Immigration: Getting Personal Before Political

06/12/2007 07:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Matt Stoller, of MyDD, asked the right question about immigration reform: why the hurry. Behind his question, though, is a more serious issue, which defines the problem progressives have around immigration. Today, President Bush is begging his less than tamed caucus to support a hodgepodge "grand bargain" that, for a time, brought Ted Kennedy and Lindsey Graham into a figurative embrace over a bill, the substance of which could bring neither great joy. We all know the story: 650 or so pages of Moveable Text that included nothing for anyone except a starting point.

Matt says that the bill was horrible, that it's better that it died. But there's a problem. If you are one of the twelve or so million people who lives here without papers, any day, any day, could be your last. No, you won't be shot, but you could well be ripped from your family's midst as happened in Santa Barbara last month. You could be Roxanne Tynan, who was jailed for a time until she was able to sort out her legal status. And you, too, could be snatched in a raid today, just because.
The immigrant's rights movement has been more about rights than about movement. Up to now, we have seen hundreds of thousands of mostly Mexicans marching in downtown LA or other cities, opposing draconian law or demanding rights. But as my friend Paula Litt at Liberty Hill Foundation says, there is no inalienable right to become a US citizen. So the movement has brought lots of unions and people of color (read: Latino and Asian) together, it has not inspired the online activists who write blogs and checks or the white political elite who write checks to take action.

The New York Times on Sunday had an excellent article that told the story of the natavist use of the internet to clog Dianne Feinstein's phone or to flood Washington with 700,000 emails against the immigration bill last week (whatever "against" means). They have an easy and simple message: send 'em home. What is the progressive online answer to that? Ringing silence.

We care about the war, about stem cell research, about impeaching Gonzales, about a free Internet, but we don't know what to think about immigration. Is it just a ruse so that big business can keep attracting unsuspecting slave labor? Or is it a push by some of big labor to organize more workers and become bigger in an otherwise declining union environment? And by the way, they broke the law, right?
Matt and the New York Times have done us a huge favor. They usher in Dreams Across America, a first ever conjoining of traditional immigrant's rights groups with online storytelling and organizing. Our goal is simple: we want progressives to see the stories that make up the immigration puzzle. And we want people to see them one at a time, not tens of thousands at once, marching as a "pack of Mexicans."

I've spent the last two months on this campaign. I've watched the toing and froing about immigration rights from inside the traditional players. Some of it is confusing. But I am sure that we have only one choice and that's to fix a broken law that winks to allow people to work here, even settle here, but never be legal here. That sort of temporizing makes one feel less than steady. So you are not likely to argue with your boss. Or your landlord. Or the guy who just stole your money, because you don't really want the police involved. And one day, when you least expect it, after paying your taxes, working harder than most "natives" could imagine and building a life for your kids, there's a knock at the door. And in one brief moment, you are sent "home" to a place you don't much remember without your kids, your house, your life.

America was built on a promise of enlightenment and fairness. We even had a civil war over it. No one set up a border at the Rio Grande so that anyone who feels like it can saunter in and live here. But who decided that by sending cheap American corn to Mexico, we'd actually make it impossible for farmers to grow their own corn there, in time make staples so expensive that people cannot eat and simultaneously beg for cheap labor to fill about 500,000 jobs a year? That seems like a fairly mixed message to me.

The reform we seek must be comprehensive, but maybe it comes in steps. The first step is for the country to get to know these people as individuals with lives and stories that seem like yours or mine, or at least our grandparents. And then the strategists around this reform must indeed make an appeal beyond the beltway and beyond those who already believe that the immigration system is broken. It has to be repaired. Time is of the essence. Lives are being built and then ruined one at a time. It's time to fix it.