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SUBHASH KATEEL: Diminishing Returns

In 2006 and again in 2008 I wrote pieces inspired by friends and colleagues working on the ground predicting the coming Immigrant Apartheid. In 2006, I laid out that a set of institutions was developing to ensure that immigrants, non-citizens specifically, “would permanently have less rights than citizens.”

In 2008, I elaborated, “This emerging apartheid would use the criminal justice-, prison-, and deportation systems - and any other system - at its disposal to make lives of immigrants - both legal and undocumented - as hard as possible. What we would see, whether we won reform or not, would be more arrests, more raids, more detentions, and more deportations. In sum, more destruction of our communities.”

There is nothing joyful about saying “we told you so” for a third time.  Whenever I write about immigration, I wish that I could write a different conclusion, but I can’t.  I remember first walking into a detention center in 1999 and thinking to myself, “this is one of the worst things I have seen in this country being done to people by this government.”  I sometimes bitingly joke with my friends that I miss 1999.

Fast forward to 2010, to the surging popularity of Arizona’s SB 1070, to conversations among previously “supportive politicians” to basically de-naturalize the citizen children of undocumented immigrants, and it seems like the most we have won since the huge immigrant rights protests 2006 is the stalling of full-blown apartheid.

But I think it may be possible to delineate where and why we are losing.

1. Fighting the expanding immigration enforcement system-the linchpin of Immigrant Apartheid-has always taken a backburner to the greater dream of Comprehensive Immigration Reform.  As a close colleague of mine has pointed out, Arizona’s SB 1070 would have never become so popular if Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his 287 (g) agreement with ICE (an agreement that gives local police enforcement powers) were not allowed to go unchecked.  Groups in Arizona have been organizing against Arpaio and the 287 (g) program for years, but were never given the outpouring of support they needed until after SB 1070 was passed. Florida was the first state to sign a 287(g) agreement in 2002.  But 287(g) programs are just the tip of an ICEberg (get it?) known as ICE ACCESS.  Most of the programs under ICE ACCESS have been operational for at least since I started doing this work.  But there has always been a tendency within the immigrant rights movement to think the bigger more important fight was for Comprehensive Immigration Reform as opposed to local battles, enforcement battles or local enforcement battles.  At the same time, ICE grew its reach into communities by pushing its ICE ACCESS programs in every corner of the country, until a program like “Secure Communities”, for example, made it into every county in Florida. The rationale was always that Comprehensive Immigration Reform would fix these other systemic problems.  But that was never really true.  Which leads me to my next point.

2.The Grand Compromise was never grand and never a compromise.  In the immigration reform fight, there was always this implicit understanding of a compromise between increased enforcement and a path to legalization.  In the process, I feel like our side often conceded important arguments on enforcement.  For example, the repealing or reforming the basic pieces of the 1996 Immigration laws-the strictest immigration laws in decades-whether it be mandatory detention, mandatory deportation, restricted judicial review, 287(g) and expanded local enforcement, has often been left out of the immigration reform debate entirely.  The idea that thousands of people dying at the border is a bad thing has been largely left out of the policy debate.   When I say debate, I mean the debate amongst policymakers that are crafting the parameters of the debate.  Because the immigrant rights movement has always had a vibrant and vocal debate about these issues.  But enforcement policy sort of came out of what lawmakers and the successive presidents from Clinton to Obama thought they could get away with. So what we have year is more enforcement without a roadmap or pathway to  legalization.

3. We have succeeded in moving leaders but leaders have lost their luster.  The immigrant rights movement has done a remarkable job moving major institutions and the leaders of those institutions to their side.  Whether it be church leaders, business leaders, or labor leaders, the immigrant rights movement has been impressive on this front.  However, and this is an educated hunch (not empirical), I think that while we have been able to move these leaders, the political climate (that we often have no control over) has become so volatile that winning leaders hasn’t led to winning the hearts and minds of the people that would typically listen to leaders.  People are really angry right now for a lot of really good and bad reasons.  And people form all sides of the political spectrum are openly and actively challenging even their most well respected leaders.   If you just look at the struggle that politicians (John McCain), religious leaders (name a Bishop, any Bishop), and other leaders have had to go through to maintain their relevance and credibility, it is startling.

