Beyond the Consensus: Oppositional Migrante Politics in the Obama Era

In 2008, 70% of the 10 million Latinos who voted in the U.S. election supported Barack Obama. But since that election, hope has turned to despair for many Latinos who still face racial profiling, deportation, and family separation under an administration they enthusiastically supported. In exchange for their loyal votes, Latinos are expected to join what we can call the Obama–Democratic Party Consensus on immigration reform. This consensus requires that the president and his party build a more efficient immigration-control apparatus, while Latinos are expected to settle for symbolic appointments in government.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2010 edition of NACLA Report on the Americas.

Alfonso Gonzales

I think the consensus is . . . the American people still want to see a solution [to undocumented immigration] in which we are tightening up our borders, or cracking down on employers who are using illegal workers in order to drive down wages.... —President Obama, June 25, 2009

In 2006 Latino migrant rights activists began using the slogan Hoy marchamos, mañana votamos (Today we March, Tomorrow we vote).1 The slogan reflects the coming to political consciousness of a new generation of Latinos who participated in the mega-marchas—the series of large protests in the spring of 2006 against a draconian immigration bill that would have turned undocumented immigrants into felons. Then, in the run-up to the historic 2008 presidential election, Latino advocacy organizations built on the momentum of the marches, launching an unprecedented series of naturalization, voter-registration, and get-out-the-vote drives.2 Most of these organizations came to support the Illinois senator Barack Obama, who had displayed an apparent solidarity with immigrants. Speaking before the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in July 2008, candidate Obama promised a more just and humane approach to immigration: “The system is not working when a young person at the top of her class, a young person with so much to offer this county, cannot attend a public college or university,” he said. “The system isn’t working when . . . communities are terrorized by ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] immigration raids. . . . When all of that is happening, the system just isn’t working, and we need to change it!”3

Words like these, which were met with long applause, led almost 70% of the 10 million Latinos who voted in the election to support Obama.4 But in the years since the election, hope has turned to despair not only for Latinos but other sectors of the U.S. migrant rights movement—which is a broad, heterogeneous constellation of organizations and leaders, both migrant and non-migrant, primarily from Latin America, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, with diverse genealogies, ideologies, and strategies. While Latinos make up the largest and most visible sector of the movement, they themselves are not a homogenous force. Nonetheless, many Latinos still face racial profiling, deportation, and family separation under an administration they enthusiastically supported. In exchange for their loyal votes, Latinos are expected to join what we can call the Obama–Democratic Party Consensus on immigration reform. This consensus requires that the president and his party build a more efficient immigration-control apparatus, while Latinos are expected to settle for symbolic appointments in government. Obama has now appointed 48 Latinos to top-level positions that require Senate confirmation, more than any previous administration, earning the praise of many mainstream Latino organizations.5 The most notable of these appointments was that of Sonia Sotomayor, who became the first person of Latin American descent, male or female, to sit on the Supreme Court. Other high-profile appointments include Hilda Solis to the position of Secretary of Labor, Thomas Perez as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Cecilia Muñoz as Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, and Jose Riojas, Assistant Secretary for Veteran Affairs.

These high-level appointments have created a facade of inclusion even as the Obama administration has maintained an immigration enforcement apparatus that systematically uses coercion and racial profiling to control the flow of Mexican and Latino migrant labor. The Obama administration deported more than 392,000 people in fiscal year 2010, according to the Department of Homeland Security, and has continued the Bush administration’s high spending on immigration enforcement, which has climbed steadily from almost $7.5 billion in 2002 to $17 billion in 2010.6 The intensification of enforcement efforts is taking place both at the border and in the interior of the country. In August, some 1,200 National Guard troops began arriving at the border, together with about 300 new Customs and Border Protection agents, bringing with them helicopters and high-tech surveillance equipment, including drones.7 Interior enforcement under Obama has expanded with the heightened use of three programs aimed at securing deportations: E-Verify, 287(g), and Secure Communities. E-Verify is an Internet-based program that compares information from employees’ work documents to government records, resulting in the firing or deportation of hard-working people.8 The 287(g) program allows ICE to partner with local law enforcement agencies, effectively giving local police the powers of federal immigration agents.9 The Secure Communities program—in which the fingerprints from suspects arrested by local authorities are cross-checked with ICE—has resulted in tens of thousands of deportations and will likely expand nationwide by 2013.10 As Andrés García, an organizer with the New Immigrant Community Empowerment in Jackson Heights, Queens, puts it: “The genius of policies like Secure Communities lies in the fact that it is not based on the spectacle of ICE raids but instead is presented simply as an information-exchange program. In reality it is a program that is leading to massive deportations.”

