Most analysts agree that the chances of immigration reform in the first year or two of Obama's administration are extremely slim. We can't expect politicians and policymakers to take action. The change we want to see has to come from below.
We can make it happen if we unite around a common goal: swift, practical, inclusive legalization NOW, as a first step, and eliminate the backlog for people whose immigration cases are in process. Bring people out of the shadows, resolve their status, reunite their families. (And don't worry about what to call it -- amnesty, legalization, regularization, path to citizenship, etc. We know what we're talking about, and we're not fooling our opponents by coming up with new names for it.)
A simple bill we could get behind might look something like this:
1) Change the "registry date" in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), currently set at January 1, 1972, to January 1, 2006. That will allow anyone here since that date to apply for residency through the relatively straightforward registry process.
2) Restore Section 245(i) of the INA, which lets people who entered the U.S. without permission adjust their immigration status here without having to first return home and face the punitive 10-year bar. Section 245(i) has been lapsed since 2000, leaving millions of people without options to legalize.
3) Get rid of the national origin quotas on family-based petitions and expand the total number of family-based visas available, so people don't have to wait 20 years to reunite with their relatives.
4) Pass the Child Citizen Protection Act, which restores the power of judges to weigh the impact on children when considering the deportation of a parent.
Those four steps will provide options for a huge number of people, including those who would benefit from measures like the DREAM Act (undocumented youth) or AgJobs (farmworkers.) If we're strong enough, we can also win the Uniting American Families Act (equal immigration rights for same-sex couples), a repeal of the harsh 1996 laws, an end to employer sanctions and other badly-needed measures.
We can win these changes now if we:
- Mobilize, organize, march, petition. We need mobilizations twice as big as the ones we saw between Valentine's Day and May Day in 2006, in the months after the House passed anti-immigrant bill HR4437. Those mobilizations changed the whole climate in Washington, leading the Senate to approve a package that included AgJobs and the Dream Act. Unfortunately, the mobilizations didn't continue past May 1, 2006, and the measures approved by the Senate never made it through the House.
- Don't wait. The sooner we act, the sooner we'll see results. By the time Obama's administration passes the 100-day mark on May 1, millions of people should be marching in the streets and calling or visiting their members of Congress.
- Dialogue. Slogans and soundbites won't convince people who aren't already on our side. We need to get people talking to each other about immigration, sharing thoughts and experiences, working through fears and doubts and taking a deeper look at the root causes.
Let's not forget that Congress, not the president, has power over immigration. We don't need to convince Obama, we just need to make sure that the Democrats in Congress understand that they will benefit from swiftly passing a measure to legalize the undocumented -- and they will pay a price if they don't. Latino voters were key in this latest election, and even though many Latinos are not immigrants and many immigrants are not Latino, a large number of US-born Latinos have immigrant relatives, have experienced anti-immigrant racism and are sympathetic to immigrants. Most naturalized immigrant voters are also sympathetic, having struggled through the system themselves.
Inclusive legalization can consolidate the demographic shift of rural America and permanently change the electoral map. Many of the rural areas which overwhelmingly voted for McCain include substantial immigrant populations -- often working in agriculture, meatpacking or other industries -- which have been clamoring for legalization. In Finney County, southwestern Kansas, fewer than 10,000 people voted in this year's presidential election, and McCain beat Obama by 35 percentage points (67%-32%). Yet on April 10, 2006, an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people rallied for legalization in Garden City, the county seat, out of a total population of around 30,000. McCain won with similar numbers in nearby Ford County, where several thousand people rallied for immigration reform in the county seat, Dodge City, in April 2006. Over in Madison County, Nebraska, with just over 13,500 voters, McCain won 69%-30%; on April 10, 2006, the Tyson Fresh Meats pork plant in the county seat, Madison, had to shut down because so many of its employees walked out to demand legalization. McCain won with 62% of just over 20,000 votes in Hall County, Nebraska, where on May 1, 2006, hundreds marched in the county seat, Grand Island, for immigrant rights.
It's clear in the minds of most immigrants and their friends and families that during eight years in power, the Republicans did nothing good on immigration. Most people don't remember the anti-immigrant bills approved under the Clinton administration, or that the last amnesty came under a Republican presidency. So right now, while the Republican Party is busy trying to develop a strategy for winning Latino support without alienating its white racist base, the Democrats have a chance to move. The Democratic Party needs to see that if it approves legalization now, it will win the continuing loyalty of a large bloc of existing voters, and at the same time create a large bloc of future voters, spread over rural and urban areas, whose gratitude could boost the party's standing over the next decades.
Will there be a backlash if Congress approves legalization? The 52% of voters who elected Obama mostly don't hate immigrants, so they won't get too riled up about legalization, and many will support it, especially if we work to win over those still unconvinced. Among the other 48% of voters, many probably resent immigrants and oppose legalization, but three years from now, most will have forgotten about it or will have gotten used to it. We will likely see a rise in hate crimes and racist attacks over the next four years, with or without legalization for immigrants, but a focus on dialogue will help to ensure that hateful acts don't gain wide support. And if everyone has legal status, at least immigrants will be able to report threats to police and protest publicly when they are victimized.
There's no time to waste. Any delays in pushing through legalization will hurt its chances. We need to mobilize behind a united demand, and make our voices heard every single day until we get what is needed.
Jane Guskin is co-author of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, published by Monthly Review Press in July 2007. She lives in New York City, where she is interim co-director of the A.J. Muste Memorial Institute, a grassroots foundation supporting nonviolent action for social justice.