The “Inside-Outside” of Domestic Immigration Reform

By Felicia Gustin
Jan 2, 2013

PART II of the War Times interview with Catherine Tactaquin, Executive Director and co-founder of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR)

WT: You recently wrote that “Obama’s second terms gives us another opportunity to push for meaningful immigration reforms and put an end to the conciliatory, bad, repressive policies that so many Democratic politicians claimed they really didn’t support.” What do you think is on the horizon in terms of the debate and changes to U.S. law, immigration policies and practices?

CT: Ever since the election, immigration has been a hot topic. Even when I was in Manila (at the 5th World Social Forum on Migration), everyone was asking, ‘What’s going on in the United States? Are you going to get immigration reform?’ A lot of other countries pay attention – U.S. laws often influence laws in other countries.

Immigration reform appears to be fast-tracked. What we hear is that the White House will probably make known its proposal for immigration reform shortly after the inauguration. There’ve already been a number of meetings with both sides, Republicans and Democrats reaching out. Interestingly, the Republicans, after the

The Republicans, after the election and the beating that they got and the lack of support that they got from Latinos, see the writing on the wall

election and the beating that they got and the lack of support that they got from Latinos, see the writing on the wall, the demographic change. In recognizing that they are asking, ‘What could we support that’s not going to be too controversial and win points with the Latino community?’ Of course, there’s not a whole lot that’s not controversial [laughs] that they could support. They’re looking at it in a very narrow way and it doesn’t appear that the Republicans have a consensus on how to approach immigration reform. Will it be piece meal vs. a more sweeping bill? Even among the Democrats, it’s not clear whether they think they can put forward a sweeping bill.

But certainly among advocacy groups, we are beginning to forge fairly strong opinions about what we want. We are meeting in Washington D.C. to form what’s called an enforcement caucus with those of us who have worked a lot around immigration enforcement issues over the past several years. We want to make sure that we don’t see this traded off for legalization in immigration reform, or where there’s going to be an increase, for example, in border militarization and enforcement programs that have been widely criticized in the past couple of years – like Secure Communities, local policing, and that type of thing. We want to see a roll back of that in anything that goes forward.

As a core issue, we want a number of ways for people to adjust their status

If we don’t see a rollback, it’s really going to have an effect on legalization. It’s going to throw up more barriers, there will be more people who are ineligible for anything that’s put on the table. As a core issue, we want a number of ways for people to adjust their status. Legalization is one but we want a restoration of a lot of programs that were actually in place in past years where people could adjust their status. They could pay a fine. They could get on the path to legal status or work authorization. There are a lot of issues that we’re presently discussing but it could move very quickly. There are some members of Congress who want it done by this year before the congressional break in the summer. They certainly want it done by the 2014 mid-term elections. I don’t think either party wants this rolling over into the 3rd year of the Obama administration.

WT: Some of the exit polls after the elections said that the majority of the voters support giving undocumented immigrants in the U.S. a path to legal status, including, according to Fox News, 37% of Republicans. Yet we know there is often disconnect with what people want and what goes on in Washington.

CT: Obama has long said he favored a legalization program and even over the last 4 years that was always a conversation. But how would you get that? He worked very hard to meet the Republican demand that before they would engage in immigration reform, he had to secure the border and continue some of the enforcement policies. So Obama repeatedly would say things like, ‘I have had

If we have a human rights crisis in the United States, it’s at the U.S.-Mexico border

more boots on the ground at the border than any previous administration.’ Which is true. But it’s a continuation of policy and the Democrats were so backed into a corner on this issue by the Right that they were willing to make that concession. As usual, the throw away was human rights on the border. So frankly, if we have a human rights crisis in the United States, it’s at the U.S.-Mexico border. But it’s often such an isolated place, it’s not seen by the rest of the country physically or in people’s thinking.

WT: Talk more about the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border.

CT: It’s grown steadily since the Clinton Administration. To strengthen enforcement at the border we now have 30,000 border patrol agents. Since the mid-90s and certainly after 2001, programs have steadily been put into place to process people immediately and send them back without access to courts. We see the use of technology including leftovers from the war in the Middle East. Interestingly, there’s been a decrease in people coming across the border in the last year and a half or so. There are lots of reasons – certainly enforcement but also the economy and the decrease in the birth rate in Mexico which has gone down dramatically in the last decade. So actually coming across the border now are OTMs – Other Than Mexicans. But with that decrease there have been a lot of questions including why are we continuing this level of border enforcement? So we certainly want to push back the enforcement but also increase access to due process and peoples’ rights at the border. Both people who are crossing and the resident communities that live along the border have been tremendously affected.

