On building the movement...

Remarks of Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director, Center for Community ChangetoSouth Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow (SAALT)March 17, 2007   

It is an honor to be here.  I am profoundly excited by organizing in South Asian communities represented in this room, the work of SAALT and the leadership it and Deepa Iyer are providing. Last night at the reception as I fought my way to the table with all the delicious food, I knew I was in a gathering of South Asians, who are always very clear about our priorities, food first among them.  It felt like home –and I mean that literally. 

I was asked to talk about “movement building” and I thought I would use the immigrant rights movement which I’ve been part of, like many in this room, as a case study.  This movement is the most important development in American politics in many years, and though it is poorly understood by many progressives, I think it has great potential to galvanize a broader transformative movement in the United States in the 21st century.   

We are at a key turning point in our movement.  Legislation including a significant share of the demands of the movement is about to be introduced in the House and Senate, and it is arguably the only bill of any consequence that might get enacted in 2007.  At this key moment in the history of the immigrant rights movement, we need strategic and moral clarity.  There are three strategic lessons that I’d draw from the movement so far.  

First, movements are only built through long, patient organizing at the base.  Though it appeared to much of America that immigrants had spontaneously combusted last spring when millions of immigrants took to the streets, the truth is that years of organizing and leadership development and networking created the conditions, while Congressman Sensenbrenner and HR 4437 simply provided the spark.   

Second, movements are built on a vision of the possible that extends far beyond the boundaries of acceptable political discourse.  I vividly remember when my organization was asked to convene a gathering of immigrant rights activists in Washington, D.C. in 1998, a configuration that ultimately produced the Fair Immigrant Rights Movement (FIRM), now a leading grassroots coalition.  At that time, the reigning establishment liberal consensus was that nothing could be done for or about undocumented immigrants, and so we should focus our advocacy on the “good” immigrants –those with papers.  And indeed, at that time in the wake of welfare reform it seemed simply crazy to think that legalization could be put on the national table.  But thanks to the movement’s insistence on upholding a just and humane vision, here we are, in 2007, when immigration reform with a path to citizenship is embraced by all kinds of crazy characters.  

Third, mass movements are the only thing that can produce large scale social change.  This is an important lesson, because there is something very seductive about thinking that major social change is won by experts, through sophisticated wheeling and dealing in backrooms, or through meetings of “big heads” in Washington, D.C.  The great lesson of 2006 –and in fact of American history— is that it is only concerted mass action that opens space for progressive social change.  What stopped the punitive HR 4437 was not attractive, smart people with fancy policy papers trekking around Capitol Hill –it was the largest mobilizations in American history.  No one should be deluded that progressive immigration reform legislation can be won this year without significant action at the base.  While the form of such action may be different than the marches of last year, the need for leadership from the base is as great as ever. 

And of course these three strategic imperatives for movement building –organizing and leadership development, visionary thinking beyond the constraints of the immediately possible, and mass action— are all closely connected.   

Let’s talk about moral clarity, because there is a lively debate within the immigrant rights movement about what we are for that parallels debates in other movements in U.S. history.   

A few weeks ago, I came back home from a trip to California, hanging out with Rinku Sen who was justifiably honored last night, to find out that my car –a beat up, the ungenerous would say “trashed” 95 Honda Civic-- was stolen. If you saw my car, you’d wonder too why anyone would want to steal it.  In fact, pretty much everyone who has ever ridden in it is quietly or not so quietly celebrating its mysterious disappearance. I have to say there are a lot of suspects.  Anyway, so I started taking the bus.  The

16th Street

bus in Washington, DC carries an incredibly diverse group of people – including African Americans and immigrants from every part of the world, and people from every class.  Some might argue that that the bus would get to its destination faster if it made fewer stops.  That is true, but given patterns of residential segregation in the city, it would be hard to make fewer stops without leaving a lot of people off the bus. 

The central moral question for the immigrant rights movement as we enter into the legislative battles of 2007 is really: “who is on our bus?”   

How we answer that question will be a profoundly revealing look into the future of the progressive movement in the 21st century.  Everything that matters is wrapped into this debate: globalization, the role of the United States in the world, race and racism, our ability to forge lasting progressive multi-racial coalitions, civil liberties and civil rights, the nature of the U.S. economy in general and the needs of low-wage workers in particular.   

