[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #11 in July 2010]
The recent years of the immigration movement have been related to marching. After the incredible success in doing something not really usual in the United States, marching in big numbers on March 10th, 2006, it appears to many that the size of the marches would determine the success of the movement.
Media outlets are a lot more worried about “how many” people march, than about the demands, the state of legislation or the long term plans of activists involved in the immigration reform efforts. That’s why I am offering this short analysis of the relationship between the marches, the movement and their actors.
In 2006, the year of the “Immigrants’ Spring,” we marched divided. The night before the March 10th march in Chicago, one organization split off accusing the rest of not accepting certain politicians as main speakers at next day’s rally and, at the rally itself, and took control of the microphones to allow their own speakers instead of those selected by the rest of the organizations. Deep down, the split represented two ways to go forward: deliver the movement to politicians, or keep it as a united front of grassroots organizations.
2007, Divided At The March
By 2007, the immigration reform movement increased its division. Congressman Luis Gutierrez presented a “bi-partisan” proposal, the STRIVE Act, which was viewed by many as “bad but possible,” and as “the only thing we can get,” despite the fact that the Democratic Party had gained control of the House of Representatives in November of 2006. STRIVE was, indeed, bad: it legalized people in exchange for criminalizing undocumented immigration.
When the time came to organize the May Day marches, half the movement did not want the other half to march, and one half wanted to denounce STRIVE at the marches. In many cases and cities, there was one pro-STRIVE demonstration and one against it.
In Chicago the organizations agreed to a truce, marching together but not mentioning STRIVE at the main stage. The agreement, of course, was not respected and some speakers at the rally presented STRIVE as the solution for the movement.
The initiative went nowhere in the House of Representatives, but later in the year, when Democratic Senator Kennedy, along with President George W. Bush and Republican Senator John McCain announced a more liberal “Grand Agreement” for immigration reform, Republicans did stick to Gutierrez’ proposal saying they would not agree to anything else.
2008, Divided We Don’t March
The following year, grassroots immigrants’ groups faced a huge vacuum. Most non-profit “immigration” organizations were apparently not interested in marching anymore. The work, they said, was to push for citizenship drives and voter registration, not to mobilize in the streets. We later learned that the argument had come directly from Senator Dick Durbin, based on the idea that immigration marches would only serve to exacerbate anti-immigrant feelings and the Republican Party would gain votes at the upcoming election.
The promise was that achieving Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress and the White House would be the correct strategy. All non grassroots organizations went precisely that way, and Barack Obama’s victory was presented as the final solution. In the first 90 days of his administration—according to his own words—there would be immigration reform. Marching was now obsolete. Immigrants had won “The American Way” by going to the polling places.
2009, United We Don’t March
A follow-up instruction was given in 2009 to all immigrants’ organizations. Marching was not in order, because “Rome was not built in one day,” and the task at hand was to lobby recently elected members of the Democratic majority, particularly Blue Dog Democrats who opposed immigration reform.
Action consisted in phone banking, faxing and e-mailing in favor of … health reform, since Barack Obama made in clear that immigration was not the top priority and immigration reform was about fifth in a list of four priorities.
The empty streets gave way to be occupied by other demonstrators, among them the Tea Party, which staged rallies in all major cities. Instead of immigrants, anti-immigrants and nativists took over the streets to demonstrate in full force, supported by millions of dollars and mainstream media.
2010, United We Stop Marching
Last year seemed to see a revival of the 2006 “Spring of Immigrants.” In Chicago, a courageous group of youth came out to Federal Plaza on March 10th, the anniversary of the first immigration march of 2006, declaring themselves “Undocumented and Unafraid” to all who wanted to listen. In April, about a quarter million people gathered in front of the White House the day Barack Obama signed the Health Care Reform Bill, demanding immigration reform. Once the health care system problem had been “solved”, immigrants wanted their shot at a decent immigration reform legislation.
May Day 2010 saw a revival of the big immigration marches, with hundreds of thousands of people marching in dozens of cities across the United States. Alongside, undocumented youth started a campaign to push for the DREAM Act, and other organizations lobbied in favor of AgJobs, a bill to legalize half-a-million agricultural workers. It seemed that grassroot action had recovered the upper hand in the movement.
And then, everything stopped all of a sudden. According to some sources, Senator Durbin came again onto the scene, insisting that street actions would only harm the Democratic Party in the upcoming mid-term elections, which would be catastrophic for immigration reform. The new task was to do the same thing that had not worked before, to lobby Blue Dog Democrats to gain their votes. President Obama added later the task to lobby Republicans since “immigration reform will not happen if we do not have Republicans in a bi-partisan reform”.
All large non profit organizations immediately moved to stop street actions, except the very pissed off young activists in favor of the DREAM Act. Their civil disobedience and street actions forced the Democratic Party to bring up AgJobs and the DREAM Act to the floor of the Senate, after previous approval by the House of Representatives. From my point of view, that was more than anything directed at stopping more street action and, in any case, neither of them was approved when presented in the Senate, days before the disastrous mid-term elections.
2011, Why March?
Thousands came to the streets again this year, but fewer than last. The demands insisted on a new target. Putting Congress aside, the new target is to convince the President that he can, at least, make good use of his Executive powers and provide immigrants with some relief. From stopping widespread deportations to ending Executive-branch programs like “Secure Communities”, Barack Obama could, at the very least, stop separating immigrant families and deporting immigrants for minor traffic violations.
The response from the politicians has been, so far, the start of an election campaign where the President has insisted that “he swore to uphold the laws when inaugurated, and although broken, Immigration Law is the law.” The counter-response, still weak, from some grassroots organizations has been that “if the President can’t help us, then there is no reason to help him. We will withhold our vote for the presidential candidate in 2012, while going to the polling places to vote exclusively for legislators at the federal and state levels.”
The future of immigration reform seems bleak. With a Senate in the hands of Blue Dog Democrats, the house of Representatives in the hands of Republican Tea Partiers and the White House convinced that immigration reform is impossible without bipartisan cooperation, all in the context of Barack Obama’s possible defeat in 2012, there is no chance of relief for over 10 million undocumented immigrants.
All in all, the initial split in Chicago in the immigration movement took a whole, massive street movement in the direction fewer people wanted: the movement was delivered to the hands of politicians and grassroots-street actions were viewed as a non-option. The worst part is, many people do not realize it… ◊