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Organizing for Immigration Reform: An Interview With Deepak Bhargava

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As part of a series of interviews on the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform, I recently spoke with Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director of the Center for Community Change (CCC). CCC has been a core group in the movement for comprehensive immigration reform over the past several years, playing a central role in the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR) through 2007 and the current Reform Immigration for America (RIFA) campaign. (Disclosure: I worked as a consultant for CCC on a different issue in 2008.) Mr. Bhargava sits on RIFA's management team, and he spoke with me on issues ranging from the prospects for reform this year, the potential impact of Latino voters and grassroots mobilizations, and the challenges facing progressive groups in the wake of Arizona's controversial immigration law and in the run-up to the mid-term elections.

Altschuler: How did you first get involved with the movement for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR)?

Bhargava:
I was there pretty much at the beginning, around 1998-1999. In that period, a group of immigrant leaders approached me and the Center for Community Change with the idea of doing a national campaign to win legalization for the growing population of undocumented people in the US. At that time, the topic was unspeakable in polite Washington conversation discourse--no politician, no national advocacy organization would tackle it. Partly because of the extraordinary quality of the leaders that approached us, and partly because it was so clear that we couldn't be an anti-poverty organization without tackling immigration, we decided to go all-in. We helped to form what was the earliest pro-legalization coalition in the country, and we've been in it ever since.

Altschuler: The Center for Community Change (CCC) was a central player in the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR) in the lead-up to the immigration vote in 2007. What have immigrant rights groups learned from this last failed effort for immigration reform? Is the current movement, Reform Immigration For America (RIFA) just a larger version of its predecessor?

Bhargava: I think we learned five key lessons. The first one is that we got massively out-called in the last couple of weeks before the crucial vote [in 2007]. There was a tidal wave of hate in the country, and Congress' switchboards lit up. And, while we did a respectable job of getting a couple of hundred thousand calls into Congress, the other side got a couple of million calls into Congress. And so, we built a whole technological platform--a phone bank system, an online system, a text messaging operation--so that that would never happen again. And, in fact, in the last year or two, we've outperformed the other side, or at least matched them, in every key battle.

The second lesson was that we needed power in some parts of the country that were not traditional receivers of immigrants. So we went to work building new organizations, new leadership, through movement building trainings and through helping to create new organizations in states like Arkansas, North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio--places that previously didn't have such organizations. And that's helped enormously.

Third, that we needed to really engage a much more diverse coalition of forces. So we invested much more deeply in building relationships with African-American leadership, with Evangelicals, with local law enforcement, with business leaders. And I think a lot of that work has paid off in a substantial way.

Fourth, this ultimately is all about politics. We organized a massive Latino and immigrant voter mobilization effort in 2008 that contributed to really shifting the sense of the importance of this constituency.

Finally, communications is central to our strategy. There are radio talk shows and television networks that make a living bashing immigrants. So we built up a new organization, America's Voice, with new capacity to communicate to the broad public, as well as to targeted audiences.

Altschuler: You mentioned voter mobilization in Latino and immigrant communities. How important are these efforts for CIR going forward?

Bhargava: Well, I think, ultimately, the political driver of this issue is growing awareness in both political parties that the immigrant vote, and also the Latino vote--they're closely related, but not the same thing--are really critical to the future of national politics. It's arguable that Latinos played a critical role in the 2008 election at the presidential level, in Senate races, and House races--two million new Latino voters at the polls, and pro-immigrant candidates defeating anti-immigrant ones across the board. But the key is consistency, so a big part of our strategy for 2010 is to substantially increase Latino voter turnout in key states like Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Florida, and elsewhere, to show that we're not a one-trick pony or one-hit wonder. If you boil it all down, consistent performance in turnout and a rising share of the electorate is probably the number one ingredient to getting us over the top.

Altschuler: At the end of April, Arizona passed its controversial immigration law, SB 1070. How, if at all, has the Arizona immigration law changed immigrant rights groups' strategy to realize immigration reform?

Bhargava: Arizona has changed everything. We've gone through several paroxysms of hate over the last decade, and we're in the midst of another one. We had the 1996 period and the welfare law. We had the post-September-11th period. We had the period after the Senate immigration law failed in 2007, where there were the local ordinances and hate radio and ballot initiatives. And we have another one here in 2010.

There is a confluence of a few factors. One issue is that there is a substantial part of the Republican base that is deeply nativist and deeply uncomfortable with the demographic shifts in the country. They are roiling Republican Party politics and exercising probably an outsized role in shaping the direction of the party. So, even though there are wiser heads in the Republican Party who acknowledge that this is bad for the long-term future of the party, there is a huge temptation that's been waded into in Arizona by the governor, by Senator McCain, and many other politicians: to demagogue. The Arizona law has to be read in that environment: a governor who was in trouble and embraced the issue to win re-election; a senator who embraced a restrictionist stance in order to stave off a right-wing primary challenger.