The debate will be rancorous, and the road is difficult but let me stress that I think it is possible –not inevitable to be sure—for us to get a good, progressive piece of legislation signed into law this year that would address profound injustices and the suffering of millions of people.  This is no small moment.  And it is a rare occasion in which history is REALLY in our hands.  If we are clear about the moral stakes in this debate and can unite around a broad vision for social justice and immigrant rights, it will be possible to BOTH win good legislation and build for long term power and movement.   

In order to achieve principled unity, we need clarity on a central question: what are the moral claims that progressives must recognize and how do we negotiate among and between them?  Who, in other words, is on our bus?  It seems to me there are essentially three moral claims of equal standing that must be addressed as part of immigration legislation. 

First, of course are the moral claims of immigrants who are here.  This includes undocumented workers subject to exploitation and abuse at the job, and undocumented immigrant families who are now being terrorized and separated by the ICE raids that this Administration has cynically initiated over the past few months.  It includes the millions of immigrants in this country who are forced to wait for years to reunite with loved ones.  And it includes those immigrants swept up in the post 9/11 reign of terror that has shredded our civil liberties and civil rights.  We must make sure that all these issues –legalization, family reunification, and civil liberties and due process-- get addressed as part of comprehensive reform and that different ethnic groups work in solidarity to achieve them, rather than compete for their piece of the pie. 

Second, there is the moral claim of immigrants who seek to come to the United States in the future.  U.S. foreign and economic policy has wreaked havoc with economies and societies throughout the world.  The migration of people to the United States, especially from Latin America, must be understood in the context of bad trade accords and structural adjustment policies pursued by the world’s wealthiest countries and their agents.  There is a heated debate between people of good will on the left about how to deal with the question of future migration to the United States.  In the meantime, hundreds of people die each year trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.  No one can or should support abusive or exploitative guestworker programs.  Given the reality of migration to the United States, we should all support expanded citizen worker programs – not guestworker programs-- that provide a path to citizenship, full worker rights, and portability between jobs.  This is an agenda that should unify us, not divide us.  If we fail to get agreement on this, the status quo which generates death and chaos will continue, and that is morally unacceptable. 

Finally, the last moral claim is unfortunately the least discussed inside the immigrant rights movement.  I’ve heard some activists argue that “immigrants take jobs that Americans wont” or deny any connection between immigration and persistent unemployment and worsening conditions for US workers, particularly African Americans.  The reality is that there has been displacement of African-American workers from whole industries –hotels, construction, some restaurant jobs.  It is of course corporate globalization and persistent racial discrimination that are responsible for this, not immigrant workers.  But we must take this issue seriously, and advance serious proposals to improve the condition of all low-wage workers in the U.S., both as part of the immigration bill and separately.  We should strengthen enforcement of civil rights and labor laws, require employers to post available jobs widely to prevent hiring from occurring solely through ethnic networks, and increase funding for jobs programs.  Failure to try to do this would be a major moral failure, and impede the construction of a long term coalition among and between people of color that could drive progressive politics in the future.  Many African Americans are concerned about economic and political displacement by immigrants.  They are worried that today’s immigrants like yesterday’s Irish immigrants will ultimately “become white” –obviously not literally “white” but “white” in political terms.  They are not wrong to be concerned. 

What I am proposing is a moral framework for the movement that recognizes all the claimants, and acknowledges that our fates are linked.  As Martin Luther King, Jr said: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”  This sense of shared fate will have profound resonance for progressive South Asians, given the extensive exchange of ideas between the Indian independence movement and the U.S. civil rights movement.  This interconnectedness has a profoundly personal dimension for us too, since the liberalization of immigration laws in the 1960’s that resulted in our very presence in the United States was a direct result of the civil rights movement.   

South Asians are a relatively small part of the immigrant population in the U.S., but we are playing important and leading roles in progressive and immigrant rights organizations, and as a brother reminded me last night, nearly all of us are either immigrants or the children of immigrants.  South Asians have been particularly victimized by the post 9/11 reign of terror masquerading as a war on terrorism.  Our stance on these strategic and moral questions will therefore prove to be profoundly consequential. 

Juggling all of these moral claims will require imagination and an open heart.  Whether we can keep everybody on the bus is a huge test and a defining moment in the construction of a progressive movement in the United States in the 21st century.  History is in our hands.

EditorialsFIRM Admin