Immigrant communities are facing a critical moment of truth. During his campaign, Barack Obama expressed his commitment to make comprehensive immigration reform a priority for his Administration. His principled stand on offering a path to citizenship to undocumented Americans was considered a defining message for many voters. But some leading Democrats (including Speaker Nancy Pelosi) and even some Washington based immigrant rights advocates are now urging patience and lowered expectations. Some say we need to wait until 2010 or longer for real immigration reform. Because of the economic climate, we are told that ‘now is not the time’ to press the issue.
In the media and on the blogs, the sobering message from Washington have been interpreted differently. Are the pessimistic messages intended merely to create some tactical flexibility? Or are the messages intended to prepare us for disappointment? For those of us working in the grassroots, we cannot afford to ‘wait and see.’ Our best approach is to ignore the calls to lower or postpone expectations. Our task is to keep up the momentum and the community’s hope for change.
The need for change on a national level is particularly urgent for us given the deteriorating conditions for immigrants here in San Francisco and the Bay Area. Local media outlets such as the SF Chronicle, faced with declining audiences, appear to have resurrected their tradition of yellow journalism, exaggerating the connection between immigration and violent crime. The Chronicle’s stories appear directed towards discrediting the City’s Sanctuary Ordinance and the Municipal ID program. Adding injury to insult, for the first time in recent memory in San Francisco, we are experience systematic workplace raids, immigrant profiling by police and other practices intended to intimidate immigrant communities. To effectively combat the negative media and these local practices we must combine our active involvement in the national debate with efforts to change the political climate city by city, county by county to bring about comprehensive immigration reform.
The opportunities for national change created by the most recent election are not likely to survive for long. Ever since the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 carried Governor Pete Wilson to a landslide victory fourteen years ago, bashing undocumented immigrants has been a popular and effective campaign device. Only McCain’s nomination shifted the debate away from immigration. McCain’s past support for moderate reforms meant the campaign could not easily be case in terms of a choice between xenophobia and immigrant virtues. As a result, for the first time in over a decade, immigrants were not the most vilified and scapegoated group in a national campaign.
Given Obama’s extraordinary victory and the tone of the past national elections, this coming Congressional term should therefore be our best chance yet for a humane reform of immigration laws. The elements of a workable reform bill already exists in bills that have been stranded in Congress for several years.
Why then, with solid Democratic majorities, should it be prudent to delay reform an additional year? Midterm elections, as 2010 will be, are often a vulnerable moment for any incumbent party. In two years, incumbent Obama’s mandate for change will be less clear. And with McCain off the ticket, Republican candidates can return to blaming immigrants for the economy, crime, traffic jams, and every other grievance large or small. Under such circumstances, many Democratic incumbents are likely to move away from controversy. Under these conditions, 2010 will be a much more difficult year to win any meaningful immigration legislation. Hence the logic of delay makes no sense. Immigration reform will not grow less controversial as time passes. Nor will we get closer to a ‘bipartisan’ consensus because we wade through another election cycle. Rather, the controversy will intensify the longer this issue remains unresolved. So why not 2009?
Democrats in Congress are understandably nervous. They have not enjoyed a substantial majority position for years and they do not want to overplay their hand. Hopefully they will lose their present skittishness on the immigration issue when they realize the dangers of a backlash are overstated. Much as the fears of nominating an African American for president were proven to be misplaced, the fears of creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants are also overblown. National polls show a majority of Americans support Congress providing relief for undocumented immigrants. Hence, once it is passed, as enlightened immigration bill will be celebrated and not condemned – much as on the night of the elections even some of the most scurrilous of media commentators and Republicans applauded Obama’s victory.
The bottom line is, when 12 million undocumented immigrants are provided a pathway to citizenship and to the ballot, those newly emancipated Americans can no longer be treated as the silent punching bag for yellow journalists and right wing politicians. Instead the media and politicians will be forced to reckon with immigrants as vocal participants, future voters, and people who will forever remember how they were treated or mistreated in this critical period.
But we have a long ways to go to get the reform we need. To help start the process on the right foot, immigrant rights organizations on the East Coast are mobilizing to march on Washington the day after Obama’s inauguration. While plans have yet to crystallize here, events will also be planned on the West Coast. Stay tuned…
Written by Eric Quezada and Gen Fujioka
Eric Quezada is the Executive Director of Dolores Street Community Services, and is on the steering committee for the San Francisco Immigrant Legal & Education Network. Gen Fujioka is a long time community lawyer in San Francisco.