Immigrant Rights Marches Reflect Movement’s Growing Power

by Randy Shaw on May 1, 2013

While May 1 is celebrated around the world as International Workers Day, in the United States it has become a day to celebrate immigrants. On May 1, 2006 over one million people marched in over 200 cities, with thousands carrying signs “Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote.” The spring 2006 marchers carrying such signs proved prophetic, as increased Latino voting since November 2006 helped Barack Obama twice win the presidency and forced Republicans to finally support comprehensive immigration reform. Those taking to the streets on May 1, 2013 recognize that victory on this life-altering issue for millions is at hand, but also realize that the struggle to get a strong reform bill through Congress requires grassroots pressure toward key Senators and House members across the nation.

In my book, Beyond the Fields, I described the May 1, 2006 immigrant rights marches as a “social earthquake rumbling across the American landscape, leaving all to wonder what it really meant.” Today, we know that the spring 2006 immigrant rights marches forever changed the politics of immigration reform, though it would take a series of large Latino turnouts for Democrats to finally convince Republicans to change course.

Today’s marchers face a different challenge. With the movement’s political strength established, the focus now is on targeting the “swing” Senators and Congress members whose votes are necessary to enact a strong comprehensive immigration reform bill.

Groups like Mi Familia Vota are marching in key states like Arizona and Florida to pressure Republican Congress members and Senators to back strong reform. The May 1 marches are effectively a national kickoff for the more targeted pressure necessary to secure House and Senate passage.

Changed Political Environment

At one level, it seems unlikely that a sweeping comprehensive bill could pass a Senate that rejected new gun control regulations and a House that only acts to cut taxes or repeal ObamaCare. But the politics of immigration reform are very different.

First, unlike gun control, immigrant rights are a litmus test issue for millions of voters who support rather than oppose action. A Republican political establishment that was willing to take public heat for backing the NRA believes that the Party must support immigration reform.

Second, so long as there are 8-12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, the issue is not going away. So while Republicans opposing gun background checks could gamble that the issue would recede to the background by November 2104, GOP candidates face addressing immigration reform every election cycle until passage.

That’s why it makes sense for Republicans to get the issue behind them, and then make the case to Latino voters next year that they were on their side.

Third, many Republicans did not want to risk a primary challenge by going against the gun lobby and voting for immigration reform. We see this Senator Lindsey Graham play this kind of dance, where he goes ballistic about Chuck Hagel and Benghazi to solidify his extremist base and then uses the political space gained to back comprehensive reform.

A number of Republican Senators who opposed gun background checks can be won over to support immigration reform. And there are enough GOP House members in potentially swing districts to ensure passage of the Senate bill.

Finally, let’s not forget that comprehensive reform is backed by the US Chamber of Commerce, Big Agribusiness, and Silicon Valley. These powerful interests fund many Republicans, and immigration reform has become one of their top priority issues.

Local Targeting Essential

What distinguished the 2006 immigrant marches from other mass protests was their emergence in small towns and non-activist hotbeds like Garden City, Kansas and Lumberton, North Carolina. The movement’s breadth gives it the capacity to pressure House members in districts lacking a grassroots progressive base on other issues.

Activists understand that the battle for comprehensive reform will be won at the local level, not in Washington DC. It’s the local rallies by religious groups, the media events held by supportive local businesses, and activism by union locals in their home districts that collectively will convince swing Republicans to support reform.

As marchers take to the streets today in events across America, momentum is on their side. And at a time when Americans despair of Congress ever addressing a major national problem, the passage of comprehensive immigration reform will show that real change is still possible—-even in the face of once overwhelming odds.

Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century

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