The Immigrant Rights Movement in the Obama Era

From baja california/los angeles

The fact that the street grass roots pressure, which traditionally is the face of the massive immigrant rights movement in the US is presently at a low ebb, does not mean that the process of the 23 year struggle to empower the undocumented immigrant in the US is at a stand still. On the contrary, the political reality we are presently living is comparable, but richer, to the period that ended in 1986, when then President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Immigration Reform Act of 1986 that legalized millions of immigrants. Undocumented or not, the present moment for immigrants and the 47 million Latinos in US is extraordinary because of the capitalist global crisis and despite the predictable and fierce upcoming anti immigrant right wing campaign now in motion with the introduction of new legistaive initiatives as well as the government’s expansión of the EVerify and 287g programs, the political conditions today unequivocally point to a national consensus for the passage of another landmark immigration reform law in 2009.

 Since January several favorable national indicators have surfaced. The latest is an interview of Senate Majority leader Harry Reid published in the Spanish language daily La Opinion. The powerful democrat clearly expresses his view that immigration reform will be debated and probably approved this year because "the votes are there in congress forthe passage of a bill". Reid’s comments come in the heels of several other major developments including revealing national opinión polls, the June 25, 2009 meeting between President Barack Obama, cabinet members and key congressional legislators, and last, the fact that Senator Judiciary Sub Committee Chairman Charles Schumer has assured the country that a comprehensive reform bill will be introduced this coming September.

Traditionally since the mega marches of 2006 ensued and subsequently every year since, opinión polls have guaged the thinking of the people in the United States on the often volatile issue of immigration and the legalization of the 12 millon plus undocumented workers and their families and this year 2009 is no different. Immediatelly after the May Day celebration in more than 100 cities, the Bendixen & Associates Firm polled the Latino community and the study projected an important increase of support for legalization which for the first time topped 80%.

In this context to further explore the Latino state of mind in the US, the PEW Hispanic Poll of 2008 becomes more relevant:

"More than four-in-five Hispanics (81%) say that immigration enforcement should be left mainly to the federal authorities rather than the local police; 76% disapprove of workplace raids; 73% disapprove of the criminal prosecution of undocumented immigrants who are working without authorization; and 70% disapprove of the criminal prosecution of employers who hire undocumented immigrants. A narrow majority (53%) disapproves of a requirement that employers check a federal database to verify the legal immigration status of all prospective hires.

The survey finds that a majority of Latinos worry about deportation. Some 40% say they worry a lot and an additional 17% say they worry some that they themselves, a family member or a close friend may be deported. This is up slightly from 2007, when 53% of Latino adults said that they worried a lot or some about deportation (Pew Hispanic Center 2007).

Not surprisingly, worries about deportation and perceptions of discrimination in jobs or housing because of Hispanic ethnicity correlate with the view that Latinos’ situation has worsened in the past year. Two-thirds (68%) of Latinos who worry a lot that they or someone close to them may be deported say that Latinos’ situation in the country today is worse than it was a year ago, as do 63% of Latinos who have experienced job difficulties because of their ethnicity and 71% of Latinos who report housing difficulties because of their ethnicity"

 Why is this important? The 47 million Latinos in the US and the millions of undocumented immigrants are one and the same. 67% of this sector has one or more undocumented members in their households. Additionally, measuring and understanding the thinking of the rising Latino population is paramount in this all important and contemporary fight for dignity and equality. On immigration, as in the African American’s during the historic campaign for civil rights, Latinos are the hub and the motor forcé of this struggle.

The third poll. Hidden amidst the worldwide coverage of the recent and unfortunate death of singer Michael Jackson, the Benenson Strategy Group’s national poll on immigration silently came to the fore and entered the immigration debate. It’s findings revealed a stunning 86% public support for legalization. More surprising, the study also found a 67% Republican majority for legalization and here is the banger, when this conservative block was informed that upon legalizing their status, immigrants will then pay taxes and other sundries, the support increased dramatically to a whopping 89%.

