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Unlikely Coalition on Immigration Reform Rose Rapidly

Whatever one thinks of the current immigration bill, the strange bedfellows coalition that gives it momentum provides a stunning example of grassroots organizing for change.

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“We were the red-headed stepchild of the left,” says Patty Kupfer, managing director of America’s Voice. She means not only her organization but also other immigration reform advocates. “Nobody wanted to hang out with us.” Her tone connotes crisis and flashbacks to empty cups of coffee and lost sleep. She hastily lists the blows to the immigration coalition in that fraught period of late 2009 and early 2010: “The DREAM Act failed on the floor of the Senate; Arizona laws were being spread across the country and we figured we’d be fighting back against terrible legislation for the next five to ten years.” She and her cohort, of course, figured wrong. If it was once the red-headed stepchild of the left, immigration reform has become, in three short years, the belle of the bipartisan ball.

Yes, bipartisan, and you’d better know about it. The “bipartisan nature” of the recently proposed legislation has become a ubiquitous tagline for all things immigration reform. Meanwhile, the proposal’s bipartisan octet ensemble, the Gang of 8 senators, has performed pleasantry and benevolent compromise at every turn. Amid daunting political gridlock, it’s unsurprising that bipartisanship has become an ever-more lofty and mythological pursuit, thus glorying those members of Congress who shine under its divine glow. After all, legislators are still smarting from wounds inflicted by the sequester, a not-so-subtle symbol of dysfunction that demonstrated that even the politicians – those who have to participate in the cynical choreography of endless donor calls and nods to party orthodoxy – underestimated their inability to perform the primary task for which they were elected: pass laws. This is not to say that, in the case of immigration reform, the moniker of bipartisanship is trumped up or insincere. No, this reform has a good chance of becoming the first major item of domestic policy to pass Congress with bipartisan support since Obama wafted into office on America’s wistful desire for a change to politics as usual.

But if we zoom out the lens – pressing that minus button on Google maps until Washington, DC stands as a small, indiscernible blip in the massive United States – then the coalition behind immigration reform looks less like a marriage between red and blue and more like a kaleidoscopic assortment of very strange bedfellows. Just for starters, the coalition includes business interests like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association, labor interests like the AFL-CIO and SEIU, immigration advocacy groups like United We Dream, and even religious organizations like the Evangelical Immigration Table. America’s Voice is the mouthpiece for this amalgam. It is her job to consolidate the views of these allied groups into a concise, effective message for pressuring elected officials and beltway politicos. Suffice it to say, she knows the coalition well. “There’s a lot of groups in places like Los Angeles that have tremendous power and have been deeply rooted for years,” she points out. “And then there’s other less traditional places, like Nebraska and Alabama, where great stuff is happening.”

Another one of those less traditional places is Georgia, where for the last ten years they’ve had a Republican governor and Republican majorities in the State House and Senate. Charlie Flemming, the president of the Georgia AFL-CIO, readily admits that “Georgia is own of the worst states toward immigrants.” Yet even in this toxic environment, there stands a robust on-the-ground coalition demanding comprehensive immigration reform. A little less than a month ago, the AFL-CIO teamed up with the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR) and the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO) to hold a rally at the Capitol building in Atlanta. Over 1,000 people showed up including, as Flemming proudly recalls, “member unions, like local Teamsters and local UNITE HERE” which was a pleasant surprise in the middle of a workday on a Wednesday afternoon.

The astonishment wasn’t only that the workers found a way to knock off the job for an hour, but also the commitment their participation symbolized. “People [were] getting it,” said Flemming of the inclusive turnout. He hints at one of the unlikely transformations to occur within the grassroots movement for immigration reform: the all-in support of organized labor. The AFL-CIO announced its endorsement of a pathway to citizenship way back in 2000, but the support of rank-and-file membership has been slow to follow, especially in conservative areas. Flemming notes that there are still some workers who are “slow to come around,” but points to the ironic ease of building power in a region where the left-leaning organizations really need each other’s help. “We’ve had good relationships with Latin American groups, Asian-American groups, because we’ve had to find ways to build coalition against the conservative leadership of this state.”

