More than a decade before last year’s marchas of millions, I felt the dreamy exhilaration of organizing and leading marches of tens of thousands. And, like many of today’s organizers and leaders of historic marchas, I know the dejection and disappointment before an immigration debate that leads one to ask, “Is this what we marched for?” and “What do we now?”
I came to understand this as the executive director of the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) in Los Angeles, which was the nation’s largest immigrant service and advocacy organization in 1994, the year that California’s anti-child, anti-immigrant Proposition 187 initiated the current war on immigrants. Together with Mexican and Chicano groups that had been organizing the undocumented in the decades before the eventual passage of the 1986 immigration reform, CARECEN and dozens of Asian and Latino organizations, labor unions, radical groups and others launched what were, until last year, the largest immigrant rights marches in U.S. history. As a former organizer, I appreciate the hard work of building consensus and coalitions, massaging egos and the constant agitation at the core movement-building. And as a writer who traveled to cities and rural areas in an ongoing effort to map the movimiento in 2006, I saw how Prop. 187 had spread through the nation: demographics, reactionary policies and economic globalization combining to create the new politics of immigration. Watching displaced white workers in globalized Georgia protest with placards saying “Invaders go home” or hearing Hmong immigrant youth in Wisconsin shout “We are not criminals” at James Sensenbrenner in front of a town hall, I believed predictions I’d heard about the entire country eventually experiencing its own clash of California dreams.
But this time, there was a fundamental and critical difference: the post-9-11 ascent of the national security state.
In this sense, the United States has started resembling another country, one whose nightmares shaped much of my thinking about peace and justice: wartime El Salvador. The denial of habeas corpus, the normalization and legitimization of torture (by Alberto Gonzalez, the son of immigrants) and the exponential growth of immigrant prisons and prisoners signal how immigrants have been lumped with alleged terrorists to provide the rationale for the Salvadorization of our political, penal and policing system. The government has violently raided homes and workplaces, sanctioned slave-like working conditions and denied historic and fundamental human rights. Migrants see and feel the slow, gradual dawn of a mutating American dream.
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My experiences on different sides of the border lead me to believe that war and the rise of a national security state necessitate a new response from movimiento leaders. We need to complement current efforts at policy reform while moving beyond some of the more reformist politics that rode and channeled the movimiento’s momentum into electoral politics and Beltway policy circles. This reformism is now short-circuiting the electric sensations and aspirations of millions who marched. Rather than deal with the deadly anti-immigrant climate solely through marches, lobbying and other important methods we used in California, the movimiento must confront the extremist, national security-infused politics of immigration in a manner more resembling the peaceful yet militant methods being honed in the insurgent continent, where people shut down corporate media in Oaxaca and took over presidential palaces in Bolivia.
It only takes a few thousand marchers to build our own wall—a human wall—around ICE or Minutemen offices and stop business as usual. We could also hurt the bottom line of a specific multinational corporation, one that’s fomenting migration by economically strangling entire countries. Instead of sending money home using multinational banks that are destroying home countries, why not charge a people’s tax by boycotting them?
These and other kinds of actions are necessary because, in the best of all possible outcomes, current “immigration reform” will result in nothing less than the greatest threat to immigrant life in the history of the United States. Regardless of whether there’s a legalization of 12 million people or a guest worker program or no law passed, the number of immigrant workers exploited in rural and urban areas will expand and deepen; the number of families separated and terrorized by raids will grow; the number of children and adults in immigrant prisons will increase; the number of dead in the desert will multiply; the number of ordinances outlawing housing, drivers licenses, etc. will proliferate. The plight of those writer Walter Mosley calls “brown slaves” will continue sliding into chaos and suffering imaginable only by those who have lived literal slavery.
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While the truly radical rightward turn in society at large and in the immigration debate has intensified, there has not been a sufficiently radical response from the immigrant rights community. Instead, elected officials, some labor unions and large non-profit organizations have negotiated with and legitimated some of the most deranged and dangerous elements in society.
For these and other reasons, we must think beyond reform, beyond the extremely reactionary Washington Consensus of Republicans, Democrats and the host of other interests whose back-room dealings have led us down a deadly path. While important and good, negotiations, marches, lobbying and other crucial work will continue to be ineffective without an urgent strategic component. The radical political moment requires the further opening of a radical flank of the immigrant rights movement.
