This past weekend, 150 immigrant rights activists from around the country descended upon Montgomery, Alabama, to show solidarity with local leaders fighting against the state’s draconian immigration bill, HB 56, and plan a national strategy for 2012.
The two-day Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM) Summit was perhaps most notable for its culmination, a front-page affair. On Saturday, the activists, who came from 35 organizations from roughly 30 states, participated in a 2,500-person rally and march in the state capital.
The rally began in front of the state legislature, where the notorious bill was passed. There, speakers ranging from undocumented Alabamian students to SEIU secretary-treasurer Eliseo Medina railed against the pain being caused by HB 56. Students told of losing friends, whose families had left the state in recent months for fear of being detained by the police and being separated from their families. Civil rights leaders, meanwhile, warned against the dangers of going back to the “dark days” of segregation in the state. Orator after orator insisted on the need to repeal the law and build a brighter, more inclusive, future for Alabama.
The protesters (this writer included) then marched to the mansion of Governor Bentley, who signed the law into effect and has been one of its staunchest supporters and has even traveled abroad to convince investors that Alabama is still “open for business.” The marchers hailed from all over Alabama—with a particularly strong contingent from the NAACP—and throughout the country, and their diversity was perhaps best encapsulated by a chant that pulsed through the streets of Montgomery:
Del norte al sur
Del este al oeste
Ganaremos esta lucha
Cueste lo que cueste
Ultimately, the rally and mobilization made one of the largest public statements against HB 56 since the law’s passage, but it was also important because it signaled the incipient organizing muscle that is being built in Alabama’s immigrant rights community. Several months ago there were virtually no full-time community organizers working with immigrants in Alabama. Now, the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice and its national supporters are working hard to build up that capacity, with the ultimate hope of building enough grassroots power to repeal HB 56. Over the next months, organizers will be coordinating house meetings to bring people together, as well as further public actions during the upcoming legislative session.
In addition to the work on HB 56, the FIRM Summit also provided an opportunity to reflect on 2011 nationally and plan for 2012. Looking back, groups focused on certain key campaigns over the past year, particularly on the pressure that groups harnessed to convince the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to announce a prosecutorial discretion policy for deportation cases involving immigrants with no criminal record.
Looking toward 2012, the groups remained wary of the administration’s limited implementation of the new prosecutorial discretion policy, so the campaign for a genuine review of these cases will continue. FIRM groups, both at the state and national level, will do all they can to force DHS to honor its commitment and bring relief to immigrant families.
Meanwhile, the FIRM groups will also begin their electoral work. The 2012 elections are, no doubt, critical for the immigrant community, with the White House and both chambers of Congress—as well as certain key state legislatures—in play. In 2010, Latino and immigrant rights groups showed their muscle by building a “Latino firewall” in the southwest that kept anti-immigrant candidates from taking office and delivering control of the Senate to the Republican Party. This year, FIRM groups will focus on registering and mobilizing hundreds of thousands of Latino and immigrant voters, with particular emphasis on hotly-contested states where these voters can make the difference. As Rudy López of the Center for Community Change put it, in 2012, FIRM wants Latino voters to be not just the “firewall,” but the “fire.”
The electoral work, however, is a means, not the end for which these organizations are working. The challenge for 2012 is to use the elections as an opportunity to bolster the ongoing grassroots, issue-based work that is these organizations’ raison d’etre. Insofar as electoral work in 2012 can feed into base-building and leadership development, it can be a powerful tool in beating back the wave of criminalization and vilification that is doing so much damage to this country’s immigrant communities.
The struggle in Alabama counters this wave in its most extreme, and vile, manifestation. But anti-immigrant politicking continues apace throughout the country, and will no doubt continue to pick up in congressional Republican primaries. The struggle against this type of scapegoating is one in which all the organizations that came together this weekend—from North, South, East, and West—are engaged. It is a struggle that will continue in 2012—in the streets, in state capitols and in voting booths across this country.
*Daniel Altschuler is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is a Copeland Fellow at Amherst College, a doctoral candidate in politics at the University of Oxford and is coordinator of the Long Island Civic Engagement Table, a non-partisan initiative to nurture civic participation and grassroots leadership in working-class immigrant and African American communities of Suffolk County, New York.