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Five Big Questions for the Future of the Immigrant Rights Movement

After thousands mobilized on May Day 2017, what are the key tasks for the immigrant rights movement moving forward?

May Day Immigrants March in Washington, DC, May 1, 2017. (Photo: Susan Melkisethian / Flickr)

May Day 2017 proved that the immigrant rights movement has changed considerably.

Heightening immigration enforcement has been one of the campaign promises on which President Trump has acted most aggressively in his first 100 days. As a result, May 1 — which has long been a day to elevate workers and immigrant rights struggles — was definitely circled on movement organizers’ calendar this year. Yesterday, thousands marched, bringing memories of the tidal wave of immigrant rights mobilizations that occurred on May Day in 2006. Perhaps when the final tallies come in, this year’s numbers will fall short of 2006. However, May Day 2017 proved that the immigrant rights movement has changed considerably.

First, the immigrant rights movement has become more militant. This year’s May Day actions spanned from mass marches to banner drops and, in some places, acts of civil disobedience, disruption and direct action. Today’s immigrant rights movement is authentically intergenerational and unapologetic about challenging the old conceptions of who immigrants are. It is more visibly queer and trans and is looking to explicitly connect resistance against deportations to resistance against policing and mass incarceration. And finally, after years of bottom-up local organizing that often led to bucking the conventional wisdom of the DC beltway, local grassroots organizations are advancing local campaigns rather than implementing federal campaign tactics, which was more the standard in 2006 and during multiple attempts to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

This year’s mobilizations will prove significant. In campaigns, organizers often seek to send a direct message to their targets — lawmakers, officials, authorities. But sometimes, it is just as critical and necessary to send a direct message to communities that are directly affected. Yesterday’s actions were about sending a message to President Trump and to immigrant communities across the country. After an onslaught of raids, threats, harassment and abuse, it was more important than ever for the community to have a place to manifest, heads held high, seeking dignity and respect, cueste lo que cueste (by any means necessary).

Moving forward, this movement will have big problems to tackle, and many questions loom large. Our next steps should respond to these key tasks and questions:

How can we super-size engagement and entry points inside and outside the immigrant community?

Many people will be asking, “What’s next?” It will be critical to develop multiple entry points for activism for people interested in fighting deportations. This also means creating room for communities to build upon and innovate tactics and strategies. The Cosecha movement has been doing excellent work to bring in allied communities and new recruits to the movement. When a problem is this big and complicated, the solution is going to take the efforts, skills and brilliance of many.

Can the immigrant rights movement unfold strategies that utilize economic pressure without reducing immigrants to their economic value or labor?

When I think of arguments that center immigrants’ labor first and foremost, I often think of the sisters and brothers at the organization Living Hope in Houston, Texas. Living Hope is an immigrant organization of people with spinal cord injuries or with other disabilities, many of whom are not able to participate in the economy as traditional “workers.” If we are to win, we need to honor the value of our community’s humanity, not just our labor power. Consider the work of Voces de la Frontera in Wisconsin, which has been waging strong campaigns using economic pressure including but not limited to strikes.

Who are the targets of our activism?

The raids in our neighborhoods and workplaces, the abuses on the border and the racist laws being passed in our state legislatures are not all being carried out by the invisible hands of President Trump. There are many players, some in our own backyard, who are benefitting from and/or enabling these attacks. These players include big banks like Wells Fargo, [prison] corporations like CCA [Corrections Corporation of America] or the GEO Group, local and state lawmakers, and the federal agencies from the Department of Homeland Security to the Department of Justice. In the first 100 days of this administration, many groups were observing and adjusting. Over the next few months, our task is to identify and build a case on a set of targets. By engaging, defeating or neutralizing these targets, we can weaken the Trump agenda that has placed a target on our back. Local campaigns are also critical, as in many places, particularly in red states, communities are facing federal, state and local attack. An inspiring example of a successful local campaign is Puente Arizona and the local movement in Phoenix, which recently had a victory with the closure of Tent City.

How can we connect the dots between immigration enforcement, racial injustice and criminalization?

Immigration and law enforcement officers have long worked hand in hand to criminalize, cage and deport vast numbers of people, using the same laws and institutions to terrorize immigrants and other people of color. However, for years, the immigrant rights movement, whether by circumstance or design, was held apart from traditional racial justice issues. And criminalization was often an afterthought or point of negotiation in hopes of attaining legalization. The fact is that there isn’t much separation between immigrant rights and racial justice issues — seeing as local police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) lump us all together within their mechanisms of criminalization, we should be working together to resist. The joint effort of “The Majority” that brought together various justice movements to mobilize for May Day to expand sanctuary to all communities was a significant step in the right direction.

We have our work cut out for us. My heart has sunk many times, after hearing that Trump’s low ratings and the regrets of those who voted for him usually don’t relate to his horrible actions on immigration. Yet, as our loved ones are being taken from us at alarming rates, it will become more and more clear that their absence will not fix this country. Deportation is not a job creation program.

This May Day, movements emerged more vibrant, more connected and with growing resolve. As the deportation machine tries to break us apart, we can push back on the urge to self-isolate. Amid so much real anguish and despair, we can hold onto the fact that we are not alone. We just have to keep reaching out to one another.

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