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Movement Building is Essential to Advance Immigration Reform

Kent Wong discusses the need to support the immigrant workers movement and immigrant youth movement — not rely on the Democratic Party — in the fight for immigrant justice.

| Kent Wong |

This article will appear in the next issue of the New Labor Forum.

Fundamentally, we need to build an immigrant rights movement to create the change we need.   Reliance on the Democratic Party or on policy formulations alone will never result in meaningful change unless we can successfully build a movement led by immigrant workers and immigrant youth.   

The Obama-Biden administration was responsible for more than two million deportations, the worst record in U.S. history.  During his 2020 presidential election campaign, Biden promised immigration reform within his first year in office.  Not only do those promises remain unfulfilled, but unfortunately, Biden has maintained some of the repressive anti-immigrant policies implemented by Trump.

We support the necessity of building a broad-based alliance to advance meaningful immigration reform.  The alliance must include undocumented immigrants themselves, the labor movement, African Americans, youth and students, environmentalists, and the faith-based community.  

While we obviously supported the Biden-Harris ticket, and celebrate the end of the horrific Trump administration, we should not be surprised about Biden’s lukewarm commitment to immigration reform in light of his track record.  The Biden administration will only do the right thing if there is a strong movement demanding change.

DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) was one of the few immigrant rights victories that was won during the Obama-Biden administration.  DACA was a breakthrough in providing a relief to more than 800,000 immigrant youth who otherwise would still live under the constant fear of deportation and would not be able to legally work.  

The immigrant youth movement played a decisive role in securing one of the few immigration reform victories under the Obama-Biden administration.  Yet it is important to note that DACA was not prioritized or actively supported by major immigrant rights organizations.  Even the Federal DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) was not a priority of major immigrant rights organizations, because of their fear that if the DREAM Act moved forward as a stand-alone bill, this would undermine the passage of comprehensive immigration reform.  

We strongly disagree with this analysis and approach.  The one-sided push for comprehensive immigration reform and reliance on the Democratic Party has been a failed strategy, that has effectively yielded nothing. 

The right wing understands the benefit of incremental change on immigration.  They have tried to secure anti-immigration victories wherever and whenever possible, at a federal, state, and local level.  They have built an anti-immigrant movement grounded in racism and nativism, and have used the anti-immigrant issue to mobilize their primarily white constituency at the ballot box.

Instead of relying the Democratic Party, we believe that we must focus our energies on movement building.  And two major movements that have helped to shift the national debate on immigrant rights are the immigrant workers movement, and the immigrant youth movement.  We would benefit from deepening an understanding of the role of each, in order to confront the challenges ahead. 

Immigrant Workers Movement

The U.S. labor movement has a decidedly mixed history when it comes to immigration reform.  From their support of the passage of the racist Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, U.S. labor has historically embraced anti-immigrant policies.  During the last major immigration legislation passed by Congress, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, labor advocated for employer sanctions to impose civil and criminal penalties for employers who knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants.  They erroneously believed that this would safeguard jobs for U.S.-born workers. 

Employer Sanctions has been a disaster that has done little to nothing to punish employers for hiring undocumented immigrants.  Instead, employer sanctions have caused great to harm to undocumented immigrants who been viciously exploited with little legal recourse, and driven further into the underground economy.  

The emergence of the immigrant workers movement was a powerful force that helped to reinvigorate parts of the U.S. labor movement, and harness the power of a new generation of predominantly Latino immigrant workers to transform parts of the labor movement.  In Los Angeles, the legendary Justice for Janitors Movement and the organizing of the Hotel Workers under the leadership of Maria Elena Durazo represented historic breakthroughs in not only immigrant worker organizing, but the embrace of social movement unionism.  The victory of the Home Care workers, led for years by black women, also greatly diversified the labor movement of California and brought more women, people of color, and low wage immigrant workers into the labor movement than any other organizing campaign in decades.

The national debate on the AFL-CIO policy on immigration came to a head during the 1999 convention held in Los Angeles.  On the opening day of the convention, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor organized a march within the convention hall with hundreds of recently organized immigrant workers of color.  The marchers jumped on to the podium where the largely aging, white male AFL-CIO Executive Council was seated, dramatically contrasting two distinct parts of the labor movement.  A remarkable change in the AFL-CIO immigration policy came the following year, in 2000, led by a progressive coalition of key unions including UNITE-HERE, SEIU, UFCW, and the United Farmworkers of America. For the first time, the AFL-CIO lined up on the right side of history on immigration, calling for full rights and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. 

In 2003, UNITE HERE launched the Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride, a series of national bus tours that drew on the tradition of the Civil Rights movement.  In states and cities throughout the country, the Freedom Ride built union and community alliances with a movement-building orientation.  Congressman John Lewis and Rev. James Lawson Jr. worked with the Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride to connect the emerging immigrant rights movement with veterans from the Civil Rights movement from decades before. 

In 2006, the largest May Day marches in U.S. history held in dozens of cities across the country were organized to respond to draconian anti-immigrant legislation in Congress.  It was a profound reflection of the power of the immigrant workers movement, that successfully led to the defeat of the pending legislation.  Ironically, the largest May Day in U.S. history was not led by the U.S. labor movement, but by immigrant workers themselves.  In fact, some conservative union leaders watched from the sidelines, refusing to support the just demands of immigrant workers to end deportations and for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. 

