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Migrants' Rights & International Solidarity: Interview with Catherine Tactaquin

[International Migrants Day rally organized by the Northern California Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. Image by Brooke Anderson.] [International Migrants Day rally organized by the Northern California Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. Image by Brooke Anderson.]

December 18th is International Migrants Day, when in 1990 the U.N. General Assembly signed the Migrant Workers Convention, an agreement that establishes the rights of one of the most vulnerable global populations within a framework of human rights. The problem is the only countries that have actually ratified the convention are mostly countries in Global South, countries of origin for many migrants that experience the negative consequences of mass migration. Neither the United States, nor China, nor a single EU member have signed. The work of migrant rights activists has been cut out for them.

War Times marked this past International Migrants’ Day with an interview with Catherine Tactaquin, Executive Director and co-founder of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR). For over three decades, she has been working to defend and expand the rights of immigrants and refugees, regardless of status. She recently traveled to the Philippines where she participated in the 5th World Social Forum on Migration along with more than 1000 people from over 70 countries. War Times’ Francesca Fiorentini and I spoke with Catherine about the experience and her thoughts on work globally as well as here in the United States.

Catherine Tactaquin: The Social Forum on Migration was very timely, well-attended and I thought a really good conference both in terms of what is taking place around migration – there’s a lot of debate among governments and within different countries on migration today – as well as connecting to what we are all facing at the domestic level. What’s great about the social forum is that it makes no apologies about a critique of neoliberalism and how global economic restructuring has really contributed to migration. It also contextualized different national and international responses of to migration.

Walden Bello, a well-known scholar in the United States and the Global South and now a congressman in the Philippines, was the keynote speaker and he really set the tone for the discussion, talking about what needs to be changed fundamentally to address the root causes of migration. There were three plenary sessions, which addressed everything from what’s taking place at the grassroots level to reimagining the future.

We had a great selection of speakers, including Salah Salah, a leading Palestinian activist who really challenged the social forum to include war and conflict as a central issue at the next social forum. This topic was addressed in some of the workshops but I think some groups internationally don’t necessarily make that a part of their agenda. NNIRR does because when we were founded back in

1986, among our core organizers and members were folks from the Philippine movement, from the Central American struggle who very much connected the questions of migration to civil strife and war and conflict. But its been a challenge to address the war in the Middle East and I think what our colleagues from the Palestinian movement were raising is that we can’t avoid that. And that’s something that internally within the immigrant rights movement in different countries needs to be addressed and to recognize the hundreds of thousands and millions are displaced because of war and conflict, including Palestinian refugees for over 50 years.

Henry Saragih, general coordinator of Via Compesina spoke and that was significant because the global peasants movement still had not made the connection on migration. Over the last year, we’ve been working with them and had a number of opportunities to talk about the shared conditions of migrants and peasants. We do have common roots and they really see themselves joining in this global movement so that was very exciting that they participated in the social forum.

We had Pablo Solon, the Executive Director of Focus on the Global South and former Bolivian ambassador, under the Evo Morales government, to the United Nations. Solon talked a lot about climate change and its global impact, especially in a number of island states and low-lying areas where we now have up to 25 million people displaced directly from climate change and that number is growing exponentially. So it was just that kind of spectrum of speakers was so exciting and I think really enlightening for all of us.

War Times: What were some of the other issues taken up at the social forum, including the different causes of migration?

CT: We looked at a lot of the different dimensions of the migration experience. So, for example, we had organized a workshop on violence against migrant women which was examined the whole phenomena of women and migration today. Women make up over half the refugee population and half the migrant population in general. We talked about the fact that migration policies are not gender neutral but what that also means is that there are multiple oppressions that women face and that there is a disparate impact on women and families in the enforcement and especially in repressive enforcement like here in the United States but in other countries as well.

There were opportunities to compare our national experiences. So for example, looking at borders, we had a number of discussions where we compared international border situations. For example, looking at Africa and the particularities of migration there, there is an emerging network of civil society groups addressing migration. Representatives from a new Pan African Migrant Network came to the social forum which is significant as Africa is one of the main sources of migration around the world today. But the conditions under which people migrate and why varies.