This phenomenon – of partnerships formed while in defensive posture – is corroborated by immigration reform advocates elsewhere. Darcy Tromanhauser works as the director of the immigrants and communities program at an organization in Lincoln, Nebraska, called Nebraska Appleseed. She remembers 2011, when Nebraskans defeated a push for an Arizona-style immigration law “by bringing a big coalition out against it.”

“That helped [advocates] get to know people,” she said. Kupfer echoes the sentiment, describing how state legislatures’ attacks on immigrant rights prompted advocates to “redouble their efforts.” They “used the losses as a way to generate energy, to register voters, and to turn people out,” said Kupfer.

And they did so with unbelievable success. In 2012, Latinos voted in record numbers, making up over 10 percent of the electorate for the first time in United States history. The sheer size of the voting bloc, combined with its overwhelming 71 percent support for Barack Obama, has accounted for much of the change of heart among Congressional Republicans. At the Gang of 8’s press conference announcing its legislative proposal, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) responded to a query about Republican support by referring to “elections, elections.” He went on to say, “Republicans realize that there are many issues on which we think we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens, but we think [immigration reform] is a preeminent issue with those citizens.” Translation: Republicans need to get immigration reform done, so they can make more favorable appeals to this new, powerful voting bloc. The electoral calculus on this issue has shifted dramatically, and it’s a credit to the Latino civic engagement groups that brought new voters into the process.

Flexing electoral muscle isn’t sufficient, however, to explain the viability of comprehensive reform. The 10 percent voter turnout is unprecedented among Latinos, but it’s still only 10 percent. After 2012, immigration reform advocates needed an alternative framework in order to appeal to the other 90 percent of voters, who did not necessarily feel a direct connection to the issue. They needed ambassadors to raise awareness and urgency among everyday Americans. They got those ambassadors in the form of Dreamers – undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and who now attend college or serve in the military. Because they were children at the time of their illegal border crossing, the Dreamers do not carry a stigma as rule-breakers. Their nickname, of course, links them to the DREAM Act, whose provisions still hang in the balance in DC.

Kathy Bird, an organizer with the Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC), said, “The thing that broke the threshold was [Dreamers] coming out as undocumented and unafraid. It gave our movement a face, made immigration a person, not a problem.” With their compelling demand for justice and their effective civil disobedience tactics, the Dreamers won a huge victory in June 2012 when Obama granted them “deferred action,” meaning they would receive temporary legal status that ensured protection from deportation. This triumph afforded Dreamers new rock star status within the immigration reform movement. Even Senate Republicans have cozied up to the them, making sure to include a DREAM Act portion in the proposed reform bill.

Despite all this momentum for reform, questions remain. Will the Dreamers spend their political capital to protect more vulnerable parts of the proposed legislation, such as the pathway to citizenship? Bird proffers a resounding yes, describing the way Dreamers have been “talking about their moms and dads, saying ‘Without my parents, I wouldn’t be this remarkable person. So my parents are remarkable too.'” But, the bigger concern is whether or not this broad, loose coalition will stick together as immigration reform endures a messy federal legislative battle. On this point, Bird is less resolute: “I would say everybody has a different stake in this immigration reform fight,” she said. “There are different forces within the coalition. It’s challenging.” And when asked whether the coalition can withstand the bill’s potential inclusion of border triggers, Kupfer less than reassuringly replies, “I don’t know if it would split the coalition.”

While the challenges are immense, immigration advocates are optimistic, especially about the collective priority of an achievable pathway to citizenship. Every organizer I spoke with stressed the importance of education and responsiveness on the ground level, as the legislation has been vulnerable to a slew of unfavorable amendments. They understand that – for good or ill – the bill’s final form will be a testament to the grassroots organizing that takes place over the next couple months. “It’s not going to pass unless we get people out to put pressure on our legislators,” says Bird. “We have the fight of our lives in the House of Representatives.”

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