The election of Tefere Gebre as the AFL-CIO Executive Vice President in 2013 was a breakthrough.  For the first time in history, a black immigrant and political refugee became one of the top officers of the U.S. labor movement.  Gebre was previously the leader of the Orange County Federation of Labor, where he mobilized the power of immigrant workers to not only reinvigorate the labor movement, but to change the political landscape.   Orange County in 2016 voted for a Democrat for President for the first time since the 1930’s, and in 2018 Democrats swept the entire Congressional delegation in what was previously a bastion of right-wing politics.  

In 2021, Liz Schuler was elected as the first woman President in AFL-CIO history.  Currently, her two other national officers are black men, another historic first.  The first leadership team of women and people of color within the AFL-CIO could change the national political environment through building a grassroots movement to support immigration reform.  

Immigrant Youth Movement

Immigrant youth have been at the forefront of securing meaningful immigration policy victories over the last decade. Though immigrant youth have been organizing for a long time, the year 2010 was a game changer. 

In May of 2010, five undocumented youth held a nonviolent sit-in at the office of Senator and former presidential-candidate John McCain, risking arrest and deportation.  This courageous act exposed McCain’s political opportunism as a Senate leader who had previously co-sponsored the DREAM Act, yet instead withdrew his support to align with Sheriff Joe Arpaio.  

In the coming months, immigrant youth engaged in unprecedented activism from hunger strikes in Los Angeles and Texas, a 1,500 mile march on-foot from Florida to Washington known as the “Trail of Dreams,” a “Dream Freedom Ride” caravan from Los Angeles to Washington D.C., and many other forms of nonviolent civil disobedience. The emergence of United We Dream, a national coalition of undocumented youth organizations, as well as “Dream Teams” of undocumented activists in states and cities across the country set the foundation for a new immigrant youth movement. 

For more than twenty years, the DREAM Act, overwhelmingly supported by the public, has been blocked in Congress.  The DREAM Act could provide a pathway to citizenship for qualifying immigrant youth and could change their lives, as well as the lives of their families and their communities. Despite the tremendous efforts made by immigrant youth, the DREAM Act was unable to get through the Senate because of a threatened filibuster in December of 2010. This was a bipartisan failure.  A handful of Democrats voted against it, while some senators like John McCain and Joe Manchin, did not even show up to vote. As heartbreaking as this loss was, immigrant youth did not give up. Instead, they directed their attention to other efforts that could harness their energy and collective power.

The failure of the DREAM Act in December 2010, was the impetus for the launch of “Dream Summer” in 2011. Dream Summer is the first and only national fellowship program run by and for immigrant youth, launched by the UCLA Labor Center with support of United We Dream. The program aims to empower the next generation of social justice leaders by providing leadership and professional development opportunities to immigrant youth that embraces an intersectional, intergenerational, cross-racial approach. In its first year, the program received over 1,000 applications from eager immigrant youth that were ready to join the movement.  Since its founding, the Dream Resource Center (DRC) of the UCLA Labor Center has emerged as a national source for innovative research, education, leadership development and policy on immigration issues. 

Dream Summer centers the immigrant youth voice in local and national conversations that directly impact them in order to achieve representation, opportunity, and justice for immigrant communities. Over the past ten years, Dream Summer has played a pivotal role in developing immigrant youth leaders who have secured legislative victories such as the California Dream Act, DACA, and Health4AllKids in California. 

In 2011, immigrant youth organized actions across the state of California to secure the passage of the California Dream Act, which for the past decade has provided tens of thousands of immigrant youth access to state financial aid for eligible undocumented Californians. Between 2016 – 2017 alone, more than 54,000 California immigrant youth applied for the California Dream Act. 

Undocumented immigrant youth, many of them leaders of Dream Summer such as Neidi Dominguez and Ju Hong, were instrumental in advancing a national strategy to push President Obama to introduce Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012. Today, over 800,000 immigrant youth have been able to work and have protection from deportation as a result of this victory. 

In 2013, Dream Summer launched the Health Ambassadors Fellowship. The late Beatriz Solis from The California Endowment led the effort to support 114 immigrant youth to work at the intersections of health and immigration. The Dream Summer fellows produced a  series of reports entitled, Undocumented and Uninsured, which informed policymakers about the need for health care for all Californians, regardless of legal status. In 2015, California passed Health4All Kids, which expanded full-scope medical to low-income children under the age of 19, regardless of immigration status. Most recently, immigrant youth were also key in securing the passage of the California Values Act, which limits collaboration between law enforcement and immigration officials in the detention and deportation process.

2021 marked the 10th anniversary of Dream Summer. Since its inception, more than 820 immigrant youth from across the country have participated in the program. Dream Summer has also developed partnerships with over 265 social justice organizations. Many Dream Summer alumni have gone off to hold leadership positions in various national, state and local social justice organizations. Undocumented immigrant youth continue to be at the forefront of the fight for immigrant justice.

Movement building is essential to advance Immigration reform.  Unfortunately, some immigrant rights organizations speak on behalf of undocumented immigrants, while not promoting undocumented immigrants in key leadership positions. This is problematic, and has contributed to a failure to focus on movement building and a commitment to undocumented immigrant empowerment.  History teaches us that we must build the immigrant workers movement and the immigrant youth movement to secure meaningful immigration reform.

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