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Grassroots Efforts for Immigration Reform: Voices from Michigan, New York, and Colorado

September 1, 2010

by Daniel Altschuler

Over the past several years, grassroots groups across the country have held mass marches, lobbied government officials and used civil disobedience to call for reform of the nation’s immigration system. As part of a continuing series of interviews on the prospects of comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) and the pro-CIR movement, I interviewed grassroots leaders from Michigan, New York and Colorado to explore the strategies of—and challenges faced by—groups in different parts of the country:

• Ponsella Hardaway is the Executive Director of Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength (MOSES) in Michigan, a member of the Gamaliel Foundation's organizing network.
• Andrew Friedman is the co-Executive Director of Make the Road New York
• Julie Gonzales is an organizer at the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC) and the Colorado State Director for the Reform Immigration for America (RIFA) campaign.

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MOSES, Make the Road, and CIRC have also signed on as member organizations of the broader Reform Immigration for America (RIFA) campaign to achieve national comprehensive immigration reform.

Altschuler: How long has your organization been working on immigration issues, and how did it first get involved?

Friedman: Make the Road has been working on this issue since its foundation in 1997 in the aftermath of unsuccessful national immigration reform and punitive welfare reform that targeted immigrants. Most of our initial organizing campaigns focused on local treatment of immigrants. Back in 2005-2006, it felt like there was some momentum emerging in the backlash to the Sensenbrenner bill [the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005]. That’s when we started to have substantive conversations about tactics and strategies for organizing committee meetings and participating in coalition work, both nationally and locally, on the issue. Since then, we’ve grown considerably, so this time around we were more active.

Hardaway: MOSES has been working on the issue since the founding of our organization in 1997. One of our members, Holy Redeemer—probably the largest Latino congregation in the city—has been a part of MOSES since the beginning. Because of its involvement, we started out working on local neighborhood issues, like crime and the rise of gangs. Then, out of that, we began looking at the young people who were brought over as children—they didn’t necessarily see Mexico as their home, they went through the Detroit public school system, but they could not go to college without going back to Mexico and paying foreign rates for tuition. So our first big action, back in 2002, was around fighting for in-state tuition for undocumented students, so that they could at least go to college.

Altschuler: What has your organization learned from the last failed effort for immigration reform in 2007?  How, if at all, are you approaching the current effort differently?

Friedman: After 2007, we had considerable work to do with our allies—strong institutional allies like labor unions, nationally powerful Democrats—as well as with folks who were not necessarily with us on the issue. We came out of that thinking a couple of things: one, we really needed to build our political sophistication and muscle and two, we needed to ensure there wouldn’t be a split between the AFL-CIO and Change to Win—two major union partners—on the substance of the legislation.

This time, we were just positioned differently. Our representative in Congress [Nydia Velázquez] was the head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Senator Schumer was the third highest-ranking Democrat. So we have been working more on local actions and local relationships to make an impact on the national struggle.

Hardaway: The biggest struggle in our organization was developing a relationship [with non-immigrant groups on this issue]. In 2007 we aggressively moved to immigration reform without building a strong multi-racial base. There were many African-Americans in our organization who didn’t understand—especially when we used the term ‘civil rights’ of immigrants. African-Americans said, ‘We’ve been fighting for civil rights for a long time. Why is this important for us [if we haven’t won our fight yet]?’  It’s important to have the conversation about how immigration impacts everyone and how we can find common ground around what’s being done to minorities in general in this country and the government’s role in that.

One of the things that MOSES did do was take on racial profiling. We got together as an organization and discussed racial profiling, working towards an ordinance in Detroit. We also got together around affirmative action, which was a big issue in Michigan. That was where we got a multi-racial coalition. It didn’t focus necessarily on immigration reform, but it took up the common things that affected us all. And then [in 2007-2008] we had some dialogue about immigration from a faith perspective, simultaneous to working aggressively on immigration reform.

Gonzales: Our coalition [in Colorado] began in October of 2006. Everybody understood the fight, but for us, it didn’t feel like there was necessarily a way to plug in. We weren’t doing the day-to-day lobbying. We needed to find a way to engage the local communities, to make sure everyone could participate, including young people. With the DREAM Act effort of October, 2007, there was creative, new, engaging, exciting work in which people could become involved. We did things in Colorado—like lobby visits with State legislators in Spanish—that helped gear us up for the latest efforts. The RIFA campaign [is focused on] trying to marry those two worlds of political lobbying and grassroots organizing. We don’t have everything figured out, but we’re doing better.

