a zero-sum game.  In actuality, legalizing unauthorized migrants would "would improve wages and working conditions for all workers, and increase tax revenues for cash-strapped federal, state, and local governments" according to the Immigration Policy Center

The second major problem with these comments, obviously, is a lack of moral fortitude.  Essentially what Joe Biden is saying in the comment above is, "We'd love to stop tearing apart your families, but the political climate just isn't right, at the moment."  Politicians do not get to play political games with humanitarian crises like the broken U.S. migration system.

Very recently, there's been an additional attempt to dampen the urgency associated with U.S. migration reform.  Press secretary Robert Gibbs, and Rahm Emanuel have both made statements to the press that the votes for migration reform aren't there.  Both of these statements fit a pattern of trying to lower expectations on migration reform which migrant advocates should not tolerate.  They also fly in the face of the comments of people like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who says he does have the votes to pass migration reform, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer who says action could begin "as early, perhaps, as this fall."

So again, the first issue with pushing for migration reform is convincing politicians and the U.S. public that it should happen this year.  Migrant advocates across the U.S. have been doing a good job of moving this forward in my estimation, as they have sounded a constant drumbeat of optimism and pushed backed against any pessimism on the prospect of migration reform moving forward. 

While migrant advocates have been doing a good job of pushing migration reform forward, they have been doing a bad job of pushing the debate as for to the pro-migrant side as possible.  "Progressive" bloggers have also been completely silent on yesterday's important White House meeting and other important developments.  Politicians are already starting to draw lines in the sand and there has been no real opposition to the dangerous policies that some have already proposed.  I will name just a few, here. 

Republicans are already pushing for exploitative guest-worker programs.  I actually used to think a guest-worker program might be a good idea until I read the Southern Poverty Law Center report Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States

Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who has been praised multiple times by migrant advocacy organizations, has already conceded the need for a national identification system, which would not only fundamentaly alter civil liberties in the U.S., it could also be used by employers to target employees.

These are some small policy trends that have cropped up recently, but the most pervasive problem, I believe, is the across the board pandering to punitive anti-migrant rhetoric on behalf of both politicians and migrant advocates.  The beginning of the use of this rhetoric can be traced back to a confidential poll commissioned by the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, and the Center For America Progress which was leaked to Sam Stein of the Huffington Post.  This poll found that you could get almost 80% of the U.S. public to agree to migration reform when pandering to enforcement and assimilationist rhetoric, such as "requiring" migrants to become legal, learn english, pay fines, and get in the back of the line.  There is a direct line between the prolifiration of this rhetoric and the first of seven principles that Senator Chuck Schumer is advancing in his vision for migraiton reform:

Illegal immigration is wrong, and a primary goal of comprehensive immigration reform must be to dramatically curtail future illegal immigration.
Chuck Schumer (24 June 2009)

I'm sorry, Senator Schumer, but unauthorized migration is not wrong.  All the vast majority of unauthorized migrants want to do is earn a better living for themselves and their families.  What is wrong is a broken migration system that refuses to acknowledge their humanity, and the failure of politicians to do something about it.

Mala over at Vivir Latino has an excellent post on this, too.

There's a lot more I want to say about the unwillingess of migrant advocates and mainstream bloggers to push back and define the U.S. migration debate, but I will leave it at that for now.  The media isn't being very helpful either as it plays racist images of border crossers in the background of any discussion on migration policy.

In summary, migrant advocates are doing an excellent job of creating a sense of urgency and hope around migration reform which we need.  Migration reform needs to be tackled sooner rather than later.  We cannot wait another year, or two, or three, or four, while people are dying and families are being torn apart. 

Migrant advocates and mainstream bloggers have to do a better job, however, of defining the U.S. migration debate in a way that we get the best reform possible.  Attempts in the past at this have been dismal, and from what I've seen so far, I'm not to optimistic about the way things are going this time around.  If it weren't for an independent pro-migrant blogosphere, there would be absolutely no pushback at all.

I'll end with a quote from Duke at The Sanctuary:

Change is not more militarization of the border
Change is not more detention in prisons for profit
Change is not more families separated
Change is not more exploitive guest worker programs
Change is not more penalties and fines

If those in Congress and the Administration believe they can simply repackage the same old policies wrapped in a pretty blue "sí se puede" wrapper, and sell them to a public that wants real solutions to real problems, I fear they're in for a rude awakening.

And if those charged with speaking for the immigrant community believe, as they have in the past, that they must accept crumbs left on the table, they too will find that change has past them by.

There is a growing movement demanding real change, and those working towards that goal will lead the way. Those stuck in the past, tied to failed ideas, fearful of rocking a sinking boat, will ultimately be left behind.
Duke - The Sanctuary (5 June 2009)

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1 Comments

beholder said:

Thanks for this very thoughtful commentary.

I have a few observations about this debate that I consider essential to furthering the cause of progressive immigration reform.

First, the greatest enemy to reform is ignorance. It will be as no surprise to most people who read this blog, but the level of emotional resistance to immigration reform is drastically out of alignment with the reality of the issue. The opposition to any hint of amnesty is very similar in my mind to the knee-jerk resistance to granting marriage rights to same sex couples in parity with others. Slowly, over the past two decades (and amid the horrendous rise of bigotry associated with the presence of HIV) the will to hate has somehow eroded into tolerance. This was possible only through constant efforts by concerned citizens, mostly gay or lesbian to begin with, then later going more mainstream with people starting to take a look at the facts and say, well, this is not a threat.

Today I see the same level of emotional resolve against changing our perverse and unjust immigration policies. We cannot count on policy makers to bring this issue forward, since their survival in office depends on votes. Aliens cannot vote, and therefore represent very little political capital. My point is that human rights and economics alone are not enough to convince policy makers. We need to bring this issue forward constantly and make it a major political plank before politicians will do more than give lip service to the idea. In this sense, I agree that Obama has failed us.

Another critical factor to consider is stereotyping. Every single headline that screams "illegal alien rapes, kills, steals or whatever" will be used to represent the millions of people who are productive and valuable members of our society. We no longer see headlines that say "black man kills white man" but the parallel is there. Changing perception requires combatting the a priori assumption that immigrants with irregular documentation are somehow criminally minded and a threat. To do so, we must be positive, insistent, and tireless in our approach to pointing out the fallacies of stereotypes. We must come up with a unified stance and think critically about what we are proposing if we have any hope at all of achieving our goals of a society that truly extends Constitutional protections to all.

If you read this far, thank you for your patience. I sometimes post to the Houston Chronicle blogs. Hope to see you there, we need you!

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This page contains a single entry by kyledeb published on June 26, 2009 7:00 AM.

Unauthorized Youth Rise Against Oppression Nationwide was the previous entry in this blog.

Voto Latino Begins Campaign to Stand Up To Hate: Interview With Robert Cantu Victim of Alleged Hate Crime is the next entry in this blog.

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