Mobilizing in August is key for immigrant rights

Congress is now in recess, returning on September 9, but the immigrants’ rights struggle is not skipping a beat. We all have to use the congressional recess to maximum effect.

The first priority is to mobilize all forces to pressure Republican and conservative Democratic members of the House of Representatives to support legalization of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, and back off more “enforcement only” measures such as the ones now passed by various committees in the House. The AFL-CIO and various sectors of the immigrants’ rights movement are in the process of strategizing which incumbent congresspersons should be targeted for this intensive campaign. Many House GOP members are not susceptible to such pressure because their allies in state legislatures have manipulated the boundaries of their districts to make their seats “safe.” But the need is to overcome the Republican margin in the House, not to win over every Republican. There are 234 Republicans in the House and 201 Democrats. Not all the Democrats are secure votes for legalization with a path to citizenship. About 25 votes have to be flipped to a pro-immigrant position or at least neutralized. This is an uphill struggle but not impossible.

Related to changing votes in the House, Republican House Speaker John Boehner has to be pressured to back off his threat to not allow comprehensive reform to proceed, and his stance that only legislation which enjoys the support of the majority of Republican House members, and not of the whole House including Democrats, will be allowed to proceed to a vote. This stance can be challenged, especially if we get to the point that 218 House members are willing to sign a “Discharge Petition” in which case a bill can go directly to a vote by the whole House.

The continued high level of deportations by the Obama administration plays the Republican game in this struggle, because instead of softening up the Republicans (its stated purpose) it actually puts strong pressure on the immigrants’ rights movement to back off advanced demands and be satisfied with less. So efforts like the courageous stand of the DREAM 9 should be fully supported. The demand has to be “while Congress works on immigration reform with legalization and a path to citizenship, it makes no sense to deport people who will be able to legalize themselves under pending legislation.”

We have to maintain a maximum level of unity of all who support legalization of the undocumented. Because of controversy about the Senate bill, there is some conflict within the movement. The movement as a whole consists of the immigrant grassroots with friends and relations, community, civic and ethnic organizations, major churches, organized labor and even some businesses. Within this variegated group, there are bound to be differences of opinion and even conflicts of interest. But the notion of somehow purifying the immigrants’ rights movement is inopportune. Unity should be the watchword. Congress itself is not inhabited by saints or socialists, and responds to the carrot or the stick and not to high minded ideals or rhetoric. The main thing here is to get House members to realize that if they do not support what the movement wants, there could be repercussions for them in the 2014 elections and beyond. A united front has to be behind our demands.

Once the House has acted on legislation, the Senate Bill (S 744, originally) and the one or more bills passed by the House will go to a House-Senate Conference Committee appointed by the leaders of each chamber. That committee will be in charge of reconciling the House and Senate approaches and producing a new bill which has to be passed by each house with identical wording. If this happens, the next step is for the legislation to go to the president, who can sign it, veto it or let it die by not acting on it. Unlike some state governors, the president does not have the right to delete parts of the bill he doesn’t like.

There are many things wrong with the Senate bill including wholly unnecessary and harmful new enforcement mechanisms such as the sending of 20,000 new Border Patrol agents to the U.S-Mexico border at a cost to the taxpayers of $46 billion. Other serious problems include the excessively long legalization process and income and work requirements, which will have the effect that large numbers will not be legalized. All these we have to fight to remove from the final House-Senate legislation, but the idea of going back to the Senate and somehow repealing the Senate bill is a non-starter. The votes are just not there. The only realistic course is to fight this through in the House and in the Conference Committee.

Victory is not guaranteed. Defeat will have bad repercussions not only for the undocumented but for their relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers and the country. It will be bad for the whole U.S. working class because it will mean that the 8 million or so undocumented immigrants who are in the work force will still be unable to organize and join unions, go on strike and demand justice for themselves and others, in the workplace and in the community.

This is why this August push merits our maximum effort.

Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.