September 1, 2010
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.
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.