Organizing Documented Immigrants to Fight for the Rights of the Undocumented

My comments focus on the challenges and opportunities to engage documented immigrants in this current juncture of the immigrant rights movement, which has existed in different forms since the creation of this country by brutal force and economic exploitation of immigrant labor including most extremely slaves from Africa.

I work with the Chinese Progressive Association, a membership-based multi-generational community group that empowers working class Chinese immigrants in the San Francisco Bay Area. Our core strategies are community organizing, leadership development and alliance building. Most of our members and the broader Chinese immigrant community locally are documented immigrants who came here through family based immigration. And because the brunt of the current anti-immigrant attacks are directed specifically at undocumented immigrants, Latinos, Arab and Muslim people, my organization’s constituents are not necessarily in the line of attack of anti-immigrant forces. Therefore, CPA’s organizing work is focused less on federal immigration policy issues and more on other types of broader social justice issues impacting low-income people of color such as labor rights, housing rights and environmental justice and youth leadership development.

In the recent past, though, during other periods of intense anti-immigrant sentiment, documented immigrants and Asians have been in the line of attack of racist and right wing forces. For example, in 1986 the major anti-immigrant Simpson-Mazolli Rodino legislation included provisions attacking the rights of both documented and undocumented immigrants alike. That legislation sought to eliminate the fifth preference family based immigration category, used heavily by Asian immigrants to sponsor their brothers and sisters to reunify with their family members in the U.S.

And, in 1994, the infamous Proposition 187 in California sought to restrict undocumented immigrants’ access to public benefits, which they were paying for through taxes. [Editor’s note: the federal courts ruled Prop 187 unconstitutional because immigration control is a federal matter, stopping its implementation.] Two years later, key aspects of Prop 187 were included in the 1996 federal welfare reform law, cutting off most non-citizen legal immigrants from federal safety net programs for the needy. The anti-legal immigrant welfare reform law was passed during the same session of Congress that passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which gave the INS greater powers to deport both legal and undocumented immigrants, among other provisions. Then in 1998, California voters passed proposition 227, to end bilingual education in California’s public schools, impacting both documented and documented children alike.

During the 1980’s and 1990’s, CPA and our members were actively involved in these broad fight back campaigns, which brought together documented and undocumented immigrants because of the broad strokes of the attacks.

In this current moment when undocumented immigrants, Latinos and Arab and Muslim people are the ones bearing the brunt of the attacks, what are those of us who work primarily with other types of immigrants or non-immigrants to do? Obviously, it’s critical for all immigrants and people of conscience more generally to stand in firm solidarity with those whose rights are being stepped on and threatened so blatantly right now. But this is not an easy task, even for an organization like CPA that has a history of involvement in immigrant rights work. The propaganda against certain types of immigrants is generally strong and constant in the mainstream corporate media. And issues like these are intentionally used by conservative groups and organizations to drive a wedge between people of color, marginalized groups and progressives, and yes even between documented and undocumented immigrants.

So, building a broad inclusive immigrant movement that has strong alliances with other movements and sectors is a challenging task. This will require sophisticated strategies drawing on wisdom gained from the past struggles our movement has engaged in. As has been mentioned, the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR) is in the process of developing a multi-year national campaign to take on this challenge. This is certainly an important effort we should all support and participate in.

I would like to close with a plug for one important component of the strategy to turn the tide towards a more humane and just immigration policy. Grassroots education, capacity building and organizing within immigrant communities certainly needs to be one of the foundations for this campaign and movement.

The 2006 mass immigrant rights mobilizations showed a glimpse of the potential power of our movement, but they were spontaneous and generally lacking in strategic direction. Without systematic education and community organizing and the building of strong organizations and functional movement infrastructure, this potential will dissipate and never be realized.

For CPA, systematic political education and leadership training of our members has also created a solid foundation for us to engage them in solidarity work with Latino and undocumented immigrants. CPA mobilized over 50 youth and adult members to participate in the big Spring mobilizations in San Francisco, We were one of the few sizable contingents of non-Latino immigrants.

Gordon Mar is the Co-Director of Chinese Progressive Association in San Francisco, California. This article is an edited version of his remarks as part of a plenary panel discussion held during NNIRR’s Immigrant and Refugee Rights Training Institute held last November in Oakland.