The White House June 25 discussion on Reform legislation. After two postponements, the top level showdown finally took place. The following is a synopsis of that Washington gathering which was observed closely by a delegation of Mexican, Central American and Caribbean diplomats, some of who are close to the Los Angeles based March 25 Coalition and other immigrant rights organizations in the US. The meeting was atended by President Obama, VP Biden, four cabinet members and 30 members of Congress. It was the President who uttered the opening remarks and put forth the most important question to the legislators present: were there enough votes in the present sessión and were the legislative times sufficient to present and approve the legislation this year, as promised during the presidential campaign? The president’s inquiry was important because prior to this meeting his Chief of Staff Rham Emmanuel and the White House press spokesperson had both erroneusly affirmed that, "there are not enough votes to pass immigration legislation in 2009".

House Democratic Whip and Black Caucus President James E. Clyburn, of South Carolina, informed the President that the 218 votes needed in the House to pass the legislation were there, and the total included, on one side, the loss of democratic votes, and on the other, Republicans moving to the plus side. Then Liberal Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the presiding Immigration and Judicial Sub-Committees chair, interjected, adding that the Senate had the 60 votes needed for the legislation. Moreover, the republican hawk John MCain confirmed Schumer’s assertions.

The meeting was atended by the most active Latino legislators on immigration reform in both the house and the senate. It was from this quarter that the president was warned that if immigration reform was not taken seriously and brought about this year, the possibilities of civil unrest was real.

In conclusión, a consensus to introduce immigration reform legislation this year was hatched. In addition, a commission will take on the development of the proposed bill to be debated and voted upon in both houses during this year’s sessions and also the president’s leadership will be fundamental to ensure a smooth passage.

Not long after the Washington conclave, Senator Schumer went public and announced his office will produce the bill to be introduced in the senate by Labor Day September 7, 2009. With it, Schumer, like Reid, President Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi before, placed forth a framework for the upcoming legislation and debate. In this sense the Washington political class is ahead of the game, meaning ahead of the immigrant rights movement, which with some exceptions, has primarily concentrated its guns on demanding that immigration reform in general be placed on the floor of Congress.

The fact that after 23 years of struggle we have traveled this far, is a testament to the massive and persistent work accomplished by the pro immigrant forces as a whole and also to the intense level of political activity displayed for the last four and half years, since the coming of the paramilitary Minuteman and the defeat of the extreme right wing Sensenbrenner Bill HR4437.

This is the general panorama and it is obvious that the most important sectors, that is, the overwhelming majority of the American people, including Latinos, African Americans, democrats, Congress and the new administration at the White House, progressives, liberals, conservatives, labor, clergy, business, the Latino and the major mainstream liberal media, from any political do angle make a national consensus.

However the politics on immigration have turned murky. The Obama Administration, through its Department of Homeland Security, headed by Director Janet Napolitano, in anyone’s eyes, has opted for continuing and expanding repressive policies of massive displacement of workers and their families through the 287g agreements with pólice departments, the faulty and discredited E-verify program and the I-9 work place audits. The fear and terror factors are on without the public armed ICE raids of the last years. Additionally, the border wall of death in cement and virtual versions will become a reality. There is also and the continuous incarceration and prosecution of over 200,000 Mexican immigrants, primarily on immigration violations. Of these, 20,000 plus are indigenous Mexican sitting in penitentiaries serving long term sentences.

Politically, what does it all mean? After six months of the new change you can believe in presidency, it can be said that the Obama administration is also looking at immigrants through the lens of criminality and potential terrorists and is seeking the consolidation of institutional persecution, disguized as national security. The political myopia is clearly on a collision course with the thinking of Latinos and immigrants as a whole, as so eloquently revealed in the findings of the PEW Hispanic Poll. So, the masks are off. "Welcome to the immigrant rights movement under the Barack Obama Administration".

As of this writing 1,800 American Apparel workers in Los Angeles are on the verge of losing their jobs for not having papers and the move Janet Napolitano is making is part of a broader operation involving 652 work places and the result maybe that hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers nationally may lose their jobs. This is the climax of an administrative move begun in early 2008, by former President Bush through Immigration and Customs Enforcement of I-9 investigation of employee rolls. Plain and simple, Obama could have stopped it administratively with a presidential executive order, much like the campaign promise of 2008 to officially end raids. Surprisingly though, the president approves the measures.

