A Growing Drumbeat from Activists Energizes Drive for Urgent Immigration Reform

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Gara LaMarche |

This Sunday, I will join 100,000 other supporters of comprehensive immigration reform in the United States – a cause to which Atlantic has been deeply committed since 2004 – in a march on Washington to demand that the U.S. Congress act this year. I hope you will join me, and here are the details.

My Atlantic colleagues and I will be marching because, like the advocates we fund, we feel a sense of urgency that demands our presence and our voices. Yes, Congress has many other pressing issues on its agenda, like health care (which I’ll talk more about below) and financial reform, which are also important Atlantic priorities in the United States. But immigration reform – a path to citizenship for more than 11 million people who live, work and contribute as members of their families and communities without recognition, basic rights or security – is a matter of fundamental justice. The wait has already been much too long, particularly as the Obama Administration’s harsh immigration enforcement efforts have angered and destabilised immigrant communities. If Congress does not move before the fall election cycle, there will be no immigration reform until next year at the earliest. The time for action is now.

For some months, particularly since the Massachusetts special Senate election led many pundits and politicians to see a shift in the political winds, the prospects for immigration reform seemed increasingly bleak. Traditionally a bipartisan issue, the broad political coalition seemed to have fallen victim to the toxic polarisation of Washington. Senator John McCain, long a leader for immigration reform, is nowhere to be seen this time around, and among Republicans only Senator Lindsey Graham has yet stepped forward to work with Senator Charles Schumer and other Democrats for a sensible solution to a broken immigration system. Despite the growing political power of Latino voters, and the consistent experience in Congressional elections that anti-immigrant “wedge” campaigns fall flat at the polls, far too many politicians fear the racist attacks they know will come their way if they do the right thing and vote for reform. We came very close to achieving immigration reform in 2007 only to have it fail at the last moment in a wave of xenophobic fervor.

After that setback, Atlantic provided funds for the key advocacy groups we support – including the Center for Community Change, National Council of La Raza, National Immigration Forum and Asian American Justice Center – to regroup and come back with a proposal for strengthening their efforts next time. The result was Reform Immigration for America (RIFA), a strong coalition with resources provided by Atlantic (through a $3.5 million grant in January) and other funders that have enabled the movement to field an unprecedented campaign. Advocacy groups in Washington have worked with grassroots groups on the ground in applying advanced communications, research and lobbying tools and co-ordinating action to influence policy and the media debate.

The value of this investment was starkly demonstrated last week when President Obama, under fire by immigrant advocates for failing to make good on his campaign promises for reform – devoting just a scant line to it in his State of the Union speech – met at the White House for an hour and fifteen minutes with campaign advocates, including seven of RIFA’s steering committee members. The meeting, and the President’s recommitment to action, was a pivotal turning point. Under a headline citing “new life” for immigration reform, the Los Angeles Times wrote: “Participants in the White House gathering also pointed to an immigration rally set for March 21 in Washington as a way to spotlight the issue and build needed momentum.”

The President’s own March 11 statement said he “heard from a diverse group of grassroots leaders from around the country about the growing coalition that is working to build momentum for this critical issue. I am optimistic that their efforts will contribute to a favorable climate for moving forward. I told both the Senators and the community leaders that my commitment to comprehensive immigration reform is unwavering, and that I will continue to be their partner in this important effort.”

There is still a long way to go to achieve comprehensive immigration reform. The White House meeting, spurred by the prospect of many thousands of people descending on the Capitol to demand action, is an important step, but you can expect RIFA and other advocates to keep the heat on until the job is done. We learn from this turnaround that patience has its limits, and the best way to hold a well-intended leader to his or her commitments is to demand accountability and action, and speak up when it is late or lacking.

In the same week, Congress seems to be poised to vote on health care reform. After a year of ups and downs, there is a very strong chance that the greatest social advance in the U.S. since Medicare will be enacted into law, expanding coverage to 31 million Americans, increasing consumer protections and affordability, and expanding government authority to regulate insurance premiums. As you know, this too has been a key Atlantic priority, and we are proud of the role that our grantee, Health Care for America NOW! (HCAN) played in creating the climate for action and keeping the pressure on during the past year. Whatever happens with the vote, I’ll have more to say about the health care reform drive in a future column. But for now, with an extremely close vote looming, Congress needs to hear that reform can’t wait. Visit HCAN’s website for information on what you can do as the critical moment nears.

Immigration and health care are two issues where the possibility of positive action and reform was ushered in with the Obama Administration last year, but which have thrown into sharp relief the relationships between inside and outside strategies, movements and government. I reflected on these tensions in a recent talk at the Hudson Institute in D.C., and the text of my remarks can be found here.

Gara LaMarche

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