I think the other factor that we’re concerned with is that the border is also the site where the war on drugs is playing out and that has certainly been a big factor in continuing militarization and the rationale to continue levels of militarization. I think as an immigrant rights movement we have to address the war on drugs and we’ve actually begun engaging in conversation with folks working on drug policy because it’s certainly intersected and that will have to be a conversation that also comes into the immigration reform debate.

WT: Coupled with that militarization of the border, we’ve also seen the increase in the private prisons that house undocumented immigrants.

CT: There are more contracts being given to private prisons and detention centers to be built all around the United States, including in the border areas. We’re actually part of the private prison divestment campaign which has been raising awareness about the profiteering from these policies of mass incarceration. The detention of immigrants and others is the prison industrial complex getting played out.

With increased detention centers along the borders, you can detain over 30,000 people a day. Some people are in and out; some are there for a longer period of time. I think there has been awareness raised thanks to some of these campaigns 

The detention of immigrants and others is the prison industrial complex getting played out

about the degree to which private prison companies like GEO Group and CCA – the Correction Corporation of America – are really profiting off of this.

The United Methodist Church and others have divested their pension funds from Wells Fargo, for example, which was investing in private prisons and recently Wells Fargo, thanks to the efforts of the National Private Prison Divestment Campaign, has withdrawn nearly 75% of its investments in GEO Group, the nation’s second largest private prison company.

WT: Many churches have been involved in immigration advocacy – from the sanctuary movement to divestment campaigns. In November, Evangelical Christian leaders, including a Southern Baptist Convention official, called for President Obama and Congress to reform the nation’s immigration laws and grant legal status to millions of undocumented residents. What’s the significance of this sector weighing in?

CT: It’s interesting. They are also seeing the demographic shift. A number of 

evangelical churches are bringing in immigrant populations who were members in their home countries and who are now exerting their influence here. With local congregations that are predominantly immigrant based, they have to take a position at the national level. Now we don’t know what the totality of their position will be. Immigration is really wide-sweeping and there are a number of issues on which people will be divided. So, for example, they will be divided on who they see are good immigrants vs. bad immigrants, who will be eligible for legalization.

The laws have increasingly criminalized immigrants, re-categorizing laws, so what was once a misdemeanor is now a felony. If you’re a repeat crosser coming back across the border - multiple reentry - that’s a crime. You’re a criminal. You’re coming back to see your family because they’re destitute because you were deported. So we don’t know how everyone is going to break down on issues that will emerge as immigration reform plays out. But certainly the broader the coalition behind some of the core issues, the better.

WT: Speaking of differences, we’ve seen within progressive movements, there are those who talk about Obama being the worst single President in U.S. history when in comes to jailing, persecuting and deporting immigrants, citing 1 million deportations, the expansion of Secure Communities, etc. How do you respond?

CT: I know there are those who’ve said Obama is worse than George Bush but its not a very useful conversation because the Right has dominated and controlled the immigration debate for a couple of decades or more. What has played out, especially since 9/11, has been a fairly consistent level of government policy.

Obama is really a transitional President, if that. Not a transformational one.

Obama is really a transitional President, if that. Not a transformational one. I know a lot of us had higher expectations and hopes that have been dashed and that’s been very sobering. But it is a distorted analysis of what takes place within an administration. So it true that Obama has carried out and deepened some of the enforcement level programs that were started much earlier. But we also know in working with the administration –  not to defend them – but certainly if you were to compare Obama and the previous Bush administration, there are also a number of things the Obama administration has taken up which George Bush would not.

You also have to look at Congress. It’s one thing to have someone in the administration and to use that route to push the agenda. I think we have to continue to push the administration and the departments within the administration, including the Presidency and cabinet, especially the Department of Homeland Security. But unfortunately where policy gets decided is in Congress and we’ve been stymied there for years on immigration reform and lots of other issues. That’s where I think the battle is going to be. We have to continue to push Obama and other members of the cabinet to stand up for some of the things that they have agreed to, like legalization protections and core rights. But you can’t ignore the Congress – that’s where the rubber hits the road.

WT: How is this going to play out with all the draconian anti-immigrant laws being passed at the state level, such as Arizona and Georgia, while trying to push for changes at the federal level?