In the 1980s, the terrible link became obvious between the extremism of U.S. foreign policy in Central America and the extremism of a domestic immigration policy that denied political asylum to refugees fleeing the U.S.-sponsored war and state terror that killed more than 300,000 citizens in Guatemala and El Salvador. Those of us who cut our teeth around immigrant rights during this time know too well the intimate connection between the national security state and immigration. Critical to combating this link was the creation of a sanctuary movement, led by refugees and supported by mostly white members of what was then a relatively unified and vocal progressive Christian religious community trying to bring some of the fire of Latin American “liberation theology” to the U.S. Yet, while it’s encouraging that many churches have begun declaring sanctuary again, and while there is a lot of potential in the important activism still blazing across the country, the current movement needs to frontally, perpetually and peacefully take on the most extreme policies, the politicians and vigilante front groups using national security as a racist weapon and the increasingly violent government agencies.
Without such a flank, the movimiento is sure to remain in a largely defensive posture while the hardening of the Wall threatens to define immigration in our time.
Bringing down the Wall means preparing and planning toward a long-term vision, one that defines the immigration debate beyond Beltway politics and the U.S. border. The degree to which we fail to realize that “immigration reform” is not just about immigration, that immigrants and immigration are being used as pawns in a larger game by a government swirling in an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy, is the degree to which quixotic dreamers among us tilt at the wrong windmills.
A new vision must move us to wrest authority from the Democratic party and the mostly Washington-based interests that constitute the immigration-industrial complex alongside Haliburton, the Pentagon and others. While they can become important, the movement must prioritize three things before inviting the Democrats and their close allies to the front of our marches: organizing, organizing and more organizing. In the words of New York immigrant rights activist Miguel Ramirez: "In the end, it's an issue of power, one that can only be addressed by constant organizing."
Power cannot be built from the solely defensive position now defined for us by the national security frame, our adversaries and, all too often, our supposed allies. While immigrants bear the brunt of backlash, there is no concomitant focus on the companies that recruit, pay and exploit these same workers. Neither is there any public interrogation of the deep undercurrent of white fear that undergirds much of the immigration debate. Failure to do so leaves openings for Imus-like statements by politicos, Minutemen and others who daily get away with calling immigrants “cockroaches,” “terrorists,” “invaders” and “criminals.” Failure to draw attention and force the racial component in immigration debates leaves too much space for the gradual and continued dehumanization necessary to accelerate and expand imprisonment, raids and other attacks.
A more horizontal vision frames this quintessentially global issue within its larger context, while also linking to the movements transforming the hemisphere. “Immigration reform” that does not consider the failure of U.S. trade and foreign policy as a fundamental cause of immigration cannot move toward justice. Fearful of being labeled as part of what the right regularly calls “the open borders lobby,” many immigration reformers have allowed the extremists to shape and define an immigration debate wholly within the confines of the U.S. border and the borders of their television sets. The current debate and all policy proposals in Washington deliberately ignore how “free trade” and “national security” in the countries where U.S. foreign policy dominates have created the very conditions for perpetual migration, a permanent class of uprooted and desperate laborers.
Some groups like the National Association of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, have begun to integrate, for example, discussions and linkages to Latin American governments and the powerful social movements there as they and others lead us into the era of a more geopolitically-oriented movement. When Proposition 187 caused much consternation in Mexico and Central America—among the primary senders of immigrants—some of us initiated discussions with our Southern allies about the possibility of identifying and targeting U.S. corporations that supported Pete Wilson and the California Republican party (primary sponsors of Prop. 187) and which had major business interests in U.S. Latino communities and Latin America. While we identified companies like RJR Nabisco and AT&T and were preparing to launch a transnational boycott, some in our leadership backed down in the face of pressure from the Latino community relations and PR operatives at these and other companies. Had we succeeded then in punishing the corporate sponsors of anti-immigrant politicos by using our power throughout the Latino Americas, some might now be less emboldened to support the current crew of “reformers.”
Rather than accept the corporate media’s declarations of the movement’s death, we ourselves should declare: “Immigration reform is dead.” In its place, we should continue working quietly toward alternative visions accompanied by more radical action, building grassroots power while overcoming fear of the state, corporate and other elitist forms of power. This will communicate our willingness to confront and tear down the Wall that blocks our view of the new horizon. Immigration reform is dead. ¡Que viva el movimiento!
Roberto Lovato is a New York-based writer with New America Media. This article was first published in the May/June 2007 issue of ColorLines, the national newsmagazine on race and politics, under the headline, "Power From Below." REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION: ColorLines magazine, www.colorlines.com.