WT: There is certainly war and conflict there.

CT: Yes, and there are also religious differences. There is a particular impact on women. There’s the political economy so when you look at the differences between countries, historic tribal issues, language issues – English speaking and French speaking Africans as well as their own particular languages - there are a lot of challenges to being able to build a Pan African migrant rights movement there.

WT: One of the conference themes focused on looking at models and alternatives. Can you share with us what some of those were? 

CT: It was at different levels. We did talk about the emerging global movements and I think that the challenge and also the progress over the last five years frankly is, for example, the alliances forming around the work in Africa. The last plenary panel looked at a range of movements - migrant and peasant movements, movements around the environment and climate change, women’s movements, labor. There were a number of folks from the global labor movement with whom we’ve been working for a number of years. Grassroots organizing is key and something that we in the United States are always talking about. In some other countries it’s not consistent across the board.

I think we’re looking at ways we can organize in which we can be self-sustaining. Certainly around the world, building capacity for groups is still a huge issue. There are uneven resources so you can imagine how difficult it is. We think we’re under-resourced here in the U.S. but it’s so much more difficult in other countries. So some of the models we’re looking at that we’re sharing are actually fairly basic – organizing among migrant associations, how we build capacity, how we build leadership, just sharing that type of work was very valuable.

WT: Tell us more about Migrant Rights International (MIR). 

CT: MRI was formed in 1994 at the U.N. Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. This eventually became an association of migrant rights and advocacy groups from the different global regions. Our main mandate is pushing a human rights framework, specifically advocating for universal ratification of the U.N. Migrant Workers Convention. But over the years, other initiatives have come out of MRI and it really does bring together networks from Europe, Latin America, Asian, the U.S. and Africa. We’ve worked in partnership with faith-based groups, with the global trade unions, and with other migration advocacy groups.

What’s exciting is that over the last five years, MRI has been organizing parallel events to the Global Forum on Migration and Development, which is an intergovernmental annual meeting that’s taken place since 2007. That’s helped to expand the movement and to inform it. Actually for 2 days after the Social Forum in Manila, we had a meeting of what’s now called the Global Coalition on Migration which includes MRI, who is anchoring this, but includes a lot of the global networks: faith-based organizations like the International Catholic Migration Commission, think tank and policy oriented networks. But we have a fairly strong unified vision that is rights based and does have a critique of the sources of migration. That’s a fairly new movement but that’s also why it’s very exciting to see this evolving at this point.

[Catherine Tactaquin.]

WT: December 18 is International Migrant Day. Coming off of the Social Forum what are some of your hopes as a leader in this country for that day and what are some of the international efforts that are taking place in conjunction with that date?

CT: We’re having a celebration here in Oakland that will be spotlighting international developments from the World Social Forum on Migration. We’ll be taking about what’s happening with the intergovernmental discussions on migration and how we’re actually challenging some of their thinking. The governments are still very much into what they call “circular migration” which is essentially global guest worker programs. That’s something that we’ve been challenging for a number of years.

We’re going to highlight a big campaign taking place next year in New York that includes a high level dialogue in the fall at the U.N. We’re going to use that as a vehicle to open up a whole global conversation on the causes of migration, a people’s dialogue. So we’re already planning a series of events a year in advance. New York is a global city so we want to try and capture the media’s attention, rally the migrant communities there, as well as labor and other allies, to really open up the discussion on the global context. We think that will also coincide with whatever is taking place in the U.S. on immigration reform.

We’re also kicking off the launch of a renewed campaign to pressure the U.S. to ratify the Migrant Workers Convention. This is an uphill battle but we think is really important to spotlight the Convention and what is says about recognizing the rights of all migrants regardless of citizenship, nationality, immigration status and to recognize that all migrants have human rights and that there are standards that we should adhere to. The U.S. tends not to ratify rights, treaties and agreements. In Manila, at the World Social Forum, we had a great conversation with delegates from Australia and we’re going to be comparing notes on what it means to try and ratify the convention in migrant-receiving countries. So we’re hoping to kick off a great attention to active ratification efforts in the migrant receiving countries. 

