Observations From Netroots Nation: Organizing for the Battle to Pass Immigration Reform

Another post from our guest blogger, Robert Gittelson. This was originally posted at ImmigrationProf blog. This article is the fifth or sixth "Observations" article that I have written for ImmigrationProf Blog over the past year or so. This post will focus primarily on the Netroots Nation convention that I attended this past weekend in Pittsburgh, and specifically on their very interesting and information panel discussion titled, "Si Se Puede 2.0." However, before I get into all of that, and since these articles are about my personal observations from around the country and the world, (with a focus on immigration issues), I thought that I would weigh in briefly on what I observed on my way to the convention.

I drove to Pittsburgh from Los Angeles. As a general rule, on road trips, I like to spend as much time as possible actually visiting towns both large and small along the way. We divide our driving miles so that about half of the time, we drove along highways and byways, the balance on the interstates.

I want to note the following, and of course I admit up front that my observations are both random and unscientific. As we drove through the southern border states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, the Border Patrol was all over the place. Admittedly, I wasn’t staking out the border like a Minuteman. However, on highways, interstates, and local roads, they were extremely present and vigilant. They were hiding behind bends in the road, and behind trees and bushes. They were stopping every car, (including ours), and inspecting the vehicles and asking questions, such as, "Is everybody here American?"

I’m not saying that what they are doing is either bad or good. I am saying that they are doing it, and in my personal experience, abundantly. From the perspective of how this could impact the upcoming debate on CIR, and the current state of our nation’s will and ability to enforce the immigration laws, and patrol the border, I can only say that as far as I can tell, the border patrol is on the job and energized.

Since this article is about my personal observations, I will also add that my wife, being an immigration attorney, can also attest that enforcement is alive and well in the Obama Administration. She estimates that as many as 60% of her initial consultations are with the relatives of someone who has been detained by ICE, (up from about 10% as of a few years ago).

I also want to mention another observation about the drive from California to Pennsylvania, and I mention this in terms of the credibility of the Obama Administration. I seem to hear from the Republican Party, that President Obama’s Stimulus package hasn’t kicked in yet, and that it was just a bunch of wasteful spending. I can tell you in literally every state that we drove through, (California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania), we saw massive road construction and improvement projects. Many of the states proudly displayed signage, such as "100 days of Construction Projects" and the like. Don’t tell me that none of the stimulus money is going to good and effective use. I’m telling you that this country is alive with infrastructure activity – the shovel ready projects Obama promised to fund – and all of this activity has had to have had a positive impact on the state of our economy.

Now, as to the Netroot’s panel discussion, it was extremely interesting. Again, in the interest of full disclosure, the conference lasted several days – both before and after I was there for the Si Se Puede"panel on immigration – so I wasn’t there for much of the conference. I especially regret missing the Keynote address by Bill Clinton. However, the panel that I attended referenced "with immigration reform on the horizon and more urgent than ever, progressives are engaging new audiences with creative and interactive strategies and content on immigration. In this session, we’ll discuss online and offline strategies to motivate diverse communities to take action on this key issue." The very informed panelists included Nicola Wells an Organizer for FIRM, the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, an arm of the Center for Community Change, Jackie Mahendra Manager of Online Organizing for America’s Voice, Crissy Spivey the Program Coordinator producing web content and managing web outreach at Breakthrough, and Joaquin Guerra New Media Campaign Manger for Service Employees International Union.

Each of the panelists described their current work in their opening remarks. Nicola referenced her work on the fight for federal immigration reform and on helping organizers integrate social media into community organizing. Nicola started Standing FIRM. Her organization, the Center for Community Change is also an integral part of the Reforming Immigration for America campaign.

Jackie discussed her work with grassroots advocates and national bloggers to shift the immigration debate and to build support for immigration reform as a key progressive priority. She explained that America’s Voice was started in 2007, after the second failed attempt at CIR. They are organized to sort of counter balance and hopefully overcome the grass roots organization efforts of anti-CIR organizations such as Numbers USA.

Crissy explained her work producing web content and managing web outreach at Breakthrough, She also previewed a very moving video that Breakthrough produced on Immigrant Detention.