Although the Obama–Democratic Party Consensus provides a space in which a handful of Latinos can achieve upward mobility, it ties the demand to legalize the 12 million to 14 million undocumented migrants in the United States to the further militarization of the state’s migration-control apparatus. The fundamental assumption built into the consensus is that undocumented migrants are simply “criminals” who must be punished. This punitive logic leads policy makers to enforcement-heavy approaches to deal with “the problem,” while rendering invisible the human rights consequences of enforcement and the root causes of migration in U.S. foreign and economic policies. From this perspective, the Obama–Democratic Party Consensus is a classic example of what the theorist Antonio Gramsci called hegemony at work: a form of consensual domination in which state elites co-opt potentially oppositional groups through symbolic reforms while preserving the fundamental organization of society. Thus, one of the burning questions facing the Latino sector of the migrant rights movement is whether to sign on to the Obama–Democratic Party Consensus or to forge ahead as an autonomous yet powerful political force.

Latino leaders are divided over how to proceed, reflecting deep ideological differences. At the risk of oversimplification, the Latino sector of the migrant rights movement can be conceptualized along two lines, the accommodationist and the oppositional. The accommodationists yield to the Obama–Democratic Party Consensus and play an active role in building Latino support for the president and his party. While many in this camp criticize draconian immigration policies, they are usually willing to accept versions of comprehensive immigration reform that would streamline programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities. The leadership tends to be composed of wealthy and middle-class Latinos seeking to move up the ranks as politicians or within elite policy circles in Washington, in the labor establishment, in the Hispanic media, in the Catholic Church, in academia, or in the world of elite nonprofits and foundations. This sector is located in the more established institutions and enjoys the most resources and the most access to Washington insiders, often meeting with White House staff and congressional Democrats. Accommodationists are usually aligned with powerful organizations like National Immigration Forum, America’s Voice, the Center for American Progress, the AFL-CIO, and the Change to Win labor federation. In 2009 and 2010, a multimillion-dollar advocacy coalition called Reform Immigration for America (RIFA) emerged as the quintessential umbrella group for accommodationists. Financed by the major labor unions and by foundations, and tightly linked to the Democratic Party, RIFA provides funding, training, and high-tech media support, along with ideological direction, to smaller immigrant rights organizations that act as the group’s local arm in communities across the country.

In contrast, the oppositional camp seeks to create an autonomous pole of political power, fiercely independent of the labor hierarchy and the Democrats. Grassroots activists, small nonprofit organizations, rank-and-file labor leaders, independent migrant workers, leftist intellectuals, and youth and student groups compose this sector. Though it lacks the institutional resources, budgets, and salaries of the large national groups, the oppositional sector is closely linked to the base of migrant workers and their children, having served as the motor force behind the 2006 immigrant mega-marches in New York and Los Angeles—when most of the accommodationists were ready to support the Kennedy-McCain bill of 2005, which would have characteristically traded a path to citizenship for expanded enforcement. Oppositional immigrant rights activists begin from the premise that no human being is illegal and that militarization is not an acceptable price to pay for the regularization of migrants’ legal status.