I think it's an incredibly volatile situation. While, on the one hand, the nativists are making a lot of hay, the realities of Arizona have made the issue break through in the public consciousness in a way that immigration hasn't in the 10-plus years that I've been working on it. African-American fraternities and sororities, pastors, and other organizations have come out and spoken out in a way that we have never seen before. There are conservative Evangelicals who have historically been aligned with the Republican Party who are saying that enough is enough. There are law enforcement officials who have come out publicly [against the law...Immigration has now] broken through in a way that's never happened before.

And, probably most importantly, what this has done is fuelled the identification of immigration reform with Latino identity in the country, which has made this a real attack on a very substantial and growing part of the country. So the cultural reverberations are profound. The prospects of CIR in the short-term are uncertain--it's very murky--but I think it's very possible that the fever will break in the next six to nine months, and that there will be a snap back to a situation where wiser heads prevail and there's a possibility of getting a policy that would actually solve the problem and meet the needs of the community.

Altschuler:
Do you see yourself right now in a wait-and-see phase, or are there things you can do now to facilitate CIR happening?

Bhargava: I think there are three core strategies that we're focusing on.

The first is that we will be doing some major public events in the fall. There will be an event here in Washington in September under the banner of "Reform, Relief, and Respect" that will bring together not just immigrant constituencies, but the other allies that I talked about--elected officials, faith leaders and so forth. [The aim is] to make the case for comprehensive reform, to talk about the 1100 people who are deported every day, and to talk about the pain of the separation of families and the impact it has on communities. And also to draw a bright line that there's a middle in the country that is united against the level of demagoguery and hate that has been unleashed in the wake of Arizona, [such as] calls for repeals of the 14th Amendment and extreme politics of that kind.

So that's meant as a call to conscience. That will kick off a period in which there is an aggressive effort to try and move some kind of positive policy--whether that's CIR, the DREAM Act, administrative changes or something else. And then there's the electoral work, which we think will set-up the possibility of post-election work on a comprehensive bill. So, we're driving very hard, even though the legislative picture isn't that clear. The movement hasn't stopped moving, and it will continue to try to create political space for legislative possibilities.

Altschuler: You have argued that racism undergirds much of the opposition to immigration reform. Surely, not all those who in the anti-immigrant lobby are racists; many of them simply believe that the federal government must protect US borders and keep track of who resides in the country. How can progressive groups effectively communicate their message to this latter group?

Bhargava: The messaging for the overall campaign for immigration reform has really been about connecting American values--of inclusion, America's immigrant history, our sense of honoring hard work--with the quest for real solutions. That is, the deep down recognition that people have that it's not practical or humane or likely that we will deport 11 or 12 million people. That is not a real solution. [And we have been trying to connect that to] concrete policies that acknowledge that the country does have a national interest in regulating the flow of migrants to the US. [We have argued] that every concern that people raise about economic impact is not without justification, but that we're better served by having a rational, orderly legal system than we are by having an essentially rogue system that creates large numbers of exploitable workers.

So, we do make a real effort to connect with the real, legitimate concerns that people have. And I am firmly of the belief that there are maybe 20 to 25 percent of the population that will never be there on this issue, but that the vast majority of the American people--if approached on the basis of our heritage, our history, the contributions of immigrants, the notion of the national interest--will and do see the merits of comprehensive reform.

Altschuler: A recent piece in The American Prospect criticized immigrant rights groups, including the Center for Community Change, for compromising too much to a conservative security and "rule of law" agenda to get comprehensive immigration reform passed. How do you respond to this critique?

Bhargava: First of all, there is no scenario under which legalization for the undocumented or family re-unification for the millions of people waiting to join their loved ones in the United States will come to pass without measures to end the system of illegal labor. That's just not going to happen. The question isn't whether we have enforcement, but what kind of enforcement we have. And whether the onus, the preponderance of enforcement activity, focuses on harassing and driving underground and making lives miserable for individual undocumented workers, or whether it focuses on employers--particularly the unscrupulous ones. So I am of the view that there is no reasonable prospect at any time in the next few decades of the United States not having a system of immigration enforcement, and I believe it should. The question is what kind do we have, not whether we have it.

The second thing I'd say is that there are certain kinds of reforms that make other reforms possible. If we are successful in the next few years in providing a path to citizenship for 12 million people, that 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. So, if you want better immigration policy ten years from now, you'd better support and do what's necessary to get the current undocumented population legal.

Altschuler:
Many progressives have expressed frustration with the Obama administration for marginalizing the Left on critical issues like health care and financial reform. If Congress begins to move on immigration this year or early next year, particularly before the mid-term elections, how can progressives keep themselves from being marginalized?

Bhargava: I think 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. It's not letterhead organizations in Washington that rattle cages but don't have actual constituents; it's people who are directly impacted speaking up in their own voice and taking leadership.