WT: What are the main barriers to countries ratifying the Convention.

CT: The United States has still not ratified The Rights of the Child or the Convention on the Rights of Women. So we’re not surprised that it hasn’t ratified the Rights of Migrants. They have said that they believe that Convention is too prescriptive, too detailed. The United States, and a number of other countries, don’t like international institutions interfering with the creation or influencing of national laws.

 They also believe that the U.S. has standards that are higher than what’s contained in the Convention. We beg to differ on that. But that is the response they have given with respect to the Migrant Workers Convention as well as The Rights of the Child and the Rights of Women. They believe that protections here outstrip what’s in the international agreements.

One of the reasons why we want to revisit ratification and open it up now is that in past years, treaties have to go through the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and certainly when those committees are chaired by extremely conservative, hard-nosed Republicans, it wasn’t even an option to move it there and to bother having a hearing. We want to at least attempt to engage Congress on this, especially the Senate and use it in our congressional education efforts as part of the immigration reform fight here. We really want to push, along with a number of our allies, the importance of rights-based principals and provisions in immigration reform.

WT: Does the Convention on Migration look at the root causes?

CT: No, it’s still just dealing with the manifestations of the root causes. It’s elevating human rights standards. That’s why we have to take this up on multiple levels. Whenever we engage governments in discussions on migration and development, pushing that human rights framework has to be central to any discussion on development as well as understanding what they mean by development and challenging it.

Governments think the win-win scenario is migration for development. You encourage this through bilateral and multilateral trade agreements. This is their circular migration scenario – people leave their home countries, they work on a temporary basis only in developed countries, they learn from their experience there, they make money, they send it home and then they return to their home country. But guess what – that doesn’t work. 

They do send the money back but they don’t go back themselves. It’s the myth of temporary work. They become undocumented. Whether they’re skilled or non-skilled. So we engage with governments against this whole scenario but this is the kind of scheme that they are discussing at the global level. No one is talking about permanent migration programs. They’re all taking about temporary programs and migration for development. They’re talking about remittances and the whole remittance industry is part of that conversation. It’s a huge industry itself – the financial institutions that facilitate remittances. Those remittances are used as an engine for development in the developing countries instead of dealing with sustainable development and job creation.

In the developing countries – and this is why it’s so important to be working with labor - where there is economic growth, it’s also important for people to get organized. As countries are evolving economically, who’s paying for that? The workers. So it’s getting basic worker protections in place, the right to organize as workers – these are just fundamental issues. So we are addressing the root causes in some ways but it’s really evolutionary, it’s transformational and most of us are just doing transitional kind of work. 

[Protest including members of the Global Coalition on Migration.]

WT: You recently wrote that “Obama’s second terms gives us another opportunity to push for meaningful immigration reforms and put an end to the conciliatory, bad, repressive policies that so many Democratic politicians claimed they really didn’t support.” What do you think is on the horizon in terms of the debate and changes to U.S. law, immigration policies and practices?

CT: Ever since the election, immigration has been a hot topic. Even when I was in Manila (at the 5th World Social Forum on Migration), everyone was asking, ‘What’s going on in the United States? Are you going to get immigration reform?’ A lot of other countries pay attention – U.S. laws often influence laws in other countries.

Immigration reform appears to be fast-tracked. What we hear is that the White House will probably make known its proposal for immigration reform shortly after the inauguration. There’ve already been a number of meetings with both sides, Republicans and Democrats reaching out. Interestingly, the Republicans, after the election and the beating that they got and the lack of support that they got from Latinos, see the writing on the wall, the demographic change. In recognizing that they are asking, ‘What could we support that’s not going to be too controversial and win points with the Latino community?’ Of course, there’s not a whole lot that’s not controversial [laughs] that they could support. They’re looking at it in a very narrow way and it doesn’t appear that the Republicans have a consensus on how to approach immigration reform. Will it be piece meal vs. a more sweeping bill? Even among the Democrats, it’s not clear whether they think they can put forward a sweeping bill.