Although both the accommodationist and oppositional camps use mass mobilization and direct-action tactics, their differences are most pronounced over immigration legislation. Several immigration bills have been proposed since 2005, and in each case, the same scenario has played out: Democrats propose centrist legislation to accommodate congressional Republicans, trading a path to “legalization” in return for a strengthening of the anti-immigrant security apparatus. This was most recently evident in the debate over an immigration proposal jointly put forward in the spring by senators Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). In March the senators made their principles public in a Washington Post op-ed titled “The Right Way to Mend Immigration”; the following month, a full proposal was released, co-authored by Schumer and his Democratic Party allies senators Robert Melendez (N.J.) and Harry Reid (Nev.). Dubbed “REPAIR,” or Real Enforcement With Practical Answers for Immigration Reform, the proposal provided details on the type of immigration reform bill that the Democratic Party leadership was willing to embrace.11

The Schumer-Graham principles reinforce the status quo by calling for an enforcement-first approach to immigration reform that would tighten U.S. control over migrant labor through a biometric national ID card, expand the Secure Communities and E-Verify programs, and institute an “earned” path to legal status. The proposal lends unequivocal support for further militarizing the U.S.-Mexico border and interior enforcement with a punitive path for people to adjust their immigration status. In fact, most of the 26-page document focuses on enforcement and labor controls. It is not until page 23, section 10, of the document that it begins to outline how undocumented people could obtain either a temporary work visa or legal permanent residency.

In short, the Schumer proposal advances the same old solutions of the Republican-controlled House and Senate in 2006, when the country’s political leaders offered militarization in exchange for a punitive path toward legal status. The Schumer bill does the same but takes it a step further—adding biometric ID and expanding the E-Verify program even further. In fact, when Schumer was asked his opinion of Arizona’s notoriously punitive SB 1070, he responded: “We believe our blueprint is even stronger. . . . ” (emphasis added).12


As Schumer’s REPAIR proposal became public, the dividing lines among Latino migrant organizations became more apparent. RIFA held that the proposal was the best that the immigrant rights movement was going to get in 2010. “If this proposal becomes legislation,” said Ali Noorani, chair of RIFA and executive director of the National Immigration Forum, in a press release, “it will represent the best chance for taking care of the urgent matter of relieving the fear of deportation and family separation that will only grow in the years to come if Congress fails to pass immigration reform this year.”13

In contrast, the oppositional groups laid out a powerful critique of the Schumer proposal. For instance, Ron Gochez, spokesperson for the Southern California Immigration Coalition (SCIC), said his coalition “emphatically rejects the Schumer Plan because we recognize it more for what it really is; a border enforcement bill disguised as an immigration reform bill.” The SCIC and the May 1 Coalition in New York City organized large marches against the Schumer proposal on May Day 2010, without the resources and budgets of their accommodationist counterparts. During both demonstrations, organizers blasted the Democratic Party for embracing legislation that calls for all of the same enforcement measures proposed by their Republican counterparts. Oppositional groups also steadily organized against the ICE raids and other local enforcement policies. In New York, groups like Immigrant Communities in Action, founded in 2005, mobilized large contingents for the May 1 demonstration, issued a powerful statement critiquing the Schumer proposal, and continued to do the critical day-to-day organizing against police harassment of street vendors, domestic workers, and Central American and South Asian immigrant communities.

One problem that oppositional groups face nationally, however, is that they are fragmented and have not reached a consensus on an alternative strategy. Some groups like the Dignity Campaign coming out of the U.S. Social Forum support pushing for an alternative comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) proposal.14 The campaign’s proposal starts off with a demand for the immediate legalization of all undocumented migrants in the United States and calls for the rescinding of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Others groups, however, are beginning to question the very concept of CIR altogether. For instance, Monami Maulik, executive director of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) and board member of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR), argues that her group is beginning to question the logic of CIR. “Our group knows well that passing reform legislation involves compromise,” Maulik said. “This is not the problem. The problem is when that trade-off brings more harm to all of our people for generations to come while doing good for only a fragment of the 14 million. CIR would create a permanent immigrant underclass in the United States.” Groups like DRUM, Vamos Unidos, and others affiliated with the NNIRR are trying to reframe the immigration debate from one narrowly focused on legal status to one around questions of human rights and economic justice. They seek to unearth how migration is intricately linked to the process of neoliberal restructuring and the management of displaced people on a global scale.