If you take the bull by the horns and analyze Obama’s DHS policies, they are a softer but never the less vicious approach on the immigration enforcement issue. Think of it this way. The psychology of imperial arrogance is at work with the new "Change you can believe in administration". The policies being implemented on millions of immigrants have been and continue to be domestic, but they are comparable and parallel to international US conduct on the countries of the Third World. The hypocritical double speak of today is the norm in justifying the US wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and now in Pakistan. The State Department is also agressively moving on Iran. And presently the most elucidating example for us is the coup in Honduras. The president has stated for international consumption that Manuel Zelaya is the constitutionally democratically elected president in Honduras. However, it has been clear for some time that the overthrow of Zelaya was orchestrated by the US Embassy in Honduras and it was directed by well known and experienced extreme right wing Cuban American diplomats who have served the empire as far back as the Nicaragua Contra War. All in the name of democracy and the American dream. Is the president in denial?

The carácter of the US Administration rhetoric on immigration is similar. The present immigration to the US has its roots in worldwide capitalist globalization, which for this hemisphere essentially means that neo liberalism and its international agreements such as NAFTA and the long term tentacles of US economic power have savagely exploited the immigration-sending countries(países expulsores). Mexico is the perfect example. Not only have Mexicans not reached the promised land of the first world but instead as promised with the signing of the trade agreement with Canada and the US, it now has a 50% poverty rate with over 25 million living in extreme conditions. So, for the last 29 years since Ronald Reagan and the extreme right took the reins of the empire, the capitalist stranglehold has deepened in Latin America causing the extreme pauperization of these nations and logically massifying the undocumented worker bonanza. No identifications, no regularization and in the shadows with no labor or human rights. This is the ideal migrant worker living for the labor market of the civilized "democratic countries".

As in Honduras and the rest of the rising Latin American democracies, that for over a century have suffered US intervention and exploitation, for the benefit of bourgeosie democracy of course, the blame is placed on the doorstep of the victim. The same arrogant psychology is used on immigrants and extended to Latinos as a whole. Historically, the country’s political class has stated, "we are a nation of immigrants" but at the same time labels the present waves of the Third World immigrants as "illegal aliens". Others sympathetically say, "All they want is a piece of the American dream but send the criminals back" even though the criminals are US made. The solution offered is the sameformula as in 2006 and 2007 which is, "a comprehensive immigration reform framework to ensure our borders and strengthen national security, a guest worker program to get a grip on future immigration and a path to legalization but for those that broke the law they will have to pay a fine and then get in back of the line". Getting in back of the line under the admitted broken immigration system emphatically means a wait of up to 15 years more to get the coveted green card. Like the coups and the fabricated wars of occupation, the real roots of immigration are glossed over. The US dream is always basked in patriotism, however the history of American capitalist accumulation of wealth based on indian genocide and their stolen lands, slavery, the war on Mexico and on past and present exploitation of immigrants is never up for discussion nor represented in the history books. This is the language of the empire.

All this begs the question, in today’s complex world, where does our bright scholar President Obama’s theoretical and political direction come from. Recall that not long ago, progressive and left pundits were in an uproar analyzing with incisive precisión the coming to power of the neo-cons and the Washington based Project for a New American Century-PNAC, the think tank behind W. Bush and the neo fascist conceptions that guided his administration. Well in order to shed some clarity on the essence and the politics of the real change embodied by President Obama, we now know that the guiding light behind him and his administration is the "Theory of Soft and Smart Power/La Teoria del Poder Suave e Inteligente", promoted by another Washington based think tank, the Center for Strategic and National Studies-CSIS. Here is a partial list of the board of trustees: Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, William Cohen, George Argyros,

Brent Scowcroft and the chairperson is former Senator Sam Nunn. Dazzling isn’t it, they are all war hawks. No friends of immigrants nor Hondurans.