But certainly among advocacy groups, we are beginning to forge fairly strong opinions about what we want. We are meeting in Washington D.C. to form what’s called an enforcement caucus with those of us who have worked a lot around immigration enforcement issues over the past several years. We want to make sure that we don’t see this traded off for legalization in immigration reform, or where there’s going to be an increase, for example, in border militarization and enforcement programs that have been widely criticized in the past couple of years – like Secure Communities, local policing, and that type of thing. We want to see a roll back of that in anything that goes forward.

If we don’t see a rollback, it’s really going to have an effect on legalization. It’s going to throw up more barriers, there will be more people who are ineligible for anything that’s put on the table. As a core issue, we want a number of ways for people to adjust their status. Legalization is one but we want a restoration of a lot of programs that were actually in place in past years where people could adjust their status. They could pay a fine. They could get on the path to legal status or work authorization. There are a lot of issues that we’re presently discussing but it could move very quickly. There are some members of Congress who want it done by this year before the congressional break in the summer. They certainly want it done by the 2014 mid-term elections. I don’t think either party wants this rolling over into the 3rd year of the Obama administration.

WT: Some of the exit polls after the elections said that the majority of the voters support giving undocumented immigrants in the U.S. a path to legal status, including, according to Fox News, 37% of Republicans. Yet we know there is often disconnect with what people want and what goes on in Washington.

CT: Obama has long said he favored a legalization program and even over the last 4 years that was always a conversation. But how would you get that? He worked very hard to meet the Republican demand that before they would engage in immigration reform, he had to secure the border and continue some of the enforcement policies. So Obama repeatedly would say things like, ‘I have ha more boots on the ground at the border than any previous administration.’ Which is true. But it’s a continuation of policy and the Democrats were so backed into a corner on this issue by the Right that they were willing to make that concession. As usual, the throw away was human rights on the border. So frankly, if we have a human rights crisis in the United States, it’s at the U.S.-Mexico border. But it’s often such an isolated place, it’s not seen by the rest of the country physically or in people’s thinking.

WT: Talk more about the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border.

CT: It’s grown steadily since the Clinton Administration. To strengthen enforcement at the border we now have 30,000 border patrol agents. Since the mid-90s and certainly after 2001, programs have steadily been put into place to process people immediately and send them back without access to courts. We see the use of technology including leftovers from the war in the Middle East. Interestingly, there’s been a decrease in people coming across the border in the last year and a half or so. There are lots of reasons – certainly enforcement but also the economy and the decrease in the birth rate in Mexico which has gone down dramatically in the last decade. So actually coming across the border now are OTMs – Other Than Mexicans. But with that decrease there have been a lot of questions including why are we continuing this level of border enforcement? So we certainly want to push back the enforcement but also increase access to due process and peoples’ rights at the border. Both people who are crossing and the resident communities that live along the border have been tremendously affected.

I think the other factor that we’re concerned with is that the border is also the site where the war on drugs is playing out and that has certainly been a big factor in continuing militarization and the rationale to continue levels of militarization. I think as an immigrant rights movement we have to address the war on drugs and we’ve actually begun engaging in conversation with folks working on drug policy because it’s certainly intersected and that will have to be a conversation that also comes into the immigration reform debate.

WT: Coupled with that militarization of the border, we’ve also seen the increase in the private prisons that house undocumented immigrants.

CT: There are more contracts being given to private prisons and detention centers to be built all around the United States, including in the border areas. We’re actually part of the private prison divestment campaign which has been raising awareness about the profiteering from these policies of mass incarceration. The detention of immigrants and others is the prison industrial complex getting played out.

With increased detention centers along the borders, you can detain over 30,000 people a day. Some people are in and out; some are there for a longer period of time. I think there has been awareness raised thanks to some of these campaigns about the degree to which private prison companies like GEO Group and CCA – the Correction Corporation of America – are really profiting off of this.

The United Methodist Church and others have divested their pension funds from Wells Fargo, for example, which was investing in private prisons and recently Wells Fargo, thanks to the efforts of the National Private Prison Divestment Campaign, has withdrawn nearly 75% of its investments in GEO Group, the nation’s second largest private prison company.