CT: It’s interesting. Some of what was happening at the state level was very much part of the agenda that was coming from the Right not just on immigration, but also pushing anti-gay marriage laws and other laws which happens when there appears to be a vacuum at the national level. When they couldn’t move their agenda there, they could take it to the state level, especially where they had a stronger base and could manipulate more easily and more readily. It’s not surprising that it’s Arizona and other states in the South where that could take place.

I think we learned a lesson in California from Proposition 187 in 1994. We lost the vote on 187 but the Supreme Court later ruled that it was largely unconstitutional. But it was successful in polarizing the public on questions of immigration, of painting and stigmatizing immigrants as bad immigrants, as sucking up the welfare system, as doing this and that. I think this is a lot of what happens in these state campaigns – it’s meant to polarize the debate and turn people against immigrants and to revive hate and racism.

WT: Your thoughts on the work of the DREAM activists and their tactics - sit-ins, civil disobedience, taking to the streets - and their role in the movement?

CT: The DREAMers really symbolize a revived active movement and a reenergizing of that movement. The pressure that the DREAMers put on the electoral campaigns really had an impact. They did push to formalize what had been an informal practice, unwritten policy, of the Obama administration, which was to not prioritize deportation of young immigrants.

The DREAMers really symbolize a revived active movement and a reenergizing of that movement.

Pushing that really inspired everyone across the board politically but also in terms of approach and methodology and tactics - you need to get out in the streets. The fact that they were willing to make that kind of sacrifice, to put themselves on the line, was really inspiring.

But undocumented were also in the streets during the massive 2006 rallies, the biggest demonstrations ever on any issue in this country. Those mobilized older immigrants, families, everyone. But they were rallying against something – the anti-immigrant legislation. Sometimes it’s harder to get people out for something. So we may not mimic those rallies but I think that if we can begin to change the environment and make it acceptable, safe for people to come out, then we will get those larger numbers and the breadth that we need to exert greater pressure.

And it’s going to have to be with allies because, frankly, Congress is not necessarily intimidated by immigrants – they’ve said, ‘Frankly, you don’t matter, you don’t vote.’ And I think the movement as a whole is much more prepared to mobilize allies. We’ve seen more sectors willing to enjoin in doing that which is great. We’ve always thought this is not a go-alone movement. It can’t just be immigrants. It has to be something broader where people are seeing a common agenda.

We can see, for example, the work of BAJI – the Black Alliance for Just Immigration - here in Oakland that has really anchored work among African Americans and also with other allies bringing in new populations of African migrants and even bringing those two communities together. Because they ARE two communities. So it’s led to the creation of the Black Immigration Network and we have these new vehicles that we didn’t have 4 years ago.

WT: Organizing in the Latino immigrant community, in the Asian immigrant community and now in the African immigrant community - how are those different communities coming together in this next phase to push the government for reforms?

CT: We hope they are going to come together in greater ways. We’re actually working in California now to convene a dialogue among Asian Pacific Islander communities who are not homogenous. There are challenges on how immigration reform is addressed. So in a lot of Asian communities, for example, they look at legalization that is opposed to dealing with the backlog. There is susceptibility to the charges from the Right that the “good” immigrants have been standing 

and waiting in line to come in, waiting for their visas, and these “bad” immigrants have crossed the border and are getting in line first. So we see attempts to divide communities. But we recognize that there are different communities and you can’t treat everyone the same. You have to listen to what people are saying.

There is susceptibility to the charges from the Right that the “good” immigrants have been waiting in line to come in, waiting for their visas, and these “bad” immigrants have crossed the border and are getting in line first.

We have a lot of African migrant populations who are refugees and who look at immigration in a different way who are nonetheless facing similar conditions. We’ve had a lot of conversations with the Arab community too who have undocumented but didn’t necessarily perceive themselves as immigrants. It’s just that the spectrum has shifted a whole lot.

I just had a conversation with a friend and we’re going to be connecting with some of the LGBT groups, and we have our own caucus of LGBT immigrant organizations, to weigh in on some of the policy language to make sure that it’s inclusive and will bring in allies from the LGBT movement.

It’s challenging but challenging in a good way because I think some of these alliances were much more fragile or non-existent in previous years and a lot has actually matured in the last 4-5 years.

WT: What has been the role of organized labor in this work?