Yet even if oppositional groups were to settle on an alternative immigration proposal, the reality is that none of their demands will be met in Congress: The Democrats do not have enough votes, much less the desire, to push through a truly progressive immigration bill. Given this reality, it is likely that some oppositional groups will either accommodate the Democrats, as many have, or work toward solidifying a counter-hegemonic pole in the migrant movement. Such a pole would get individual organizations and coalitions from diverse sectors around the country to go beyond their immediate interest and to congeal around an alternative strategy that contests the emerging U.S. police state and today’s common-sense thinking of the Obama–Democratic Party Consensus.


Under the circumstances, building a counter-hegemonic migrant rights movement will require a long-term strategy. It will take years to develop the leadership of working-class migrants and to develop the politically autonomous organizing structures necessary to win moral and intellectual leadership away from the Democrats on immigration issues. In this respect, Latino organizations that seek to shake off the Obama–Democratic Party Consensus have much to learn from the social movements of their Latin American cousins, who in recent years have taken on another seemingly impervious consensus, the so-called Washington Consensus.

At the turn of the 21st century, Latin American social movements—many of which emerged in the 1970s—challenged the neoliberal governments that ruled most of the region during the 1990s. During this era, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, free-market intellectuals and politicians portrayed unregulated capitalism as inevitable and unshakable. North American academics like Milton Friedman, Francis Fukuyama, and Charles Krauthammer spoke of the triumph of capitalism, the end of history, and the unipolar moment, as the United States emerged as the single world imperial power. Many Latin American left parties and leaders, including former guerrilla leaders, capitulated to the neoliberal right wing, while reformist NGOs and so-called third path social democrats spoke of a kinder, gentler neoliberalism (much as some Latino organizations today seek a kinder, gentler police state in exchange for legalization and a seat at the table with Washington insiders).

Nonetheless, many Latin American social movements pushed for systemic changes and put forward analyses that questioned the very nature of the Washington Consensus. They built powerful social movements comprised of the most marginalized sectors of society that challenged global capitalism and racism in Bolivia, Ecuador, and elsewhere. Although far from uniform, these movements shared one thing in common: They pursued what they knew would be a protracted struggle, refusing to capitulate to the apparently unshakable Washington Consensus and guarding their autonomy from traditional political parties. These social movements were able to bring about the conditions favorable to their agendas; in fact, when the left turn in South American politics emerged in the early 21st century, Latin American social movements proved to be effective agents for keeping elected left leaders accountable to the demands of popular sectors.

Although organizing in a different context, Latino social movement organizations in the United States have much to learn from the experience of their Latin American counterparts. For oppositional Latino organizations to be effective, they will have to build unity within and forge alliances with other racial and ethnic groups that share the same class interest and develop a 10- to 20-year protracted strategy. Such a strategy in the United States means developing the capacity of Latino migrant workers to build political power in the long run. Building political power will put the movement in a favorable position in the future to demand and receive policies that actually benefit them and their families, as opposed to settling for piecemeal reforms designed to meet the needs of the Obama–Democratic Party Consensus. Although one could not underestimate the urgency of regularizing the status of the millions of undocumented people in the United States, settling for CIR as proposed by the Democrats will result in the mass detention and deportation of millions of migrant workers, while only a few of them will undergo a prolonged and rigorous path toward legalization.

This lesson is being absorbed by some groups within the Latino migrant movement from Los Angeles to New York. Indeed, one of the most important lessons to come out of the disappointment over Obama’s immigration policies is that an important sector of the Latino political leadership at the grassroots level realizes that there are no shortcuts to building political power. In the words of a group of Mexican youth from Vamos Unidos, a social justice group that organizes street vendors in the Bronx: “Our fight will not be won in one or two years. We are prepared to organize our communities and struggle for many years. We cannot negotiate out our lives, our dignity, and the lives of others. We must rethink our strategies and take control away from the DC immigration advocates, which have shown us they don’t have our interest. They have watered down good legislation at a very high cost to the community. Our communities need to decide and take control.”15

Latino youth, voters and some sectors of the Spanish-language media are becoming skeptical about the gains under the Obama–Democratic Consensus.16 In an effort to reinforce the consensus, on October 25 the president appealed to Latino voters on Piolín por la Mañana, a nationally syndicated morning radio show with millions of Latino listeners.17 The president was correct that it will be harder to achieve reform under a Republican-controlled House; however he took for granted that Latinos see the Democrats as friends. After the Democratic administration deported more than 392,000 people in fiscal year 2010, expanded E-Verify and Secure Communities, and further militarized the border, it is not surprising that many Latinos may now be asking themselves, With friends like the Democrats, who needs enemies?