Altschuler: How, if at all, has Arizona SB 1070 changed the local climate on immigration issues and your organization’s strategy to achieve immigration reform?

Friedman: It’s changed things in significant ways. One, it pushes us. Seeing the example of Arizona and the way the Right effectively galvanized local political action to alter the terrain of the national conversation—and also to make change locally—ups the ante for groups like Make the Road to do similar things on the Left. To move the conversation our way by winning some of the stuff we hope to win at the local level.

It’s also had a tremendous impact animating our base in the same way that the Sensenbrenner bill did—really forcing folks to apprehend the extent to which the immigrant community is under siege and under attack, even if you don’t feel it every day walking through neighborhoods like Bushwick or Jackson Heights.

On the negative side: polling has indicated stronger support for comprehensive immigration reform than for laws like the law in Arizona, but it has also indicated some significant vulnerabilities for immigrant communities in marginal districts for Democrats on this issue. And that has, more than anything else, taken the wind out of the sails of the national movement to pass comprehensive immigration reform this year.

Hardaway: We developed an initiative called One Michigan, which will launch soon, to draw on the coalition that was built through the RIFA campaign. We’re part of that group, which is starting to work on the issues coming out of Arizona. We have a state legislator from Macomb County who’s pushing for similar legislation in Michigan. And we’ve seen a rise in racial profiling and deportation. So we’re beginning to address some of that. We had an action last week in front of a detention center. We’re trying to raise the profile to make people understand that this is an inhumane approach.

Gonzales: Yesterday, a dozen Republican state legislators went to Arizona to learn about the legislation and potentially copy it. This is the latest in a long series of occurrences since the Arizona law was signed. Colorado is historically an independent state, but it’s become increasingly partisan and polarized after the Arizona law.

Altschuler: What has your organization been doing recently to promote comprehensive immigration reform since May?  Given that no progress on CIR is likely before November, are there major upcoming actions?

Friedman: We’re participating in this big civil disobedience rally down in DC in September. And working on hopefully making this national boycott of Arizona—scheduled for December—more successful. But a lot of our effort has been focused on local issues: trying to convince the Paterson administration to write an executive order to guarantee immigrant confidentiality [in interactions with law enforcement officials]; an unsuccessful effort to get New York State to opt out of Secure Communities; work at the city level to promote collaboration between the local Department of Corrections and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At the city and state levels, we’ve focused on some immigrant integration issues, like language access. Finally, at the national level we’ve been involved in advocating for executive action to end certain types of deportations, gathering momentum for the DREAM Act and participating in some civil disobedience.

Gonzales: In June, we had our first ever act of civil disobedience in Denver on this issue; 14 people got arrested in front of the Federal Building. Now we’re gearing up for more civic engagement. The preparation work for this has been exciting, as we’ve been getting a lot of young people involved.

Altschuler: How important is civil disobedience to your current efforts?

Friedman: I wouldn’t endorse or condemn it across the board. If it’s part of a sustained campaign, it can be an effective tactic. Like many direct action tactics, there are some risks associated with it—it’s a higher visibility tactic, and that can be a really positive thing, but it’s important for us to be communicating our message effectively through our direct action. So, if the message of the DREAM Act is, “We want to learn,” then a walkout from school might not be an effective way to emphasize that message. It has to be done thoughtfully.

Hardaway: MOSES hasn’t used it. We have a very multi-racial coalition, so we still have to deal with a lot of groups who might not necessarily understand immigration except for the sound bites they see on TV. Our focus has been on understanding what’s happening—having undocumented people tell their stories about how this has impacted their communities, how it’s impacted them personally, about how their families have been torn apart. They’ve spoken to congregations, and we had a public meeting last October that got a lot of traction. So we started using that as a method to get people to understand the other side of immigration, compared to what they’re hearing in the media today.

Gonzales: Civil disobedience shows a new sense of boldness and maturity of people working on this issue in our state. It’s been really focused on President Obama—Denver is where he chose to accept the Democratic nomination, and Colorado is really a bellwether for the West. He made a lot of promises to immigrants here.

