What They’re Marching For

“Derechos para todos, como agua para todos, como…para todos”–and here I stopped Gustavo (last name withheld), because I didn’t know what that last word was.

“Como?” I asked. Smiling, he gestured in different poses as we played charades, and spoke too quickly for me to understand. Finally I got it, as he said “respirar,” and held his hands to his nose and breathed in deeply.

“Like air,” he had said, “rights for all, as available as water, as available as air.”

I had approached the Colombian as he stood with his lady friend on Broadway, slightly off to the side of one of the pens the New York Police Department were using to contain demonstrators at an April 10 rally in lower Manhattan. As the speeches from senators and executive directors droned on, the two-year undocumented resident of the United States was clear with me about what he wanted: Green cards. Ahora.

When I spoke to Gustavo, just two weeks after the rally of hundreds of thousands in Los Angeles, it wasn’t crystal clear where things would head. Depending on what happened in the streets, in nonprofit offices, in Congress and in the White House in the next few months, Gustavo could have ended up with a green card, a work permit, deportation or prison time as a felon, followed by deportation.

As is now widely known, more than a million people in the United States have at different points done exactly what Gustavo did: taken to the streets to protest House Resolution 4437, the bill that would make Gustavo a felon, and asked for something more. However, while that “something more” remains a contentious topic, an increasing number of immigrant advocates and organizers have come to realize that whatever it is, it’s missing from the considerations of Congress and the President.

Unfortunately for Gustavo, it is looking more and more likely that he and millions of others who have been in the United States less than five years, or who have crimes on their record, or who fail to meet any number of other hurdles imposed by Congress are either going to be driven deeper underground or be forced to leave the United States in the long run. While acknowledging that the Senate bill offers important benefits–namely some form of legal status for perhaps 3 million undocumented people–advocates like Peter Schey are deeply concerned. Schey, president of the LA-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, predicts that if Congress passes legislation along the lines of what is on the table now, an enormous underground labor pool–he estimates 20 million people within twenty years–will emerge with restricted rights and few avenues for legalization, allowing US corporations to further exploit both immigrant and citizen labor. Obscured by the rantings of the nativist fringe, who say that anything short of a massive roundup somehow constitutes “amnesty” is the deeply troubling nature of the Senate’s approach to immigration, workers’ rights, deaths at the border and the criminal justice system. The legislation divides the undocumented into three categories, with onerous waiting periods for green cards and up to sixteen years for citizenship for those eligible, no long-term legalization provisions for most, increased means of criminalizing, jailing and deporting all immigrants, and funding for at least 350 miles of militarized walls along the Mexican border. If a compromise with the even more draconian House bill can be hammered out, the final legislative product is almost certain to be even worse.

This, of course, is not what the millions like Gustavo who have marched in demonstrations since March 10 had in mind. But what do they want? A mass mobilization is not a policy forum, but the general sense from people I spoke to was that they wanted to be able to live and work without fear and to have doors opened to them rather than slammed in their face.

Roxana, 26, born in Peru, said she’s been in the United States for fifteen years and is now without papers. Her brother was already deported “because the law was closed and he didn’t have the opportunity [to legalize],” she said. “People should get papers now.”

Thirteen-year-old Brian of the Bronx was marching across the Brooklyn Bridge with his father, Oliver, both undocumented, because he wants “to be able to study what I want…to be a doctor,” rather than be sent back to Mexico. His father arrived thirteen years ago, but Brian only joined him four years ago–a typical pattern for immigrants, documented and undocumented. Real-world considerations like these are largely absent from the Congressional legislation.

When I asked her how long immigrants should wait, Yadira Colorado, a Latina citizen, said, “Green cards for everybody in three months.”

The four were part of a march and rally of as many as 20,000 immigrants and supporters–mostly Latino–organized by the New York Hispanic Clergy Association and others on April 1.

At the April 10 action in New York, in contravention of the organizers’ agenda, thousands held up posters that said Amnistia–a bad word in Washington but popular in the streets of New York and Chicago.

Nigerian-born Wale also asked for “amnesty for everyone, but if that’s not possible, amnesty for people who have been here five years,” echoing some of the rhetoric coming from the Senate. Wale, who is also undocumented, has been separated from his wife and child for the past several years because his wife’s student visa expired while she was back in Africa; she was unable to obtain a tourist visa and is now stuck there.

How did it come about that, after a mass mobilization of millions–likely including more than a million undocumented people themselves–Congress is in fact poised to restrict immigrants’ rights?

The bulk of the responsibility lies with a Congress and a President that proved more responsive to pressure from the corporations and the nativist right than to the voices of immigrants. But there is also a case to be made that DC-based immigration policy groups strategized poorly, failing to anticipate an outcome that is hardly surprising and neglecting to listen to the message resounding in the ground-level demonstrations.