While other factors certainly contributed to the Democrats’ losses at the polls in November, the president’s radio address was too little, too late to energize Latino voters—and many other groups—to turn out for his party in the midterm elections like they did for him in 2008. With the ascendency of the Republican right in Congress and a vicious anti-immigrant Tea Party movement, a new phase in the struggle for migrant rights is beginning. In all likelihood this will create a hostile congressional environment for immigration reform, one that may break up the Obama–Democratic Consensus, albeit for all of the wrong reasons. Nonetheless, it will also create a vacuum for the various Latino organizations and leaders to regroup and rethink their strategy. As new alliances are configured, an opportunity for redefining the future of Latino migrant politics is opening up. As Latino groups advance under these new relations of force, they may consider a new motto: Ayer votamos, ahora nos organizamos (Yesterday We Voted, Today We Get Organized). Only by organizing can they build the capacity, political clarity, and unity for the protracted struggle for migrant rights.

Alfonso Gonzales teaches political science at Lehman College of the City University of New York. He is a member of the NACLA Editorial Committee.

1. I would like to thank the colleagues, friends, and community partners who offered comments on this article.

2. Adrián Félix, Carmen Gonzales, and Ricardo Ramirez, “Political Protest, Ethnic Media, and Latino Naturalization,” American Behavioral Scientist 52, no. 4 (December 2008): 618–34; Chris Zepeda-Millán, “Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote: The Impacts of the 2006 Immigrant Protest-Wave,” paper presented at the American Political Science Association, Annual Meeting and Exhibition, Washington, September 2010.

3. Barack Obama at the LULAC Convention (video), uploaded July 8, 2008, to by user BarackObamadotcom.

4. Julia Preston, “In Big Shift, Latino Vote Was Heavily for Obama,” The New York Times, November 6, 2008.

5. Laura Muñoz-Wides, “Obama Naming Hispanics to Top Posts at Record Pace,” December 21, 2009.

6. Department of Homeland Security, “Secretary Napolitano Announces Record-breaking Immigration Enforcement Statistics Achieved Under the Obama Administration,” press release, October 6, 2010; America’s Voice, “CHARTS: Border/Enforcement Spending and Deportation Levels Continue to Skyrocket Under Obama,” May 25, 2010,

7. Jeremy Pelofsky, “U.S. Troops to Arrive at Mexico Border August 1,” Reuters, July 20, 2010.

8. Spencer S. Hsu, “Obama Revives Bush Idea to Catch Illegal Workers,” The Washington Post, July 9, 2009.

9. Democracy Now!, “Obama Admin Expands Law Enforcement Program 287(g), Criticized for Targeting Immigrants and Increasing Racial Profiling,” July 29, 2009,

10. Shankar Vedantam, “No Opt-out for Immigration Enforcement,” The Washington Post, October 1, 2010.

11. Charles E. Schumer and Lindsey O. Graham, “The Right Way to Mend Immigration,” The Washington Post, March 19, 2010; Perry Bacon Jr., “Democrats Unveil Immigration-reform Proposal,” The Washington Post, April 29, 2010.

12. Quoted in Jordy Yager, “Schumer Slams McCain’s Immigration Plan,” The Hill (Washington), Blog Briefing Room, April 19, 2010,

13. Quoted in National Immigration Forum, “Democrats Unveil ‘Conceptual Proposal’ for Immigration Reform,” press release, April 30, 2010.

14. Filipino Advocates for Justice, “Draft: Side by Side Comparison of Immigration Reform Proposals as of May 10, 2010,” document, available at

15. Vamos Unidos, “Latino Youth Defines DREAM Act as a De Facto Military Draft,” Immigrant Rights News (, September 22, 2010.

16. Carrie Budoff Brown, “Hispanic Media Take On Obama,” Politico, August 11, 2010.

17. “Transcript of President Barack Obama With Univision,” October 25, 2010,


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