CT: We’ve always had a strong relationship with the labor movement and over the years, a number of unions have specifically seen their ranks grow because they dedicated themselves to organizing among immigrant workers. The AFL-CIO, for example, has affiliated with non-union groups like day laborers and domestic workers groups who are largely immigrants. That’s something very new that didn’t exist 20 years ago.

Organized labor has been a declining force yet it is a good friend here in the U.S. and globally. We work closely with the global labor movement as well. We see our futures as intertwined and as a distinct vehicle that has its own base of influence, labor is still a critical partner for the immigrant rights movement.

We are very much agreed that immigration reform has to be very solid in terms the provision on workers’ right so we don’t want to use immigration reform in any way to diminish labor protections. I know we are going to face a big fight in immigration reform on the guest worker issue, temporary workers, which the Republicans have said, is their main focus. They’re willing to engage in immigration reform if they get a guest worker program that is temporary with no guarantee for permanent residency and largely based among the skilled and highly educated immigrants. So they don’t want any poor, uneducated immigrants. They want to continue the whole phenomena of the brain drain. “These are the ‘good’ immigrants. They’re acceptable.” So it’s going to be a fight because we are unified in our opposition to temporary workers and I think we are agreed that family unity is still a core anchor for immigration policy in the U.S.

We are also looking at what it means to have employment visas, for people to be able to migrate on the basis of employment as long as it’s on equal footing with workers here, where there’s access to permanent residency, where their rights are protected at the same level as U.S. workers. Those are issues that we really need to work with labor on to insure that that kind of language is included.

WT: Do you think serving in the military as a path to citizenship will be part of the coming debates?

CT: I’m not sure. This was an issue around the DREAMers. When we first worked on the DREAM Act 10 years ago we did not have as one of the criteria for young immigrants to gain citizenship status through service in the military. That was added by the Republicans and specifically the language that was written into current versions of the DREAM Act was done by the Defense Department.

It’s not surprising that they drafted that provision. My own dad came from the Philippines and had some form of legal status but was drafted into the U.S. military during World War II and received his expedited citizenship by his military service. Our position is that it’s likely that some of that language will continue and you have to continue to do education in the community about what that means. People have to be able to make their own decisions. We just think there should not be barriers to people to have other avenues to gain legal status apart from the military, and the fact that the Defense Department wrote that provision in the DREAM Act is very telling in about how young immigrants are perceived.

WT: Your organization, the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, talks about the fight for immigrant rights as not just a fight for legislation. What is some of the other work that goes hand in hand with the work for immigration law reform?

CT: We just came out of a California meeting where we were talking about this. I think it’s very important for us, as a movement, to understand what our broader political agenda is in terms of justice for immigrants. Legislation is one route and there’s considerable pressure to push legislation through. And you do need legislation. But under these circumstances there’s also a lot of pressure to cut a deal, to compromise, so we have to be very careful about what that bottom line is. We also have to realize that we don’t get everything that we want through legislation. There’s a lot of other work to do. There’s administrative pushes, there’s litigation, but moreover, I think the movement is much more recognizing the importance of organizing and building capacity for the long-run.

The kind of justice we’re seeking at the legislative level is only going to take place when we’re able to do transformative work around the country. We have to

The kind of justice we’re seeking at the legislative level will only take place when we’re able to do transformative work around the country

change the base of power, the base of influence, who gets elected to Congress. It’s certainly not going to be through effective congressional education that we’re going to get what we want. We have to change the character of the legislature itself.

We have to shift the public narrative. We recognize that’s a huge agenda and it’s not just an immigrant rights agenda. So we’re in conversation with folks around health care reform where on the one hand, the current health care reform leaves out lots of people including large sectors of immigrants. That access won’t be there, even by reforming the Affordable Care Act.

Right now we have a door open so everyone is eager to play this out but on a sober note, the challenge is to keep the door open. We’re not going to get everything we want. We have to keep pushing. Unfortunately that door has been closed, certainly since 9/11. In a very token way, it appeared to be open in the last four years – but that wasn’t a serious effort to have immigration reform on the table. It was a campaign promise and we didn’t think it would come around until a second term of the Obama administration. That door is now ajar and we’re going through it!

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Felicia Gustin has been with War Times since the beginning. She currently works at SpeakOut, a national organization working primarily with colleges, universities, and high schools and dedicated to the advancement of education, racial and social justice, leadership development and activism. She is a long-time activist in international solidarity, peace, racial justice and labor movements. She was a journalist for 10 years in Cuba and is currently working on several projects - an historical memoir and a poetry collection, among others.

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