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National Immigration Conference Kicks Off, But Can It Shift The Debate?

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Hair tightly braided and red, white, and blue flags in hand, two mischievous girls ran through the ballroom aisles towards their mother. There she sat, next to 28 others who were about to become American citizens, smiling anxiously as she looked out towards the Boston Harbor. Tigist Asrat, 31, arrived in New England from Ethiopia ten years ago. Fleeing first political unrest then bondage, Ms. Asrat sought asylum in the United States--she came to this country, she said, "for freedom." After five years waiting for a green card and five more to become a citizen, she explained what this day meant to her: "today is a big day for me. I have been waiting for so long." Minutes later, after repeating the citizenship oath and pledging allegiance to her new country, tears trickled down her face as she looked at the document that proved that she was finally a citizen.

Wednesday's naturalization ceremony set the stage for this week's National Immigrant Integration Conference (NIIC), hosted by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA). The title of this year's conference is "Becoming Americans", and over 400 advocates, public servants, and researchers working on immigration issues have come together to discuss issues ranging from immigration's economic impacts to immigrants' civic and political engagement.

On this night, a warm early autumn breeze came in off the water, but the serenity of the conference's opening scene masked the polarized nature of immigration politics in America. Damian Thorman, National Program Director of the Knight Foundation (a conference sponsor), reflected, "Sometimes I wish that those who oppose immigration had seen what we saw today...29 individuals from 14 countries living out the creed, 'E Pluribus Unum.'" The following morning, governor Deval Patrick (D-MA), added, "I get that illegal immigration is a serious national problem. But, in order to have a serious national solution, we need to have a serious national conversation. We don't have that right now. What we have, more often than not, is hate-mongering."

Immigrant rights advocates currently face what Mr. Thorman described as a "hostile political environment," in which Arizona's SB 1070 law has inspired copycat legislation in over 20 states, and Republicans in Congress have proposed repealing the birthright citizenship provision of the 14th Amendment. The challenge for advocates, according to Paul Grogan, President and CEO of the Boston Foundation (another conference sponsor), is: "how do we overcome the ambivalence in our country about immigration?"

The conference title, "Becoming Americans", suggests one piece of these immigrant rights advocates' efforts to foster more constructive political debate. By focusing on fixing the legal immigration system, NIIC organizers hope to generate momentum to reclaim the political center. They have shifted away from the divisive debates about "illegal" (or undocumented) immigrants and "amnesty" (or legalization) and toward issues that may be more winnable in the short term, like access to English language instruction.

But some on the Left may be concerned that immigrant advocates are turning away from talking about the widespread legalization of undocumented workers, which has been the core of the nation's debate on immigration reform. After all, if immigrant advocates stop talking about the fate of eleven million undocumented people in the country, might widespread legalization suffer the fate of the public option in the health care debate? Critics of the movement have already highlighted how much Democrats and pro-immigrant groups compromised on an "enforcement-first" framework in the last several years--which has led deportations under President Obama to surpass those under President Bush--with no legislative progress to show for it. Many immigrant rights advocates have been left wondering: how far to the Right do we have to go, and when can we push back?

These same advocates may also take umbrage with another piece of the conference's frame. Mr. Knight explained that the conference focus on naturalization and integration of people here legally helps shift the frame to "patriotism, not activism." Such a frame risks failing to acknowledge the contributions of the millions of immigrants and allies who have taken to the streets on immigration issues over the past few years. These marches proved critical in pushing back against the restrictionist Sensenbrenner bill passed by the House in 2006 and the more recent SB 1070 law in Arizona. As Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, recently explained: "the one secret weapon of the immigrant rights movement that no other contemporary movement has on such scale is numbers and intensity and passion. There have literally been millions of people who have marched over the last few years for immigration reform--probably the largest mobilization on any issue in American history. So this community has a lot of bargaining power."

Major mobilizations have repeatedly won the immigrant rights movement meetings with--and pledges of support from--the White House. Without activism, then, what would the nation's political conversation and immigration policy look like today? Moreover, what would the political landscape for immigration reform look like in 2011 if the Republican Party wins control of the House of Representatives?

Despite Mr. Thorman's pronouncement, conference organizers do not appear to be rejecting activism so much as betting on "immigrant integration" as a politically palatable frame that can also bring significant political change. Many conference leaders have, after all, led marches and mobilization over the past few years. At this conference, however, they repeatedly emphasized how increasing the naturalization rate and increasing civic engagement among naturalized citizens holds the prospect for broader political change. Mr. Thorman pointed out that, with 8.5 million current green card holders nationwide, expediting the naturalization and integration process will lead to "more naturalized citizens," who, as voters, can push recalcitrant politicians to help "construct smart solutions to immigration."

Similarly, Mr. Bhargava recently opined that: "immigration reform has the potential to be a structural change in the politics of the country that will make the country more generous to immigrants in the future. In other words, it will empower a voting bloc over time, it will empower a constituency that will not stand for, or be so vulnerable to, demagogic attacks."

Back at the naturalization ceremony, just across from Ms. Asrat, sat Steffan Berelowitz, a new citizen who came to the United States at age 13 from South Africa. For 27 years, Mr. Berelowitz watched American politics from the sidelines, with opinions that he could not express through the ballot box. He explained: "I've been a green card holder for a long time. Today means I can vote; I can participate in the political process."

Fixing the system for naturalizing and incorporating legal immigrants into this country's social and political life will undoubtedly be a critical part of any future immigration reform effort. Still, what remains unclear is whether pro-immigrant advocates can shift the debate in the short term with their latest centrist appeal. In 2007, the principal national immigration reform group, the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR), felt obliged to follow as the Senate debate on immigration moved sharply to the Right, before a comprehensive immigration bill ultimately failed. Since then, CCIR's successor, Reform Immigration FOR America, has upgraded the movement's communications platform and geographic coverage in key parts of the nation. But the movement has faced a tidal wave of anti-immigrant bashing, particularly among Republicans in the run-up to the primaries. This has put pro-immigrant advocates squarely on the defensive in this debate. With the mid-term elections fast approaching, the question looming over the NIIC conference remains: can these advocates wrest back control of the country's immigration debate from the restrictionist Right?

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