Immigration Reform: The Unwinnable, Necessary Fight

In: barack obama|community organizing|human rights|immigrants|organizing|politics

18 Mar 2010

If you are a regular reader of Cockroach People, you know that I tend toward a practical view of politics. That is, while I have strong views on some political topics, I think the strategies and tactics employed to further such views have to be realistic and winnable. Of course, that worldview stems from my work as a community organizer. Many of us believe that it morally irresponsible to lead people into a fight that you know has very little chance of winning. This does not mean that we don’t ever take on such issues, but we only tend to take them on when something fundamental is at stake and there seems to be a groundswell of support in the community.  It’s not easy to determine what is winnable and what is doomed for failure. Many activists thought that the fights against slavery and de jure segregation were not winnable. But in hindsight, it seems that those policies were so fundamental to how people lived their lives and so abominable that, obviously, it was the policies that were doomed to fail.  But those fights took a long time to get to the point where organizers felt comfortable leading the people into a struggle that once seemed impossible to win.  In the case of segregation, if it weren’t for some legal precedents, e.g. Mendez v. Westminster (1946) and Brown v Board of Education (1954), and a growing popular dissent against the institution that culminated in the massive demonstrations and civil disobedience of the 1960s, then who knows what would have happened.  

This tension between the winnable and the morally fundamental often gives me a big headache when I think about immigration reform.  Clearly, there are some aspects of immigration policy that are draconian and morally problematic.  As a Catholic, I am often drawn to the fundamental teachings of the church with regard to ”welcoming the stranger,” the “sanctity of human life,” and the “dignity of the person.”  Thus, morally, I cannot find any good reason to support policies that break up families, encourage the death of people crossing the border, and funnel undocumented youth into a life without a future.  On the other hand, I think that given the dysfunction of the government of the United States, where a majority party can’t even pass a good health care bill, the chance that immigration reform  is going to pass in this political climate is probably less than zero.

That said, I think that Josh Hoyt from the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) makes a good point in his article, Obama’s Moral Failure on Immigration, in today’s edition of the Chicago Tribune: if immigration reform is going to pass under the current administration, then only a movement that attacks the policies head-on through some sort of civil disobedience is going to make us shift our morally bankrupt policies.  Ok, he didn’t actually say that but I think the point does follow.  Josh focuses his ire on the lack of leadership shown by President Obama on this issue.  Obama, he says, is spinning the issue by trying to blame Republicans, saying that only a bipartisan push can effect the reform we seek.  Hoyt goes on to say that Obama’s lack of leadership could “provoke a new period of civil rights confrontations — aimed at him.”  To be sure, I’m a little surprised that Josh is surprised that the President is being cautious and noncommittal.  The President, Josh Hoyt, and yours truly were trained and mentored by many of the same people–very practical community organizers with a revulsion for taking on losing battles.  Barack was like this in Illinois.  He is like this now.  It’s not the President that has changed, it is Josh Hoyt that has changed.  His article has the ring of a true believer who is tired of seeing his friends being trampled on by an oppressive system.  His tone is that of someone who  is “fired up” and not willing to “take it anymore.” 

I find it exhilarating that organizers like Josh Hoyt, a colleague who I have always considered to be strategic and practical, are finally seeing that the constant lobbying and high-power meetings (you really can’t get more high-power than 14 key immigration leaders meeting with the POTUS in the West-Wing) are just not enough to make immigration reform happen.  The only thing that will work is a direct attack on the pillars of power that hold this evil immigration system up.   I have often fantasized about thousands of people (citizens or not) storming the border en masse, refusing to show their documents.  While that idea is a bit outlandish, the basic point behind it reflects the sort of thinking that goes in non-violent resistance movements where people do not have the luxury of working within the system.  It’s about time that people realize that on some issues–even in this day and age–working within the system is not an option.  It’s the realization that the Mahatma had after years of assimilation and legal practice.  It’s the realization that Cesar, and Dr. King had after exhausting all possible avenues.  It’s the realization that, as Josh Hoyt points out in his article, undocumented youth are coming to all across America.

¡Que viva la revolución!

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5 Responses to Immigration Reform: The Unwinnable, Necessary Fight



March 18th, 2010 at 2:03 pm

This is a very well-reasoned and well-written article. Thank you for your insights. I don’t hope you will think I am taking a cheap shot by noting that thousands of people (more than 500,000 in 2009) currently rush the border and don’t show any documentation. I realize that you were indulging in a form of imagination to provide some satisfaction in the face of a problem without any obvious solutions. However, on a practical level, it will probably require demonstrative control of that very border before support for immigration law revisions will expand beyond the current supporters.


Rey Lopez-Calderon

March 18th, 2010 at 4:23 pm

gunther, you missed the “refusing en masse” point…

the “if control of border–> then immigration reform” argument is an empty one. It merely ignores the problems by tabling them until some future day that I suspect will never come. It’s a neat trick though. It’s a bit like saying: “once we are rich again–>then we can talk about health care reform.” Well, those days came in the 1990s and the people against health care reform were just as vehement as they are now that we are poor.” It seems that everything that needs to be done can’t be done until one day when everything is perfect, yet when things are close to perfect, the goal post gets moved for some other reason…ad infinitum (or is it ad nauseam?).


Bryan J.

March 18th, 2010 at 10:20 pm

Good article, Rey. Will you be at the D.C. rally Sunday?


Rey Lopez-Calderon

March 19th, 2010 at 7:16 am

probably; i’m sick but hope to be better by then…


Immigrant kid

April 9th, 2010 at 7:51 pm

It fits our needs perfectly the advantage of immigration reform on the country: Greater supply of unskilled workers, a younger workforce, and skilled workers in needed sectors. But there is also a disadvantage of immigration reform like Greater poverty, more educational cost, lower unskilled wage levels, and increased danger of terrorism. Thanks to the post!

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While some people look at cockroaches as disgusting pests, We view them as resilient organisms that predate humans and will likely outlive us as well. People of color, the poor, the downtrodden, and the oppressed, much like cockroaches, are often despised, feared and in some cases have been the objects of extermination.

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