For the sceptics and the inexperienced in this social struggle, the task at hand will seem insurmountable. Predictably they will concentrate on denouncing attempting to revert the government’s repression and this is good. So will all the legal eagles of the movement. The repression we are seeing today under Janet Napolitano’s expansión plan is an extension of the 33 month campaign of low intensity warfare on immigrants, readily waged by the Bush administration after the mega street demonstrations that culminated in millions boycotting work and the closing of thousands of businesses on May 1st 2006. The government’s objective then was to punish immigrants for their audacity to embarrass the empire and subsequently to forcé them and their organizations to accept the corporate designed bad immigration reform legislations of 2006-2007. Today, the ex Arizona Governor is implementing the same strategy. It is the same policy of rendition as well as a diversionary tactic.

History is the guiding force which one must continuosly look at to further move forward the social struggle. The political reality is the context in which to keep our eyes fixed on the prize. On immigration, the major prize is full legalization and family reunification based on international Human rights standards that will lead to the empowerment, dignity and equality for all the undocumented in this country,

The big error made by progressives and the left in the period towards the successful passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform Act was its lack of a consistent unity, which at crucial moments of the debate, essentially left it without a national mechanism to represent the interests of the people and to lobby Congress directly in Washington D.C. Although today, we can proudly assert that we, the older and the new generations of organizations and leaders, have moved mountains, it is also well known publicly that the divisions in the ranks have consumed a lot of the creative energy of this grass roots struggle. It is also undeniable that in these past 23 years, not only has the undocumented population tripled since 1986, but also as to the social struggle, the accumulation of organizational, leadership and political experience has proliferated nationally to levels before inconceived. But the lack of consolidating a national progressive/left organization within the immigrant rights quarters is once again the colosal political error of our times. And it is needed to concert and coordinate its plans of action, establish a presence and influence congress on the make up and content of the upcoming reform law. If not, in this last stage, with exceptions, it will be primarily the same middle and upper class organizations that have endorsed the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, NAFTA and Attorney General Albert Gonzalez, amongst other national and international issues, to whom the Obama administration and Congress will look to, not only for advise and direction, but also to accept, or buckle under to the power of the elites in the capitol as it happened with the Hagel-Martinez and the Grand Bargain Bills of 2006-07.

In the next few days Sonia Sotomayor will become the first Latina Supreme Court Justice and health reform will be voted on in early September. Although the president has just stated in Mexico that immigration legislation will have to wait until the beginning of next year, make no mistake, immigration reform is coming. We are at the threshold of history-En el umbral de la historia. However, the last scenario described is highly probable, unless the massive activist movement takes the capitol with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators on the streets, the halls of Congress and the White House. We are certain that, yes, this radical move is out there in the hearts and minds of the people. As paradoxical as it may be, sources close to the chairs of both the Senate and the House say that the word from them and the hill is that "petitions and faxes are good but not sufficient, that the streets have to be taken once again in huge numbers".

Understanding the history and psychology of the leadership of this movement, it is imperative that if anyone, whoever makes the move, do so convening not the mass event itself, but rather extend the invitation to leaders and organizational delegates to come together to plan the strategy. This is the quandary.

*The March 25 Coalition, now in its fourth year, was founded in Los Angeles on 15 February 2006 and it is the umbrella organization that in conjunction with other local and national coalitions has organized and galvanized the making of the largest social movement for immigrant rights in the history of this country, with massive mega marches, as well as the May 1st Great American Boycott-A Day Without an Immigrant in 2006 and up to the present.

*Javier Rodriguez, a Media-Political Strategist, is a co-founder of the National Coalition for Fair Immigration Laws and Practices 1973-78, C.A.S.A 1971 -78, the Coalition for Visas and Rights for the Undocumented 1982-90, California Latinos for Jesse Jackson 1984, the March 25 Coalition 2006, May 1st National Movement 2007 and Parlamento Migrante in Mexico City 2007. A progressive journalist he , has also published for the LA Times, La Opinion, Eastern Group Publications, Uno Mas Uno-Mexico, syndicated with Hispanic Link,, and STN’s He is now writing his experiences and perspective as a leading activist in the Immigrant rights movement, including the organizing making of 25 March 2006. Email [email protected]

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