Altschuler: Various groups working for immigration reform are emphasizing story-telling in their campaigns. How important is story-telling for your efforts?  And can it be scaled up?

Friedman: This issue is made understandable through the experiences of actual people. Story-telling is important because we’ve got the more compelling stories. Everyone can raise the specter of the negative impact of immigrants. But when you actually look at it, you’ve got hard-working folks, raising kids, who are going to school—the stories are on our side. And the inhumanity is on the side of enforcement or hate crimes or vilification of immigrants.

Gonzales: I could go and I could talk to you about the 12 million people who are undocumented in the country; about how a deport-them-all strategy would cost almost 300 billion dollars; about how it takes 10 to 15 years for a sibling of a US citizen to come into the country legally. I could give you all these stats, but it all gets lost. For us, telling stories is the way to cut through all that policy fog and be very clear—this is the issue, this is why we need it fixed.

Altschuler: How serious is the concern in your area that Latinos may stay away from the polls in 2010 given the Democrats’ inability to pass CIR?

Friedman: I think it’s something the Democrats should be worried about. I say the Democrats because I think it would militate in favor of Republicans if Latinos stay home. My sense is that there is some real discouragement, given the force with which President Obama said he would deliver comprehensive immigration reform and given the fact that immigrants were largely left out of national health reform. On top of that, instead of comprehensive immigration reform, we have an enforcement-only approach passing in the Senate and the House that are controlled by the Democrats and signed by the Democratic president. My sense is that the Democrats have got an uphill battle making the case that, one, they’re committed to living up to their campaign promises and two, they really are a party that believes in immigrant inclusion and integration. I don’t think it’s an impossible case for them to make—and they can also make a strong case about why it’s in immigrant communities’ interest to support Democrats over Republicans—but I do think that they’ve got their work cut out for them. Because it’s not a no-brainer at this point.

Hardaway: We hear it a lot. But we’ve been really aggressive about going into the community and talking to them—especially when it came to the Census. And we have to do a lot of work for this upcoming election. In Southwest Detroit, where there’s a Latino community, there’s a state representative who’s well known by the immigrant community, and she’s done a lot of work and proven herself. In Macomb County, it might be different, so we have to figure out what it’s going to take to make sure that people go to the polls.

Altschuler: Some critics have argued that immigrant rights groups need to deliver a message that will reach non-immigrant citizens and not just “preach to the choir”. Has your organization just been mobilizing its existing base, or has it been able to reach out and expand its base? 

Friedman: Our strategy has been more around animating and mobilizing our base, as opposed to building bridges to other communities. I think it’s a fair critique that we should be doing more work reaching out to other folks. That said, I’m not sure that, in this campaign at this moment, reaching out beyond the immigrant community in New York City is the thing that most needs to happen.

Hardaway: I think that there are opportunities to expand the base as we expand the issue—how pieces relate to different groups’ self-interest. We’ve missed an opportunity by treating immigration as though it has only one face, a Hispanic face. We need to expand what immigration looks like. African-Americans were upset because they felt that there was priority treatment in fighting for “Hispanic immigration” versus Haitians who were left without help when coming across the water. Taking the time to make sure we reached a broader base of people might have helped.

Gonzales: I can answer that with an anecdote. We spent a lot of time mobilizing to pressure Senator Bennett to release a statement publicly saying that, yes, he was in support of immigration reform this year. We were doing all kinds of lobby visits, going to all of his forums and town halls across the state, hammering this message—“it needs to be now, where are you on this issue?” Then we had a lobby visit with his state director, and she commented to us: "I don’t know what you all are doing, but it’s working."  She had been in a coffee shop, and this guy came up to her and said, "I know you work for the Senator. I just wanted you to know that I’m a Republican and I really want the Senator to get this immigration thing done." She then told us, "We get it."  And within a week, the Senator had signed a public letter to Harry Reid calling for immigration reform this year. For us, that was a victory. I feel like we are reaching the middle.

*Daniel Altschuler, is a contributing blogger to www.AmericasQuarterly.org and a doctoral candidate in Politics and Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on civic and political participation in Honduras and Guatemala.

Tags: Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength, Make the Road New York, Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, Reform Immigration for America

To speak with an expert on this topic, please contact the communications office at: communications@as-coa.org or (212) 277-8384.
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