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The "More Effective Policy Approach" for Immigration Reform

(Fifthteenth in a series on the Movement for Immigration Reform.)
Tom Barry
January 16, 2009
It’s all so upbeat. The news and pronouncements coming from the “immigration reform movement” are bursting with optimism and confidence.

While the immigrant crackdown continues to bear down on our society’s most vulnerable population, the leaders of the immigration reform movement proclaim that the political forces are lining up with them to overhaul immigration policy and immigration law enforcement. A “New Day for Immigrants” is the slogan of the planned Jan. 21 march in Washington, DC organized by the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), which is the immigrant-rights extension of the Center for Community Change.

Clearly the end of the Bush administration, the arrival of Barack Obama, and the new Democratic majorities in Congress have given us good reason for hope that the immigrant crackdown launched by the Department of Homeland Security may be restrained.

But the post-election and pre-inauguration posturing by the leaders of the reform movement – National Immigration Forum, America’s Voice, National Council of La Raza, and Center for Community Change -- has been over-the-top. Paco Fabien, communications director of America’s Voice, says that they have been “giddy” over the prospects for CIR.

Not only are they proclaiming to the media that comprehensive immigration reform is imminent, but they are also warning the Obama administration and the Democrats that they will be held accountable if CIR isn’t a legislative priority. Since the election Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, has repeatedly promised that “we plan to hold him [Obama] accountable” if he doesn’t quickly use his political capital to push a new CIR bill through Congress.

How is the immigration reform movement working to ensure that CIR succeeds this time around?

Well, they have a “four-pillar” structure that the Carnegie Reporter describes in a recent feature article: “Immigration: Reform Movement Rebuilds.” According to the Carnegie Corporation report:

“Now these advocates are using the sometimes painful lessons learned from their legislative battles to build alliances on a local and a national level and to bring together disparate voices. Seeking to overcome the hurdles involved in merging hundreds of organizations, several leading groups, including those who are cited in this article, have been working to develop a re-energized and re-focused structure that consists of “four pillars,” which center around: a more effective policy approach, more effective work in the media, a stronger grassroots effort better linked to the nationwide effort, and successful efforts to promote citizenship and encourage civic participation.”

It’s a more-of-the-same strategy that has Carnegie Corporation immigration program director Geri Mannion waxing enthusiastic:

“This is an exciting time. Despite their problems, issues, conflicts and disappointment about the bill failing, these advocates have come together to rethink the next phase of immigration reform and hopefully are stronger for what they have gone through.”

Since 2001 the Carnegie Corporation has invested $35 million in this strategy and its principal organizations. It has been the major supporter of the National Immigration Forum since the mid-1990s.

It’s still unclear what exactly he “more effective policy approach” is. Only after the new approach is tested in public and congressional debate can it be evaluated. Thus far, however, there is little reason to believe that the approach used by National Immigration Forum, America’s Voice, Center for Community Change, and National Council of La Raza will be any more successful than it has been in the past.

Central to the policy approach are a priori demands for immigration reform. That the United States should have a liberal immigration policy that legalizes illegal immigrants and has an open door for new immigrants is the common assumption on which their policy advocacy is based.

This a priori case for liberal immigration reform perhaps best illustrated by the policy approach of the National Immigration Forum, which describes itself as “the nation’s premier immigrant rights organization.”

Its case for a pro-immigration policy and comprehensive immigration reform is crystallized in its mission statement: “The Forum is dedicated to embracing and upholding America’s tradition as a nation of immigrants.” Its slogan, “Immigrants Are America,” echoes the organization’s core belief: namely, that America was, is, and should always be a “nation of immigrants.”

In other words, if we believe it is so and others believe it is so, then it must be so and should always be so.

They may be right, but they will certainly need a more effective policy approach if they are to convince the American people and Congress. But there is little sign that these immigrant-rights advocates are prepared to go beyond their beliefs and convictions to make a comprehensive case for comprehensive immigration reform.

One might think that after more than a quarter-century enmeshed in immigration policy debates in Washington that groups like the National Immigration Forum, America’s Voice (an offshoot of the forum), and National Council of La Raza would have a policy agenda that not only made the case for liberal immigration reform but also set forth specific policy proposals.

But that’s not the case. Instead, what they offer are a set of principles that double as agenda items, including Reunite Families, Protect Workers, Give Undocumented Workers a Chance to Get Right by the Law, Restore the Rule of Law, and Promote Citizenship and Civic Participation.

Their opposition – the immigration restrictionist institutes they dismiss as “hate groups” – produces reams of legislative agendas and updates. But the National Immigration Forum – the nation’s oldest pro-immigration institute in Washington and this movement’s point organization  – offers meager pickings for those who in the media, Congress, and among the general public who want more than a priori arguments for comprehensive immigration reform.

The National Immigration Forum does offer a three-page “backgrounder” on the “Comprehensive Reform of Our Immigration Laws.” But rather than a policy agenda for immigration reform, it is a compendium of complaints and assertions.

It says, “We need a new approach to managing migration, one that recognizes reality and regulates it effectively; an approach that will make the immigration flow safe, orderly, and legal instead of deadly, chaotic, and operating outside the bounds of the law.” That’s a statement the most immigration reformers – whether restrictionists or immigration advocates – would agree with.

But what exactly is this “approach”?

What about employer sanctions, temporary workers, funding for SCAAP program, Real ID, E-Verify, border control, visa overstays, process for determining worker visas? What does it mean exactly to be a nation of immigrants – how many, what limits, should refugees and asylum seekers have priority?

Nothing, nothing specific.

Elsewhere, of course, in its press releases there are a stream of arguments against virtually all aspects of immigration law and procedures, actual and proposed. But nowhere is there anything resembling a cohesive and comprehensive agenda for liberal immigration reform.

While the restrictionist opposition also injects overheated assertions into its policy papers, they do present a policy agenda that could be described as cohesive and comprehensive, even while disagreeing strongly with its central case that America should no longer be a nation of immigrants.  

But the more effective policy approach of these immigration reform advocates does include at least one new thrust – the campaign to discredit the restrictionist institutes as “hate groups” and an increased emphasis on instrumentalist argument that the expanding Latino electorate makes voting for liberal immigration reform politically imperative.

Meanwhile, as the immigrant crackdown continues, there are increasing signs that immigration reform is a fading priority not only for the citizenry as a whole but also for Latinos.

One can only hope that the more effective policy approach of this immigration reform movement is still being fine-tuned and that it includes convincing argumentation why liberal immigration reform is in the national interest – not just immigrants, not just Latinos, but all Americans. Otherwise, this movement will likely be as marginal to the national policy debate over CIR as it was last time around.

 Next in Border Lines’ CIR Series: The Latino Path to Immigration Reform
For the entire series, see: http://borderlinesblog.blogspot.com/