07/15/2013 12:51 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2013

Policy for a New Majority

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Senate approved historic federal immigration reform legislation in a 68-32 vote. Observers have linked the bill's relatively rapid movement -- perhaps unimaginable only a few years ago -- to the growing numbers of Latino and Asian voters and their overwhelming support for President Obama in the 2012 presidential election. The progress of federal immigration reform is just one signal that as the country undergoes sweeping demographic changes that will make the U.S. a majority people of color nation within 30 years, traditional understandings of what the machinery of public policy can produce and for whom will also shift.

Changes in the racial and ethnic makeup of the nation's population demand policies that account for the needs of communities of color as well as the increasingly central role such communities will play in driving economic growth in coming years. As experts have noted, the continuing viability of entitlements like Medicare and Social Security will soon depend on the Latino, Asian and Black workers who will constitute a growing portion of American workers.

These shifts are also altering constituencies and causing some elected leaders to revisit old positions. While much attention has been focused on the implications of these demographic changes for national elections and policymaking, this is not only a national trend. In state houses and city halls across the country, a historic moment has been taking shape. People of color, immigrants and workers are fighting for and winning state and local legislation that demonstrates the growing influence of the emerging new majority. In Connecticut, for example, communities fought for and won a statewide policy that makes it clear that local governments need only comply with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainer requests under limited circumstances, helping to restore trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement. The legislation, called the TRUST Act, was passed only weeks after Connecticut legislators voted to grant driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, joining a growing list of states -- including Washington, New Mexico, Utah, Maryland, Illinois and Oregon -- that have already enacted similar measures.

The demographic shifts that are underway also create increased opportunities for immigrant communities to unite with others that have long been targeted by discriminatory state and local policies and practices. Growing efforts to challenge tactics like racial and ethnic profiling and disparate enforcement are evidence of this. These tactics have grave consequences for immigrant Americans, for whom an unjustified street or vehicle stop can lead to detention, deportation and permanent separation from loved ones. And even for those for whom immigration status is not an issue, such targeting can lead to costly, long-term engagement with the criminal justice system with implications for housing and employment opportunities. But across the country, in urban, suburban and rural settings, immigrant and African-American communities are working together to win policies designed to end police targeting of their communities.

In New York, such efforts led recently to a victory that promises to set a new standard for what state and local governments can do to tackle the problem of discriminatory policing. At the end of June the New York City Council passed two historic bills that will enhance NYPD accountability. The measures -- which passed with support from a supermajority of the Council -- will establish external oversight of the Department, expand protection against profiling to a broader cross-section of New Yorkers, and give City residents new tools for challenging discriminatory practices. The bills' passage is due to tireless advocacy by Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition including groups representing not only immigrants and communities of color in the City, but also LGBTQ New Yorkers, homeless New Yorkers and others. While the Council must still override a promised mayoral veto, its leadership in this area is significant. With this legislation, New York City has an opportunity to move to the forefront of state and local public safety policy, demonstrating that there are alternatives to the discriminatory, outdated and ineffective policing strategies that have been in place in far too many communities for far too long.

Of course, success is not inevitable. And these and other attempts to change policy at the state and local levels have faced organized and passionate opposition. But each of these efforts suggests a tantalizing possibility: that in the decades to come we may actually succeed in breaking with the entrenched patterns of old and building power among communities that for much of our nation's history have been marginalized.