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The Politics of Immigration Reform

Reading Time: 6 minutesA two-part article on the movement for reforming the immigration system and post-election prospects for its success.
Reading Time: 6 minutes

May 2010: Immigration Reform Leaders Protest in Washington DC. Photograph courtesy of Arasmus photo.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

In early 2010, with a major national movement behind it and support from President Barack Obama and congressional leadership, comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) looked like it could be the next big bill after health care. But election year politics intervened. Senate Republicans backed away from a potential CIR bill, and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed the controversial SB 1070 into law, forcing pro-CIR advocates to play defense. Now, they face a daunting political climate that could become even less friendly after the mid-term elections.

Much ink has been spilled on Republican obstructionism to CIR. But analysts have paid less attention to the pro-CIR movement, an equally important piece of the puzzle. An important group behind this movement is the emergence of the Reform Immigration FOR America (RIFA) and its efforts to adapt to a difficult political environment. By expanding its grassroots organizing efforts and communications infrastructure, RIFA became stronger than its pro-CIR predecessors. But RIFA has proven unable to wrest back control of public debate on immigration, and thus remains on the defensive.

The Movement’s Makeover

Observers have long noted that the immigration system is broken. Labor demand in certain sectors like agriculture outstrips domestic labor supply, encouraging undocumented workers to emigrate, primarily from Latin America. A notoriously slow legal immigration infrastructure hurts businesses that need high- and low-skilled workers and leads some immigrants to risk the desert and deportation rather than waiting many years for a visa. The current detention and deportation system raises a myriad of due process concerns, putting at risk the rights of citizens and non-citizens alike.

In 2003, groups pushing for a comprehensive solution to these immigration problems coalesced into the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR). CCIR gained early momentum. A bipartisan bill that included widespread legalization seemed likely to pass the Senate. But the House acted first, passing a draconian enforcement-only bill in 2005.

People responded. Millions took to the streets in arguably the largest expression of immigrant and Latino political muscle in U.S. history. The Republican-controlled Senate then passed a bipartisan CIR bill that proved unreconcilable with the House bill. But, under Democratic control in 2007, the Senate proved unable to repeat the magic.

Republican obstructionism, though critical, was not the only factor in that bill’s defeat. CCIR, too, revealed weaknesses. First, CIR opponents sent more calls and faxes to Congress by a margin of roughly ten to one in the weeks leading up to the final vote. As Marissa Graciosa, lead organizer for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), recalled: “the members of Congress were so scared, because the anti-immigrant folks were just so vocal and loud.”

Second, CCIR lacked an on-the-ground presence in certain states that held key congressional votes.

Third, while CCIR mobilized its base and pushed its message inside the Beltway, it failed to frame the issue for the country’s geographic and ideological center. Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice, lamented: “We were having a debate about policy details, and the country was having a debate about whether we should do reform or not and whether we should include undocumented immigrants as citizens in our country.”

Fourth, organized labor was divided. While SEIU and UNITE HERE supported the bill, the AFL-CIO pulled out over concerns with how the immigration system would be reshaped. According to Marshall Fitz, Director of Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress (CAP), “That rift, where the unions could be played off against each other in various Senate offices, really hurt our efforts to hold the center.”

Following the Senate bill’s death-by-filibuster, CCIR disbanded. But, in 2009, most of the same players from CCIR launched the RIFA campaign and sought to address CCIR’s weaknesses.

RIFA erected a new technological infrastructure to maximize supportive calls and faxes to Congress. Reflecting on these advances, Ms. Graciosa boasted, “already in this year, we’ve generated 1.5 million calls and faxes to Congress, and our list is now over half a million.” RIFA also plugged previous geographic holes. As Mr. Bhargava described, RIFA helped “create new organizations in states like Arkansas, North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio—places that previously didn’t have such organizations. And that’s helped enormously.”

Importantly, the movement appears to have increased labor unity. Esther López, director of Civil Rights and Community Action for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, opined: “I feel pretty confident that we have a united labor network. We all support the concept of a Commission to set future work visas. We all understand the need both for border security and interior security.”

Critics of RIFA, however, wonder whether its leaders learned enough from previous failures. According to Tom Barry of the Center for International Policy, RIFA’s early efforts relied too heavily on “variations of the same message that failed so miserably in the CCIR campaign…Rather than forging a message aimed at U.S. citizens, the reconstituted movement continues to equate immigrant rights with immigration reform.” In short, RIFA may still be primarily preaching to its choir, with less impact on the country’s broader immigration debate. Arizona’s immigration law and subsequent public debate have illustrated restrictionists’ continued agenda-setting advantage.

