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Immigrant Rights Movement is Outgunned and Isolated

The Supreme Court may not have decided yet on the Arizona v. United States case. But there is already a sense of defeat among immigrant rights activists (and a sense of celebration among the restrictionist movement) based on the feeling that the justices, including the liberal ones, may lean towards upholding at least some parts of Arizona’s SB 1070 anti-immigrant law.

For some analysts, upholding SB 1070 would suggest a divided, disorganized and out-of-focus immigrant rights movement, that was not able to effectively articulate an argument to support the Federal government’s case against Arizona.

The same sense of defeat has been expressed in news accounts related to the May Day immigrant rights rallies this year. The Seattle Times argued, for example, that since 2006 the May Day rallies “have gotten smaller, less focused and increasingly splintered by any number of groups with a cause.”

Yet, it is not clear that a negative Supreme Court decision on the Arizona v. United States case is a good indicator of a divided movement. On the contrary, the demonstrations and activities around the Court’s consideration of the case, suggests an immigrant rights movement that is more vibrant and more organized than ever. These activities were strongly coordinated by major organizations and many actors converged in supporting them. This is reflected in the number of people that demonstrated in front of the Court on April 25th to support the federal government in the case against Arizona, compared to the number of people that showed up from the opposing side. It is also reflected in the number of people and organizations that wrote and signed the many amicus briefs to opposed SB 1070, including all sorts of religious and business organizations, unions, local law enforcement agencies, mayors, governors, former INS commissioners from Democratic and Republican administrations, and a number of civic organizations.

It is also difficult to argue that the May Day rallies are a good measure of the strength of the immigrant rights movement. From their inception, these rallies never generated a broad consensus among the immigrant rights community because they were also linked to a one day economic boycott, while there was also the perception that kids were being encouraged to attend the rallies and skip school. These issues discouraged key supporters from participating. In addition, it was never clear to many immigrant rights’ activists whether they should focus their energies on getting eligible immigrants to become citizens and vote or whether they should keep encouraging immigrants to rally in the streets. The former view was the one supported by the leaders of most mainstream pro-immigrant organizations.  

Instead, we need to ask why despite the historical convergence of so many actors around the immigrant rights’ movement, the political system seems to be more closed than ever to their cause? Passing an immigration reform with a path to citizenship for the undocumented seems more improbable than ever, while undocumented immigrants seem to be under attack all over the country -- reflected in the number of laws enacted, or considered, at the state and local levels to generate fear and encourage immigrants to "self deport."

For answers, we need to look elsewhere beyond the strength or weaknesses of the immigration movement. We need to look, for example, at the concerted efforts of the Republican Party, to exclude politically inconvenient groups such as the immigrant and Latino communities, from the country’s political life for partisan gain. We also need to look at the systemic efforts of a number of well financed and effectively advised Republican leaning organizations, such as the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), Numbers USA, the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI), and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), to expel the undocumented community from this country, through laws like SB 1070, and the taboo against any immigration reform that smells like regularization with the strong support of key members of Congress.

Finally, we must look to the mild and ambiguous support offered to the immigrant rights movement by the Democratic Party and the Obama administration. Even while the Federal government took legal action against SB 1070, it also opened the doors to policies of similar effect through its Secure Communities and 287(g) programs which in practice do the same thing that SB 1070 does by making local cops act like immigration agents, a reason why it was also difficult to argue in Court that this law conflicted with Federal law. At the same time, many Congressional Democrats have opposed any attempt at regularizing the immigrant community including the Dream Act, despite the fact that this is in the mid and long-term interests of their own party. 

With such obstacles it is not hard to see why even with wide popular support and many more allies than ever the immigrant rights’ movement is having a hard time advancing its cause. History shows that for a social movement to be successful, it needs to have more than wide social support, and strong organizational resources and allies. It also needs to have effective points of access into governing institutions, and these the immigrant rights’ movement still lacks.