In 2006, millions of protesters, many of them young people, poured into the streets of small and large cities to call for immigration reform. The huge mass actions, however, seem to have faded as quickly as they erupted.
But the issues that prompted the 2006 protests remain: Federal policies stand unchanged. And the national debate about immigration has become a largely unmentioned elephant in the race for president. In this report, we discover what groups are now doing and thinking about immigration.
In Postville, Iowa, scores of volunteers coordinated by a local church tried to tend to emergency needs when hundreds of immigrant workers were detained in May. What may have been the largest immigration raid in Iowa history resulted in the arrest of more than 300 people, followed by speedy criminal proceedings.
“People flooded the church,” recalls Father Paul Ouderkirk of Postville’s St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, saying that the raid caused “complete chaos.” In an interview with Blue Avocado, he explained the church was feeding hundreds of people a day, including spouses and children of those detained.
The Postville volunteers were among the hundreds who dedicate themselves in myriad ways to improve immigrant experiences in the United States.
With national elections on the horizon, immigration rights groups are rolling up their sleeves to pave the way for legislative reform, which they say is critical to addressing the issue over the long-term.
“We’re looking for the possibility for sea change,” says Marissa Graciosa, immigration campaign coordinator for the Center for Community Change and the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), a national grassroots coalition. “But just because there’s a new administration, doesn’t mean that community groups aren’t responsible for creating conditions for major progressive policy changes. Immigrants are already part of communities. They’re no longer strangers – these are workers who are making our economy.”
“The reality is the system is not working,” says Clarissa Martinez De Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns for the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization, with 300 affiliated organizations in the U.S. She reports that NCLR, along with local and faith-based organizations, are working to address misperceptions. “There’s a concerted effort to create fear around this and block debate.”
On the national level, the presidential nominees have mostly side-stepped public debate on immigration, while federal legislative initiatives, such as the bipartisan Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 (S.2611), stalled out. The DREAM Act, which would provide a path to legal status for high-achieving immigrant youth, remains pending in Congress. At the same time, states “are still tackling immigration-related issues in a variety of policy arenas more than 1,100 bills have been considered in the first quarter of 2008,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
According to the White House Council of Economic Advisers’ report on immigration, immigrants represent 15 percent of the U.S. workforce and even larger shares of sectors such as food services, construction and health care, contributing significantly to the nation’s productivity growth. An estimated 40 percent of Ph.D. scientists working in the U.S. were born abroad. The undocumented population has grown from about 3.5 million in 1990 to 12 million in 2006, the Immigration Policy Center reported in May.
Immigration rights groups say that any policy reform must go hand-in-hand with a community dialogue. Across the country, coalitions and organizations are working to change the tone of the debate as a context for specific policy arguments. No one group is leading the charge. Instead, a series of national, regional and local engagements are underway.
FIRM and the National Immigration Forum, for instance, developed a Building America Together pledge to focus on recognizing contributions from diverse communities. “In California, organizers are using the pledge to start conversation with legislators,” reports Marissa. “In New Jersey, they’re using the pledge to talk to new members to be proactive with legislators, community groups and allies.”
While Clarissa reports that the NCLR is “helping citizens become voters and exercise their votes on Election Day on the local, regional and national level. And, on the broader context, ensuring folks are receiving information on their community.”
On the regional level, the New York Immigration Coalition, comprised of New York and New Jersey-based organizations, just wrapped up the “Truth About Immigrants Campaign.”
“We worked with about 20 community-based organizations to put on community presentations, working specifically to reach non-immigrant communities,” says Frances Liu, field coordinator for the Coalition. Presentations were made at schools and community centers, sometimes in partnership with other groups, such as faith-based organizations and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapters. “The presentations became dialogues,” says Frances.
Sookyung Oh, immigrant rights project coordinator of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium (NAKASEC) agrees that there needs to be a real shift in public perception to set the stage for just immigration reform.
“Among the national coalitions, the focus is now on civic engagement, a moratorium on raids and more specific issues, such as immigrant integration.” She adds, The values and principles are those of inclusion and respect for every human being.”
Local groups, especially, are also involved in a convergence of issues, including health care, quality limited English proficiency (LEP) and bilingual education programs, better immigration integration – as well as support for policies designed to help immigrants integrate successfully and productively. Some are preoccupied with responding to escalating immigration raids conducted by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
“What anyone wants in this country is to take care of themselves, their family and their community â€” maybe it’s your church, your block,” says Sookyung of NAKASEC. “There’s a whole slate of things you need to make that happen: you need access to affordable health care, education, a clean environment. The challenge for the immigration reform community is how do you have laws that respect everyone’s humanity?”
With the wide range of needs – and national debates focused on the flailing economy – immigrant rights nonprofits may find the challenges of changing public attitudes, mobilizing communities and providing emergency services more than daunting.
S.E. Friedman of Redmond, Washington, is a writer who previously served as communications director for the antipoverty nonprofit Share Our Strength, editor of AmeriCorps News and with Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA).Â She also led volunteer English as Second Language (ESL) classes in Boston, New York and Salt Lake City. Lynora Williams (right)Â is senior editor of Blue Avocado.