What next after Sunday's historic immigrant rights mobilization?
Around 200,000 immigrants, workers, and family members packed the National Mall on Sunday, March 21 to demand immigration reform. At least doubling organizers' goal, the mass of people, which recalled huge rallies and marches across the country in 2006, was one of the largest demonstrations since Obama's inauguration. We held signs and chanted: Obama, no dejes la reforma pa' mañana - Obama, don't put off reform until tomorrow.
The crowd also provided a sobering visual for the human impact of Obama's failure to deliver on promises of immigration reform within his first year. Over the past 12 months, at least 387,000 migrants - nearly twice this surging sea of faces in Washington - have been deported.
Many wore t-shirts or held banners announcing the particular town, family, community, union, or church they'd arrived with: housing organizations, GLBT immigrants, students, workers centers, farmworkers, from all corners of the country. Most were Latino, but there were others: Senagalese, Korean, Polish, and other nationalities were present as contingents. SEIU and especially the Laborers union turned out large delegations of rank-and file workers. A man from a small town in Nebraska, through tears, told fellow marchers how alone he often feels - and how powerful he felt that morning, united with thousands of other immigrants.
While the many participants wore white shirts and held United States flags, others held flags of their home countries: Mexico, Bolivia, Honduras, even the flag of the left-wing ruling party of El Salvador, the FMLN. Many announced their bi-national identity by wrapping both flags together. One call-and-response chant slipped seamlessly over the border: Illinois? Presente! North Carolina? Presente! New York? Presente! Oaxaca? Presente! Guanajuato? Presente! Florida?... Another popular slogan expressed the mood: Aqui Estamos, y No Nos Vamos! Y Si nos echan, Nos Regresamos! - We're here! We're Not Going Anywhere! And if they throw us out, we're coming back!"
Perhaps the most important impact of the march was its effect on the thousands of new and young activists, many of whom had never before organized for a large demonstration. In the coming fight, this new generation of leadership will be crucial.
Migration: A question of Human Rights, or National Security?
Tens of millions of immigrants have made a home in cities large and small, in every corner of the country. Around twelve million live every day without documentation, facing the fear of harassment and deportation. There are two, contradictory understandings of this reality. One sees immigration as fundamentally a question of international human and workers' rights, the second as a issue of "national security."
But security for whom? Migration is driven by economic conditions. When jobs disappear in one place, people move to find new jobs. This happens within the United States (or any large country) all the time. But add an international border to the mix, and job seekers or other economic refugees become criminals -- while corporations face no problem constantly relocating workplaces in search of cheaper labor. Economic policies like NAFTA that have dealt blows to blue collar USA have done the same to Mexican workers. The border doesn't stop the movement of people, it just makes people from the South have second-class status on the other side. And for workers, "security" comes through not having to compete with each other -- by equalizing rights (including language rights) and living standards for all.
Two visions of "Reform" from Above and Below
In its goal of putting immigration reform on the agenda, the March 21 mobilization was a success -- despite the lack of attention from english-language media, politicians were clearly paying attention. However, now that it's on the agenda, the question "What is the agenda, anyway?" has surfaced. As with many large demonstrations, the voices from many in the crowd contrasted with the politician's speeches from the stage.
Reform Immigration for America, the network that circulated the call to demonstrate, has evolved over the past year as a savvy, top-down campaign closely linked to Democratic congressman from Illinois, Luis Gutierrez. In December Gutierrez announced the so-called "CIR-ASAP" bill (Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America's Security and Prosperity). The bill mixed some of the main demands of the immigrants rights movement -- such as a path to citizenship, an emphasis on family unification, and repeal of 287(g) -- with concessions to "national security," such as the notorious border wall that physically separates the US and Mexico.
Meanwhile, a second piece of proposed legislation emerged from the Senate. Authored by Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham, it was announced in a Washington Post editorial just before the march. In a recorded address to the rally on Saturday, Obama voiced his support for the bill's "common sense and effective strategies." What are they?
Two of four "pillars" in the Schumer/Graham bill have to do with "national security" - strengthening both border and interior enforcement, and "requiring biometric Social Security cards" - which is unlikely to appeal to anybody.
And what of the opportunities to live, move, and work with dignity? Those who earn a PhD or master's degree in science, technology, engineering or math at US universities would get a green card, while "lower-skilled immigrants" would enjoy a the privilege of "earning money and then returning home" through a temporary worker program. Undocumented people who already live in the United States would be thoroughly insulted through a series of hoops: first, by "admitting they broke the law," then "pay their debt to society" through community service and fees, and pass criminal background checks and English exams (which is not required for citizens, since the United States has no official language) - so that they could finally "go to the back of the line of prospective immigrants," which we have to assume includes those swept into the new Bracero program Schumer and Graham dream of.
In short, the bill is completely one-sided. Migrants are treated as a labor resource to be manipulated by the economy, not as human beings driven by their own needs. The Senators are sure that their carrot and stick combination would curb "illegal" immigration - because they completely obscure the economic and political factors that drive immigration in the first place. Tougher laws will not prevent desperate people from seeking a living, but force them deeper into hiding and vulnerability to exploitation.
The long series of hoops to legalization would fly in the face of family unity, a top demand of the immigrant rights movement. Given the prevalence of racial profiling and "zero tolerance" law enforcement, families could be split up because a son was at the wrong party, or because a daughter wore a dangerous-looking piece of jewelry to school. (These kinds of "background check" policies have been applied, with exactly these kinds of disastrous consequences, to families re-applying to rent 'mixed use' housing developments on top of leveled public housing.)
Despite all of this, leading Democrats (including, apparently, Gutierrez) have championed this as a "bipartisan" success. Through the time-tested tactic of pre-emptive surrender, they seek some kind kind of victory down the road. But what did months of wrangling with Republicans yield with the health care "reform" besides the surrender of every progressive element in the bill? And in the end, no Republicans even voted for it -- so why did the concessions remain?
The unity that needs to be be forged is not between corporate politicians, but between the Legalization for All movement and a significant number of workers with citizenship. Although the increase in xenophobia and racism during the recession make this difficult, the shared interests (and humanity) of workers and students who do not benefit from competing with each other stands a better chance of prevailing than the Schumer bill does of actually addressing immigration -- or of leading toward a real solution.
In the days following Sunday's historic march, members of the Reform Immigration For America network have been contacted with instructions to "tell Congress to take action" -- meaning, pass the Schumer bill. In the coming weeks, especially with May Day coming up, it remains to be seen how grassroots immigrant groups will respond to this request to trade decency for urgency. Already, the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights has issued a press release against the bill. A group including Isabel Garcia, David Bacon, and Native Lopez released an Open Letter titled "Let's Have a Debate About Immigration Reform." Efforts like these to organize a voice for those who are not satisfied with the Schumer bill are essential in providing political definition to the debate about the way forward.
Two hundred thousand people marched in Washington because it's time to come out of the shadows, not for place at the back of the line. Until we win a real immigration reform that provides legalization for all, the struggle continues.
View a video of the march here!