Immigration Reform: The Movement Can Win So Much More

Shanta Driver

Demonstrators march during a May Day protest May 1, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. Thousands of people marched for immigration reform, among other issues. (Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

In 2006, the movement for immigrant rights handed President Bush his first major political defeat, and forever changed the landscape of American politics. Born out of high school walkouts and massive demonstrations that shut down Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Phoenix and other large and small cities, the movement’s goal was to defeat a draconian piece of federal legislation aimed at criminalizing millions of undocumented immigrants.

The framework for immigration reform unveiled this week by a bi-partisan group of eight lawmakers, and lauded by President Obama, is a clear concession to the power of this movement. But we shouldn’t be satisified with rhetoric about secure borders and vague promises of relief for some. When your enemies retreat and offer an olive branch, it’s a sign that you can win much, much more. The immigrant rights movement today has a new opportunity to rise up and demand that the new immigration law gives us the equality and full citizenship we deserve.

Undocumented students and youth who have led the immigrant rights movement from its inception have pushed the Dream Act as the movement’s most immediate and pressing demand. And after two decades of debate, undocumented youth are likely to be granted a pathway to citizenship as part of the overall reform. Winning this demand is important; it will provide the movement with a cadre of emboldened leaders. The proposed reform also allows some undocumented workers to get social security cards and drivers licenses, another result of tireless mobilization. But the new framework is unsupportable precisely because it leaves the overwhelming majority of undocumented people with no guarantee of ever achieving full citizenship.

This is why the present moment is full of perils, as well as opportunities. Politicians will rely on a sense of urgency to try to cow the movement into accepting much less than we have the power to demand. President Obama claims to support a clear path to citizenship while praising the bi-partisan initiative” and calling for its speedy passage. Liberal commentators will likely now echo the president’s line: better to have quick and limited reform rather than go through a drawn-out process that risks no reform or results in nothing substantially better than what is being proposed. Self-proclaimed community leaders” may also urge the movement to act reasonably” — in other words to lie down passively instead of standing up boldly.

Our job is to expose the lie that the speed and the quality of reform are counter-posed. We must reclaim the legacy of the mass uprisings in 2006 and mobilize our communities to win the freedom and equality we deserve.

In order to shape the contours of the final bill, we need to a positive program to mobilize around. By Any Means Necessary believes we must fight for a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented people, rather than accepting divisions between youth and adults, or good” and bad” immigrants. The ability of undocumented people to attain citizenship must be freed from the vague, unattainable goal of securing the borders.” We need a defined, quick, inexpensive and easy process for undocumented people to get green cards and become citizens. It is absurd to tie the citizenship rights of millions of people to the federal bureaucracy’s capacity to enforce airtight visa controls or to the exigencies of southwestern governors and attorneys-general.

So long as goods and capital flow unencumbered over the border with Mexico, the people who produce and consume the goods and services will find a way to follow. BAMN supports open borders, which are the only way to restart economic growth and end the scapegoating of immigrants.

It is time for the movement to return to the streets. The politicians and their rich and powerful backers are proposing some kind of reform because they know we have power and they hope that their proposal can appease us enough to keep up from marching, walking out, and reasserting the power of 2006. So ready the baby strollers, put on your walking shoes and watch the Internet postings from that year again. We have an opportunity to fight and win far more than what is being offered, and declare that we will never be satisfied with anything less than full equality.

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Shanta Driver is the National Chair for the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration & Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) and the National Director of BAMN’s non-profit affiliate, United for Equality and Affirmative Action Legal Defense Fund (UEAALDF).
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