Immigration Reform Is Still Possible — With a Strong Social Movement

A year ago, it seemed possible that the country might get its first truly positive immigration reform since the 1986 “Reagan amnesty.”

The incoming Biden administration was proposing legislation that would allow most of the country’s 10 to 11 million undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status. The outlines were subsequently included in the Build Back Better bill, but the Democrats had to pare the reform back in order to win approval from the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, under the arcane Senate reconciliation process. The Democrats’ most recent proposal was just a limited parole for some 6.5 million immigrants, and even that concession wasn’t enough for MacDonough. She nixed the plan on December 16.

This latest setback for immigration reform came little more than a week after the Biden administration restarted one of Donald Trump’s most vicious anti-immigrant policies, the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), better known as “Remain in Mexico.” President Biden terminated the program in January but bowed to an August federal court order to restore it. MPP forced tens of thousands of asylum seekers to stay in dangerous areas of northern Mexico; human rights organizations reported more than 1,500 crimes against these asylum seekers under Trump.

Meanwhile, the White House has continued another Trump policy on its own — the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of would-be migrants under Title 42 of the U.S. health code. And on December 16, the administration withdrew from negotiations to settle lawsuits brought by migrant families separated under the Trump administration. The move seemed to be a response to unhinged criticism from right-wing politicians and media.

2021 didn’t bring anything like the progress many immigrants and their allies were hoping for. But sustained grassroots organizing could turn the situation around in 2022.

Collective Action

The failure to win reform this year certainly isn’t the fault of the immigrant rights movement. Through steady organizing and mass actions like the 2006 “Day Without an Immigrant” protests, immigrant activists have built up popular support to the point where a majority of likely voters now support a legalization for most of the undocumented. It’s unlikely that the Biden administration would have included a progressive immigration proposal in its agenda without the years of activism by immigrants themselves.

Democratic centrists definitely deserve their share of the blame. But even an actually progressive Democratic Party would have faced major obstacles in the current state of the U.S. political system, with its anachronistic electoral procedures, a Congress bound by obscure rules and traditions, a judicial system packed with reactionary judges and a political class corrupted by barely disguised bribes from the superrich.

Under these conditions, even moderate and popular demands can’t be won through elections alone, whether they concern global issues like climate change or specifically U.S. issues like gun-control measures. The country faces an impasse that can only be addressed through a strong social movement, one as broad and militant as the labor movement of the 1930s and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Progressive politicians themselves acknowledge this. In a joint interview with Noam Chomsky on the Laura Flanders Show in October, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) emphasized the need to “reengage our capacities outside our electoral system, whether it’s withholding labor or other sorts of grassroots actions.” She noted that “there is a point of collective action that becomes too difficult for the ruling class to ignore, because it then starts to threaten their legitimacy.”

An Injury to One

There’s already a wide area of agreement among progressives which can serve as a minimum program for such a movement. One example is Bernie Sanders’s list of priorities in what he calls the “fight for economic, racial, social and environmental justice for all.” The political class tends to dismiss Sanders’s proposals as too radical, and yet the Vermont senator remains one of the nation’s most popular politicians, far more popular than right-wingers like former President Trump.

While undocumented immigrants only represent 3 percent of the U.S. population, they are far more important to U.S. society than their numbers indicate. Undocumented workers make up about 4.6 percent of the country’s labor force and account for more than 20 percent of the employees in many low-wage construction and service jobs. Some 5.5 million undocumented workers are employed in sectors the U.S. government has designated as “essential.” The undocumented also play a major role in their communities. About 16.7 million U.S. residents, nearly half of them citizens, have at least one undocumented family member living with them; in New York City alone, some 1 million people — 12 percent of the city’s total population — live with one or more undocumented immigrants.

Lack of legal status is harmful for the undocumented themselves and their families, but many others are also impacted. The lack of labor protections reduces wages for unauthorized workers — by some 11.5 percent, according to one estimate — but it also creates a drag on wages for other workers in the same occupations. Denying the undocumented affordable health care endangers the rest of the population; the pandemic has been a powerful reminder that viruses and bacteria don’t check immigration status as they spread from person to person. And the constant threat of deportation creates emotional and psychological stress not just for the immigrants and those close to them, but also for the communities that rely on their labor, on the small businesses they run, on their help in health care and home care, and on other services they provide.

These secondary effects of keeping millions of people out of legal status constitute a perfect illustration of the old Wobbly slogan: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

Countering the Xenophobia

The greatest injury lies in the rulers’ use of anti-immigrant fervor to keep working people, both recent arrivals and those born here, from uniting in their own interests.

Throughout U.S. history, working people have been held down by their own prejudices, including xenophobia. It has plagued the country since colonial times, and it operates in tandem with racism. Most immigrants in recent decades have been people of color, including Black people, who suffer from even worse treatment than other migrants. But with immigrants, racists don’t need to disguise their racism with code words and dog whistles: popular discourse already vilifies immigrants as “aliens” and “illegals.” Thus, Fox News host Tucker Carlson only gets a slap on the wrist when he rants that immigration “makes our country poorer and dirtier.” Donald Trump feels free to call the presence of immigrants an “invasion,” clearing the way for a fellow bigot to gun down 22 “invaders” as they tried to shop in a Texas Walmart.

Right-wing politicians and media understand the power of this rhetoric. They knew what they were doing when they spent most of 2021 promoting a fictional “border crisis” to distract their audience from the year’s actual crises: the ongoing pandemic, climate-related disasters and Trump’s bungled self-coup.

Prospects for a progressive mass movement remain good, despite the setbacks in recent months. The potential was visible when millions of people took to the streets in the 2020 Black Lives Matters demonstrations, the largest series of protests in the country’s history. But movement-building requires the hard work of educating and organizing, and this can’t be done without directly countering xenophobia, without recognizing that immigrants and their rights are an integral part of the struggle.

Immigrant rights groups will continue to focus on legalization. “New year, same opportunity to deliver citizenship to millions of undocumented folks,” United We Dream, a large youth-based advocacy organization, tweeted on January 1. But immigrant activists also “understand that our progressive visions are interconnected,” the group’s Greisa Martínez Rosas noted in a January 6 press release.

A January 5 op-ed by Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, a low-wage and immigrant worker center in Wisconsin, presented a similar perspective. Neumann-Ortiz outlined a strategy that combines grassroots electoral work with workplace organizing, utilizing both “strategic alliances” and “the power of the strike.” She emphasized the importance of linking “the immigrant rights movement with climate justice, labor and anti-poverty movements. More solidarity is needed to advance a bold progressive national agenda.”