THE BLOG
04/12/2014 04:31 pm ET Updated Jun 12, 2014

A Spirit of Solidarity Within the Movement for Immigrant Rights

In a recent blog, I wrote about advocates committing "malpractice" on the immigrant communities impacted by our strategy decisions, just as lawyers commit malpractice when they fail to exercise due diligence or are grossly negligent in the representation of their clients. As a lawyer must be adept at shifting a legal strategy based on new developments in order to provide the best representation for the client, we must follow the same approach to defend the millions of hardworking immigrant families in this country.

We have arrived at a major crossroad in the fight for humane immigration reform that calls us to step back, reflect and assess our strategies to create a more just and humane society for millions of immigrant families. If managed well, our next steps in this critical moment could bring greater solidarity into a sometimes fractious movement. At this crossroad, our leadership model must shift, or we risk gross negligence.

Though my own work is secular, I have often drawn from faith leaders' examples to guide my approach. St. Francis, who led a social-justice movement for the poor and underprivileged during the Middle Ages, once said that "[i]t is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching." In our path toward achieving a better society for immigrants, the way immigrant rights activists treat one another must be as just as the justice we seek in the end.

Hardworking immigrant families' vulnerability to separation -- at the rate of 1,100 deportations daily -- has created the urgency for us to interconnect in a way that binds us together. We need an interconnectedness that enables us to move forward with a multiplicity of practices and diverse strategies that we must embrace and support.

On a macro level, this imperative requires us to allow for multiple strategies instead of asserting hegemony that narrows us to one path. Despite attempts to restrict the movement, successful alternatives naturally emerge, such as the vibrant push for the President to provide deportation relief, a strategy that was originally greeted with hostility and even counter-efforts from organizations that once exerted dominance over the immigration narrative. Some leaders, like AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, welcomed this new strategy and found ways to complement and advance it. He called the House GOP proposal to offer undocumented immigrants limited legal status "fool's gold," and he asserted that Obama's policy of deporting over a thousand people a day is not acceptable. Other new leaders have also taken a stand. Last November during a public speaking event in San Francisco, Dream student leader Ju Hong challenged President Obama to issue an executive order to halt all deportations.

Dream activist groups and national organizations, like the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON), are engaging in a strong nonviolent grassroots movement to promote an immigration policy that ensures full equality and inclusion. The #Not1More campaign to immediately stop all deportations is a step in that direction. This spirit of solidarity makes room for multiple strategies on all fronts and challenges the post 9-11 strategy of "comprehensive" immigration reform that concedes criminalization as unavoidable in a debate increasingly obsessed with "national security."

On a micro level, our obligation to immigrant families requires us to use our leadership positions to amplify the work of others, not usurp it. What has made these actions so powerful is the risk and life experience of those impacted people who have asserted themselves as more than just storytellers, as people who can stand and act on their own behalf. Now that the demands on the President have gained steam, those who have stood on the sidelines should be called to do what they can to clear the path so that the momentum can continue to build.

My optimism about our ability to work together in solidarity is not to be confused with naïveté about the reality of the immigrant rights movement, where we hold shared goals but unequal resources and access. During my almost thirty years of activism for immigrant and labor rights --from the 1990s movement for unconditional amnesty and an end to employer sanctions to the post 9-11 fight for comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship -- there has always been and will continue to be an inherent tension between policy advocates, organizers, legal advocates, DC-based and other national immigrant rights groups and grassroots organizations. The Dream activism of recent years has reignited the persistent intergenerational struggle within the movement where some have embraced and others discounted the creative leadership and thoughtful strategies of today's dynamic youth leaders.

The present stalemate in Congress and delay from the White House is an opportunity to reflect, re-analyze and shift to a new leadership strategy that not only supports alternative models but also ensures accountability to a spirit of solidarity with one another. At this pivotal moment, we have to exercise a form of leadership where we co-create the struggle for immigration reform together. If we are to develop a movement that is strong and sustainable, new leadership must emerge and we must allow it to flourish; we must trust and embrace it.

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