You could fill a high school yearbook with superlatives about different issues within the broader progressive movement: Most Likely to See a Victory This Year, Most Important Total Lost Cause, Best Facebook Profile Picture, etc.
Today I want to cast my vote for “Most Strategic”. I’d define “strategic” as the issue that focusing resources on to win a major victory now will most build the long-term strength of our movement and set us up to be more effective in taking on everything else.
We’ve all heard the talk about how immigrant communities won the election for Obama in 2012 and the Republican Party is doomed. There’s some truth in it. The percent of Americans born in another country is the highest it’s been since the 1920’s. The combined political muscle of those who are immigrants, live in immigrant neighborhoods or have immigrant family members is pretty hefty. Immigrants tend to have more progressive views on most issues than people born in America. And American-born Latinos and Asians are even more progressive than their parents.
But I think we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Latino and Asian voter turnout is still really low. Latinos and Asians are shamefully underrepresented in Congress, more so than African-Americans. Community organizations in Latino and Asian neighborhoods tend to be weaker than those in black neighborhoods.
Lack of political power is a cycle, a positive feedback loop. When a community is disenfranchised and oppressed, people see no value in engaging in a political system that shits on them. This weakens their organizations, results in scarce political representation, and an absence from the negotiating table over policy. This leads to being shafted even further by policy and budget decisions, which further heightens the community’s distrust of politics.
It takes a major social movement to break this cycle. The Civil Rights Movement and its echoes grew political power within the black community. The civil rights generation saw their collective action directly result in change in their daily lives. They saw powerful institutions panic in the face of their strength and scramble to maintain the status quo. And they saw themselves win.
It’s not emphasized enough that winning is fucking important. People like winning. They feel afraid, powerless, and insignificant until they win. Even incremental, incomplete victories create organizations and develop leaders and build the confidence to win again.
It’s no accident that despite a massive coordinated effort to suppress them at the ballot box, black voter turnout rates in 2012 may have surpassed whites for the first time ever. The dominant media narrative said the novelty of voting for the first black president had worn off and turnout would plummet. Maybe true for white liberals. But for the black community, it was no novelty. It was a moment in history where many people of color felt a sense of their political power and the motivation to win again.
We won’t see the true power of American immigrant communities until we win a major victory. The Chicano Movement was smaller and won far fewer victories than the Civil Rights Movement. Immigrants’ rights activists have seen a few small victories lately like deferred action for DREAMers. But something big has yet to come. And when it does, the result will be a shift in our political landscape.
I expect the passage of comprehensive immigration reform to create a shift in communities like the ones I organize in. I believe folks will see the power of taking to the streets and demanding justice, and many more will join future struggles over education, income inequality, even climate change.
Now I’m not saying everyone drop whatever you’re doing and work on immigration reform. I am saying leaders and participants in all progressive movements should be paying close attention to what happens here, because it affects all of us.
Even symbolic displays of solidarity make an impact, especially on issues strongly dependent on winning public support. When a black civil rights leader, a union president, or an LGBT rights activist publicly takes a stand on the issue of immigration, it signals to their followers that their struggles for dignity are bound to each other.
For example, Bill McKibben, one of America’s foremost leaders of the movement to stop climate change, recently wrote an op-ed in the LA Times supporting immigration reform. Environmentalists and immigration advocates haven’t always been BFFs. But McKibben gets it:
Election after election, native-born and long-standing citizens pull the lever for climate deniers, for people who want to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency, for the politicians who take huge quantities of cash from the Koch brothers and other oil barons. By contrast, a 2012 report by the Sierra Club and the National Council of La Raza found that Latinos were eager for environmental progress. Seventy-seven percent of Latino voters think climate change is already happening, compared with just 52% of the general population; 92% of Latinos think we have “a moral responsibility to take care of God’s creation here on Earth.” These numbers reflect, in part, the reality of life for those closer to the bottom of our economy. Latinos are 30% more likely to end up in the hospital for asthma, in part because they often live closer to sources of pollution.
Meanwhile, the Human Rights Campaign came under fire last week for telling one of their speakers at their rally in front of the Supreme Court not to mention that he was an undocumented immigrant. The largest gay rights group in the country should know that “coming out” as undocumented is a key strategy for moving hearts and minds, because like with LGBT issues, people are most likely to change their minds if they know someone personally affected.
Listen, all I’m saying is, this shit is really important, not just for undocumented immigrants, but for all of us. So try to say nice things and don’t fuck it up, okay?