“I think several of the leading Beltway advocacy groups have been wooed by the political parties,” says Schey. “There’s a wide gap between [their positions] and what people are marching for.” Juan Carlos Ruiz of the National Capital Immigration Coalition, who works closely with the Washington policy establishment, told me that before the Chicago and Los Angeles mobilizations, some advocacy groups actually pressured him to wait until the Senate acted before calling on people to take to the streets.

One of the most visible faces of the immigration reform movement has been the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, formed by unions and several of the most powerful immigration policy groups. Their flagship New American Opportunity Campaign, supported by scores of pro-immigrant groups nationwide, featured an emphasis on securing what could be gained from Congress and the Bush Administration through compromises among CCIR, immigration-friendly Republicans and Democrats, pro-business think tanks like the Manhattan Institute and the Chamber of Commerce, and others with an economic and political stake in retaining large numbers of low-wage immigrants. Its messaging has been wrapped in red, white and blue, and campaign events have been more likely to feature John McCain than Russ Feingold.

Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum (one of CCIR’s convening organizations), admitted to me that for “a lot of this work in Washington, there hasn’t been a lot of accountability and [there has been] a lot of power.” He made this statement a few weeks after the march of more than 500,000 immigrants and supporters in Los Angeles on March 25, which began the transformation of the immigrant rights movement.

The best hope for a movement that can broaden, encompass more issues and work in collaboration with other social justice campaigns may lie, ironically, with those who have been called too narrow in their appeal–the populist upsurge of Mexican, Chicano and Latino communities nationwide and the leaders who initiated it. On February 11 about 600 leaders of the Latino community, mainly Chicano, answered a call by Professor Armando Navarro of the National Alliance for Human Rights to meet at the Riverside Convention Center in California. It was this meeting that initiated the nationwide mobilizations to the House immigration bill. On March 10 a Chicago-based coalition–including Emma Lozano, an attendee of the Riverside meeting–participated in putting together one of the largest marches in Chicago history, which pioneered the use of Spanish-language popular radio DJs as a communications tool. Jesse Diaz, who was involved in the Los Angeles-based March 25 mobilization, was also present.

For the past two months there has been a not-so-subtle competition to lay claim to the street cred attached to the mobilizations, though the primary factors responsible for numbers are probably the underlying demographics of the community in places like Los Angeles and Dallas, the provocation of the nativist right and the willingness of undocumented people and others to risk their jobs and potential deportation by showing up at a demonstration.

To a degree, of course, the protests reflected a concerted effort on the part of a network of organizations. Angelica Salas, executive director of Los Angeles-based CHIRLA, a CCIR board member, argues that the mobilizations were “not a result of a spontaneous need to go out against HR 4437.The reason they are happening is that over a period of many years, immigrant organizations, labor and faith communities have been coordinating and working together across the country, and strategizing together for common goals.” Salas points to a March 7 DC meeting that laid the groundwork for establishing March 20-27 as a National Week of Action. The participation of local groups in a national structure, she says, has helped bring day-to-day experiences of immigrants into the policy world.

At the same time, LA’s Diaz argues that the DC-based organizations largely control the policy agenda, to the exclusion of more radical perspectives that one finds in the streets. He says of the foundation-funded nonprofits that dominate the institutional infrastructure, “They don’t want to rock their money boat, that keeps them walking the whole moderate line. They’re not allowed to wander from the path, so they [support] the Kennedy-McCain [bill], that’s a compromise. And it goes contrary to the interests of the people.”

The inside-outside dynamic that characterizes the emerging immigrant rights movement will hardly be new to students of social movements in the United States. And both sides may end up needing each other at points along the way. The crucial question for today’s struggle is whether these groups will be able to meet the needs of the people in the streets by complementing each other, rather than working at cross-purposes.

This may have already begun to happen. Slowly but steadily, as the legislative outlook darkens, even traditionally moderate immigrant rights groups have begun to peel off and express vocal opposition. As the weeks go by, an increasing number of groups have begun to call both the Senate and House bills unacceptable, with about 100 groups signing on to a statement by the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in late April that proclaimed “No Deal!” and called for Congress to go back to the drawing board. Even some groups that had supported the Senate approach concluded that what was emanating from Congress at the end of the legislative process was not something they could live with. However, CCIR board member National Immigration Forum remains generally supportive, criticizing aspects of the bill but applauding its passage as a “historic bipartisan achievement.”

With or without a “comprehensive” bill, what may matter most is that we have witnessed the emergence of a force that may be able to stop and reverse the decade-long trend of xenophobia: a working-class, immigrant Latino movement–with allies in other ethnic communities, radical groups like United for Peace and Justice and those mainstream immigrant rights organizations that are refocusing their energy on organizing, mobilization and political education. If the conditions are right, there is still a chance for the events of the past three months to lead to long-term results for both immigrants and the enormous number of people around the world who are affected by the policies of the US government. Movements have never been built in a day.

Published in The Nation.