Joaquin explained that not only does he work toward immigration reform as a priority for SEIU, but he detailed some of the outstanding projects that they have succeeded in working on in such areas as The Dream Act, and their advocacy for potential Dream Act beneficiaries currently in removal proceedings.

When the panel opened up the discussion to include members of the audience, things really did get very interesting. Several topics were brought up by the audience, including black/brown racial issues, and the demagoguery by local anti-CIR "tea-bag" types across the nation. However, overwhelmingly, the audience wanted to discuss in specific terms, how to move this legislation forward, and what role advocate bloggers could assume in that regard.

In my opinion, the meat and potatoes arguments involved how to best utilize our "assets." After all, CIR lost, in large measure, because CIR advocates were out organized by groups such as Numbers USA that had the software in place that enabled their members to easily phone and fax congressional representatives, so as to appear to be a large grass roots anti-CIR groundswell. We now have hopefully turned the tide. We are equally mobilized in that department, and have put together, through organizations such as FIRM and RI4A, seriously impressive lists of advocate groups that support CIR across the nation.

The question remains, how best to use this ammunition? We are well armed. However, if all of this ammunition is not targeted and part of an overall strategy, are we not left with a polyglot of loose cannons? (This is my personal analogy).

Evidently, the anti-CIR advocates are scared of our numbers. Interestingly, they held their own "right-wing" counter-Netroots convention in Pittsburgh at the same time across the street. I reference this quote from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, from Michelle Malkin: "Ms. Malkin's audience included a number of self-described "tea party" activists, whom Democrats have described as "astroturfers" -- false plants in town hall audiences by special interests opposed to health-care reform. "They wanted you gone, silenced and out of sight, marginalized and demoralized, but you prevailed," Ms. Malkin said. "Don't worry about how many people are attending the nutroots conference," she added -- in a reference to Netroots Nation, the gathering of liberal bloggers at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, whose 1,800 registrants outnumber the 600 attending Right Online.

I brought up, in the Q & A part of the panel discussion, the fact that the real targets for our advocacy were the votes in the middle, those fence sitters that we can possibly pull over to our side, such as the "Blue Dog" democrats of middle America. Interestingly, there was an article in New American Media today that addressed this conundrum:

Esther Lopez, the director of civil rights and community action for UFCW International, part of the Change to Win labor federation, said, "what we heard from the Hill was that no immigration reform could move forward unless labor came together." But the fear is if national and local unions aren’t able to get on the same page, they will be sending two different messages to Capitol Hill. "What a terrible mistake if we have that," said Lopez. She has been traveling the country trying to convince local unions to support the national position. "I sit in those meetings and there are 200 white men looking at me and you can see it in their body language: Here comes the Mexicana," said Lopez, describing town hall meetings with local unions in Ohio and Kentucky. "There are real reasons for [their] anxiety," Lopez noted. "Stagnant wages, soaring health care costs, retirement is more elusive than ever. We have to acknowledge that with U.S.-born workers, labor laws have not been enforced." "But while the AFL-CIO and Change to Win have successfully united on a statement for immigration reform, the fight ahead will be to convince the locals across the country."

The fact remains that we do have a lot of heavy lifting to do to get CIR pushed through Congress. After all, the opponents merely have to convince people that the devil they know is better than the devil that they don’t know. It is certainly easier to keep people from doing anything, than to mobilize them to vote for change. The onus is on us. We have to actually convince people that CIR is in their own, as well as our nation’s own best interest. Fortunately, the facts are on our side, as is the polling.

What this conference was about, in a nutshell, is how to get that message across. We have a lot of talent and brainpower on our side. Now is the time to organize this talent to it’s best advantage and purpose. The battle, (and it will be a battle), for CIR is just around the bend, (like a Border Patrol agent laying in wait). We have the tools in place to get CIR passed. The question remains, in the absence of any true Presidential leadership to date, will the advocates working for the passage of CIR know how to organize and utilize these tools correctly and effectively when the time comes, and our tools and effort are needed to get this job done?