Rethinking Our Approach to Immigration Reform

It is time for those of us who have been advocating for comprehensive immigration reform to rethink our strategies. After a recent visit with executive staff from the White House, Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Senate, and House of Representatives as part of a United Methodist Church delegation, I have concluded that at this time our chances of advancing immigrant rights at the national level are minimal. We were told by a deputy director of the White House's Domestic Policy Council that the president is currently unwilling to even consider making administrative changes in the implementation of current detention and deportation policies that have thus far resulted in more deportations than occurred under the Bush administration. They are fearful that any administrative attempts to lessen the scope of programs such as 287(g) or Secure Communities, which claim to target serious criminals, yet frequently lead to the deportation of people picked up for minor offenses, would provoke reprisals from congressional Republicans who would insert burdensome restrictions on the funding of executive branch departments into the FY 2011 budget.

We were equally discouraged by our meetings with Senator Reid and Senator Schumer's policy staff who told us that they were intending to meet with Glenn Beck's supporters to find out what types of immigration policies they would be willing to support. The only positive news we received came from our meeting with the Democratic staff of the subcommittee on immigration of the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on the Judiciary. The subcommittee staff told us that they felt the Republicans were sufficiently divided amongst themselves that it would be difficult for them to pass any particularly onerous new anti-immigrant measures, including E-verify, which would require all employers to electronically check social security numbers before hiring someone. So, my overall impression from this series of meetings is that we are essentially at a stalemate nationally with little chance of any favorable immigration legislation, but also no new negative legislation in the near future.

However, this does not mean that there is not work to be done. For the time being, I am suggesting that we focus our activities at the state and local levels. We need to prevent the passage of Arizona copycat laws in the various states in which they have been introduced. Even though many of these laws will ultimately be found unconstitutional because immigration policy clearly falls under the purview of the national government, in the meantime, they are making the lives of undocumented immigrants miserable. According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, migrant farmworker families are already keeping their children out of school whenever they enter Arizona. That state's new laws (SB 1070) have effectively denied access to education for undocumented children by requiring proof of citizenship to enroll school, even though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that every child is entitled to a public education. Elena Lacayo, the immigration field coordinator for the National Council of La Raza sees these copycat laws as a "trickle up strategy" where state level anti-immigrant laws establish new precedents for future national policy. We should recognize that exactly such strategies have in the past often led to the eventual enactment of new national legislation so it's important that we stop bad legislation from being passed by the states.

There are other states with well organized, strong Latino political representation, such as my home state of California, in which some progressive pro-immigrant reforms are possible. For example, there is a legislative campaign underway in California to pass a state level DREAM Act, which would make undocumented students eligible for institutional and state financial aid at all of the state's public universities.

Even if the campaign to pass national comprehensive immigration reform takes some years to finally succeed, we can still build social movements that create what cultural anthropologist, James Holston, has called "insurgent citizenship." I see organizing efforts by groups such as Interfaith Worker Justice and Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) that work with unions to expand immigrant workers' rights as well as the many local congregational community organizing networks that seek increased access to quality education, health care, and safe communities for people who do not possess formal U.S. citizenship as new forms of insurgent citizenship. Through getting involved in these types of local, regional, and statewide campaigns we are expanding substantive citizenship rights from below for people who are being denied formal rights by the American nation-state. All of these efforts will contribute to improving the quality of life for all immigrants and their children, thereby contributing to the building of shalom even when it is being denied on Capitol Hill. Creating a broader set of rights for immigrants at the local level has indeed already occurred in a number of European countries, where in some cases, non-citizen immigrants are even allowed to vote in local elections.

Dr. Helene Slessarev-Jamir is a political scientist and serves as the Mildred M. Hutchinson Professor of Urban Studies at the Claremont School of Theology.

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