A second critique has been that RIFA accepted the securitization of the immigration issue. One commentator excoriated CIR advocates inside and outside the Beltway for allowing enforcement and border security to remain the crux of the immigration debate: “By kowtowing to anti-immigrant sentiment, progressives have helped move the political conversation on immigration to the right.”

Mr. Fitz disagreed, saying “A lot of the focus has been on the language, rather than the substance…And the substance hasn’t shifted with the language—the focus of the current efforts that were underway with Graham and Schumer and where we were headed was toward a broader, more robust, and unprecedented legalization.” RIFA allies acknowledge that any future CIR bill, like the failed 2007 Senate bill, will have to include concessions on enforcement.

New Strength, But Little Progress

Despite RIFA’s efforts to learn from the past, this year’s legislative campaign stalled. After promises from Obama and Senate Democrats to move on CIR early this year, a bill only materialized just before the Senate adjourned. The major immigration story has been SB 1070.

As a result, RIFA has not had an opportunity to show its increased capacity to apply grassroots pressure on Congress for CIR. As one Senate source opined, “I think we’re much better off than we were in the past, but we’re not going to know until it’s time. They haven’t had the legislative opportunity to show the synergy between what they’re doing and what we’re doing.”

There are several reasons for the lack of progress. First, Republican obstructionism. After losing control of the Senate in 2006, Republicans’ immigration position hardened. One-time allies like Senators Graham and McCain backed away, calling for an enforcement-first strategy. (Read a rebuttal.)

But Democratic reluctance meant that even Graham’s co-sponsorship may have been insufficient. Conservative Democrats remain wary of supporting CIR for fear of appearing “soft” and losing the political center in an election year. Given potential Democratic defections, CIR advocates likely needed at least ten Republican votes, a number that Senator Graham may have been hard-pressed to deliver.

In addition to Republican intransigence and Democratic reluctance, pro-CIR business allies have not delivered. The Chamber of Commerce, defending the needs of its business members to attract documented immigrants, has long broken with Republican restrictionists on this issue. But the Chamber seemed to back away this year.

RIFA itself has not always been able to maintain unity on tactics and targets. On tactics, certain groups’ civil disobedience provoked unease among more centrist allies. These latter groups feared that civil disobedience would cast the movement as dominated by radicals. While FIRM and others used protest to highlight the human cost of the Obama administration’s de facto enforcement-only strategy, CAP engaged the Department of Homeland Security on revising enforcement provisions.

The debate on targets appears to have been more divisive. RIFA members disagreed over how hard to push Senate Democrats in the absence of Republican allies. SEIU subsequently pulled out of RIFA’s management team, with one source attributing this to SEIU’s belief that they needed to target Republicans instead of potentially alienating Democrats. Eliseo Medina, SEIU’s Secretary-Treasurer, explained his organization’s position this way: “We’ve never been of the position of just doing a Charge of the Light Brigade on something that you know you’re going to lose. We have not pushed the Democrats to push a bill that we know is going to fail.”

In addition to struggling with internal divisions, RIFA also remains better at mobilizing its base than expanding it, and, partly as a consequence, has failed to shape the national immigration conversation. Despite RIFA winning public declarations of support from certain potential allies—e.g., Fortune 500 companies and the National Baptist Convention—public debate remains antagonistic to the pro-CIR position. Though various polls show greater public support for CIR than for enforcement-only provisions, politicians have focused more on majority public support for SB 1070, which has encouraged anti-immigrant Republicans and cowed potential CIR allies on both sides of the aisle.

Without major media venues akin to those dominated by restrictionist pundits (e.g., Fox News), the pro-immigrant side has struggled to wrest back control of public debate. RIFA has been relatively well-financed, with millions of dollars in foundation support. But, with increased corporate campaign spending—which has predominantly gone to Republicans this year—anti-immigrant advertising and Republican posturing seem to have overwhelmed RIFA’s communications efforts.

Simply put, despite revamping itself since 2007, the pro-CIR movement has not been strong enough to win the messaging battle in the American political establishment.

Now, with Election Day looming, RIFA has shifted its focus to the upcoming election and new potential legislative opportunities. With heavy Democratic losses expected, pro-CIR advocates could face even slimmer odds of victory after November 2.

Part two of this series examines the scenarios for legislative progress. Read it here.


(Homepage thumbnail photograph by Arasmus photo.)


Daniel Altschuler has written extensively on Central American politics and U.S. immigration politics for publications including the Christian Science MonitorForeign Policy, The Nation, CNN, and Dissent. He is a contributing blogger to AQ Online and holds a doctorate in politics from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. To read more of his writing, visit danielaltschuler.com.

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