The immigrant rights movement has not been over the last year a patsy for the Democratic Party. It has pushed and prodded and criticized, and marched and rallied and had meetings with the President of the United States on at least two occasions on this topic. And that's because of its real ability to mobilize at the ballot box and in the streets. The power of this movement, unlike some other movements on the Left, is on the rise, not on the decline. And that will only continue to increase over the next few years. So I think the main question is whether the Republican Party will break in the next six months or year, or whether it's going to take years and years for them to see the light of reason and their own self-interest. On the Democratic Party side, there is a level of recognition--that this issue needs to be dealt with in moral terms and political terms--that hasn't been there for a long, long time.

Altschuler: You talked about grassroots mobilization as the "secret weapon" of the immigrant reform movement. At this stage of the game, can grassroots mobilization sway Republican voters and leaders, or is this a strategy that can only get the Democrats to move more quickly? What is the target of recent mobilizations?

Bhargava: I think the currency in politics is either money or votes. Our side has not got the level of organized money that some other movements do, but it does have organized people. And so I think that the marches and the grassroots mobilization need to be read in terms of what they signal about the intensity of feeling in the community about immigration reform and as stage-setting for electoral mobilization. In other words, people come out [to vote] because they are engaged; they don't just come out because they are engaged a week or two before an election. I think that is the currency of politics. And every time we've seen major mobilization, we've seen some response. In 2006, the Sensenbrenner bill was defeated. In 2010, the President addressed marchers and said they were going to move forward with legislation. And then Arizona's law and other things happened to halt the momentum, but every time there has been massive mobilization, there has been some response. Sometimes defensive victories and sometimes forward progress on legislation--but it has always been the key ingredient.

Altschuler: I'd like to focus on the national organizations currently working for CIR. Labor organizations and immigrant rights groups haven't always been on the same side of the immigration debate in the US. Now they have both promoted CIR, but have national immigrants rights groups and unions addressed the tensions caused by having different constituencies and different motivations?

Bhargava:
The leadership of the labor movement deserves enormous credit. They are genuinely united in support of immigration reform. The support is not just token support, it's real support--mobilization, policy, advocacy, and not just at the national level, but with depth locally. That having been said, the views of rank-and-file union members don't always align. There are particular tensions in particular sectors and industries that make parts of the labor union movement less friendly to immigrants than in other sectors where immigrants are predominant or growing.

So, all those tensions still exist. But I think the deepest recognition among the leadership in labor is that the future of the labor movement is significantly immigrants. And, on the immigrant rights side, there's recognition that the immigrants rights movement can't succeed without labor. So, somewhere along the way in the last 10 or 12 years, that mutual recognition happened; everything else, at this point, is details.

Altschuler: Again, on the internal politics and coalitions: within the RIFA campaign, there are more centrist groups, such as The Center for American Progress, and groups like CCC farther to the left. How well have these different groups dealt with tensions on contentious issues such as whether to use civil disobedience in response to increased enforcement?

Bhargava: There are differences within the coalition on matters of strategy and tactics, which is why there are times when the RIFA coalition acts with one united voice and there are times when FIRM or other entities take the lead on certain things. An example would be when we [FIRM] organized the first press conference coming after the President on bad enforcement policies back in late February or early March, which led to the first meeting with the President. The whole RIFA coalition wasn't in a position to be as aggressive as we [FIRM and a number of other grassroots networks] were, but there was a lot of conversation where we clarified why we were doing what we were doing and made an effort to include as many people as we could and were sensitive in how we did it. Being a part of the same coalition doesn't always mean that people do everything together; it does mean that you're making maximum effort to align where you can. And I do think it's been very useful in that regard, even when we haven't agreed.

Altschuler: Prominent conservative business organizations like the Chamber of Commerce have expressed support for immigration reform. How have immigrant rights groups engaged with the Chamber and other similar groups? Do you think such an alliance would provide a promising avenue to push legislation forward?

Bhargava: From my perspective, outside of the agricultural employers--who have been tireless--and to a limited extent from the high-tech employers, there's been insufficient leadership from the business community. Our side of the movement doesn't have a lot of direct engagement with the top levels of the business community, though there is some local engagement with business leaders that produces local spokespeople and so forth. But I think the dynamic has been that the Chamber has basically taken direction from the Republican Party on this issue--"don't rock the boat, we have other priorities, you have other priorities"--as opposed to putting pressure on. So, to the extent that we're going to get business support, I think it's really going to be in a few key sectors. I think the real potential on the Conservative side has been on the evangelical side. Latino Evangelicals are the wave of the future, and they have really done an incredible job of bringing along white evangelicals, so there is almost a united front. They are powerful, they are energized, they've been active, and I think there's huge potential there.

(Copied with permission from www.americasquarterly.org.)