4. Communications, communications, communications.  I feel like the immigrant rights movement has gotten really good at communicating to elected officials, to immigrants themselves, and to people that nominally care about immigrants.  However, we have not been able to effectively communicate to people that are legitimately on the fence or falling off the fence to the other side.  I will give you one example.  The whole “immigrants are good for the economy” stuff.  I don’t care how good the numbers are, a lot of Americans, even those that would believe it when we are not in a recession, just don’t believe it.  If you work in the construction or restaurant industry, it is really hard to believe that.  I could write a whole article on how our message framing has alienated some folks in African American communities.  We have to be able to communicate the idea that both immigrants and non-immigrants are hurting right now and it is neither’s fault.  As organizers we know that exploitation is the problem.  Exploitation hurts immigrants, hurts non immigrants, and pits us against each other.  How do we communicate that in a way in which we don’t sound like commies?  The way that the other side has one message “what part of illegal don’t you understand?”, we should be just as effective at saying “what part of exploitation don’t you understand?”  Plus I feel like we haven’t been as good at fighting xenophobia and racism WHILE showing that we are feeling other (read citizen) people’s pain.  To put things in perspective, there are citizens literally killing themselves and their families because of this economy.  Why would folks treat the “other” (read immigrant) any better than they are treating their own families in this economy.  We all know that any economic problem citizens feel, immigrants often feel more, but just demonstrating empathy in messaging may move mountains for us.

Reasons for optimism

Although, the road ahead for the immigrant rights movement is really rocky, it is still by far the biggest and most organized social movement in the country.  With every loss, it gets smarter and its organizers become more conscious of the root causes and their solutions.

1.  Arizona has made everyone think local and think enforcement.  After SB 1070, real attention is being focused on local enforcement, on ICE’s reach into our communities, and into the spread of anti-immigrant legislation at the state level.  The energy isn’t just filtering into the fight against SB 1070 in Arizona, there are literally pitch battles being set up in state’s trying to replicate SB 1070.  It feels like EVERYONE is trying to understand ICE ACCESS, 287 (g) and SECURE COMMUNITIES.  And I truly believe that different sectors of the immigrant rights movement are finally getting a grasp on how Immigration Enforcement happens and how to stop it.

2.  Uncovering the truth.  Secure Communities, ICE’s flagship enforcement program seemed like a bullet proof vest.  A program that purports to go after the most “dangerous criminal aliens” seems too hard to fight, especially when ICE is aggressively marketing it as the best enforcement program. In fact, in Florida our first attempts to fight Secure Communities ended with ICE marketing heavily to editorial boards, winning them over, and effectively casting us as “sympathizers for violent illegal aliens.”  But it seems like the shell is slowly beginning to crack.  And it seems like it has touched a nerve with ICE.  The information of what ICE’s flagship program really means in communities is slowly starting to get out and raise eyebrows.  It is too early to declare victory yet, but the fact that news outlets that thought Secure Communities was great months ago are now asking questions is really good news for our work.

3.  No more Mr(s). Nice Immigrant.  This year marked a turning point for immigrants and civil disobedience.  I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that January alone probably had more acts of civil disobedience than all of the immigrant rights movement last year.  Since then, from sit-ins, to mass arrests, to flash-mobs (something I think I am too old to know about), the tactics in the immigrant rights movement are getting more direct and more confrontational.  To be clear, there is also a greater desire to specifically target the Obama administration to do more to protect the rights of immigrants.  I believe the press is making the outcomes look better than they really are, but it has had some pointed results.  Not least of which is virtually forcing the administration into a lawsuit against SB 1070 as its popularity has increased.

4.  It’s the Latino vote stupid…No matter how much anti-immigrant hysteria is drummed up, it ends up creating diminishing returns for the politician or party that is anti-immigrant.  On a personal level, I have always been skeptical that voters had the electoral power to improve the lives of people who don’t have the right to vote.  However, with the notable exception of Joe Arpaio, anti-immigrant politicians have ignored the Latino vote to their own detriment.  In Florida, Attorney General and gubernatorial hopeful Bill McCollum switched from denouncing the idea of an SB 1070 in Florida to actually authoring a Florida version of the bill that is probably worse.  In the process he alienated much of the Latino Republican leadership and his new found crusade probably cost him the nomination.  There seems to be a trend amongst anti-immigrant politicians of ignoring the Latino vote, but the Latino vote seems to have a real ability to punish anti-immigrant politicians.

Subhash Kateel

Subhash Kateel has been organizing immigrant communities for over twelve years. He was the initiator of the detention and deportation workfor  Desis Rising Up and Moving and of co-Founder of Families For Freedom, a multi-ethnic network of immigrants facing and fighting deportation in 2002. He was also an organizer with the Florida Immigrant Coalition helping to develop community responses to ICE raids, detentions and deportations.  Besides facilitating some of the most sought after know your rights trainings in the South East, he helped lead the We Are Florida! campaign that successfully stopped an Arizona-style anti-immigrant bill from passing in the Florida legislature.  He is now the co-host of Let's Talk About It!, a current events talk radio program.  He has called many places home, including Saginaw, Michigan, Brooklyn, New York and now Miami Florida.

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