WT: Many churches have been involved in immigration advocacy – from the sanctuary movement to divestment campaigns. In November, Evangelical Christian leaders, including a Southern Baptist Convention official, called for President Obama and Congress to reform the nation’s immigration laws and grant legal status to millions of undocumented residents. What’s the significance of this sector weighing in?

CT: It’s interesting. They are also seeing the demographic shift. A number of evangelical churches are bringing in immigrant populations who were members in their home countries and who are now exerting their influence here. With local congregations that are predominantly immigrant based, they have to take a position at the national level. Now we don’t know what the totality of their position will be. Immigration is really wide-sweeping and there are a number of issues on which people will be divided. So, for example, they will be divided on who they see are good immigrants vs. bad immigrants, who will be eligible for legalization.

The laws have increasingly criminalized immigrants, re-categorizing laws, so what was once a misdemeanor is now a felony. If you’re a repeat crosser coming back across the border - multiple reentry - that’s a crime. You’re a criminal. You’re coming back to see your family because they’re destitute because you were deported. So we don’t know how everyone is going to break down on issues that will emerge as immigration reform plays out. But certainly the broader the coalition behind some of the core issues, the better.

WT: Speaking of differences, we’ve seen within progressive movements, there are those who talk about Obama being the worst single President in U.S. history when in comes to jailing, persecuting and deporting immigrants, citing 1 million deportations, the expansion of Secure Communities, etc. How do you respond?

CT: I know there are those who’ve said Obama is worse than George Bush but its not a very useful conversation because the Right has dominated and controlled the immigration debate for a couple of decades or more. What has played out, especially since 9/11, has been a fairly consistent level of government policy. 

Obama is really a transitional President, if that. Not a transformational one. I know a lot of us had higher expectations and hopes that have been dashed and that’s been very sobering. But it is a distorted analysis of what takes place within an administration. So it true that Obama has carried out and deepened some of the enforcement level programs that were started much earlier. But we also know in working with the administration –  not to defend them – but certainly if you were to compare Obama and the previous Bush administration, there are also a number of things the Obama administration has taken up which George Bush would not.

You also have to look at Congress. It’s one thing to have someone in the administration and to use that route to push the agenda. I think we have to continue to push the administration and the departments within the administration, including the Presidency and cabinet, especially the Department of Homeland Security. But unfortunately where policy gets decided is in Congress and we’ve been stymied there for years on immigration reform and lots of other issues. That’s where I think the battle is going to be. We have to continue to push Obama and other members of the cabinet to stand up for some of the things that they have agreed to, like legalization protections and core rights. But you can’t ignore the Congress – that’s where the rubber hits the road.

WT: How is this going to play out with all the draconian anti-immigrant laws being passed at the state level, such as Arizona and Georgia, while trying to push for changes at the federal level?

CT: It’s interesting. Some of what was happening at the state level was very much part of the agenda that was coming from the Right not just on immigration, but also pushing anti-gay marriage laws and other laws which happens when there appears to be a vacuum at the national level. When they couldn’t move their agenda there, they could take it to the state level, especially where they had a stronger base and could manipulate more easily and more readily. It’s not surprising that it’s Arizona and other states in the South where that could take place.

I think we learned a lesson in California from Proposition 187 in 1994. We lost the vote on 187 but the Supreme Court later ruled that it was largely unconstitutional. But it was successful in polarizing the public on questions of immigration, of painting and stigmatizing immigrants as bad immigrants, as sucking up the welfare system, as doing this and that. I think this is a lot of what happens in these state campaigns – it’s meant to polarize the debate and turn people against immigrants and to revive hate and racism.

[Campaign header of the New America Opportunity Challenge.]

WT: Your thoughts on the work of the DREAM activists and their tactics - sit-ins, civil disobedience, taking to the streets - and their role in the movement?

CT: The DREAMers really symbolize a revived active movement and a reenergizing of that movement. The pressure that the DREAMers put on the electoral campaigns really had an impact. They did push to formalize what had been an informal practice, unwritten policy, of the Obama administration, which was to not prioritize deportation of young immigrants.

Pushing that really inspired everyone across the board politically but also in terms of approach and methodology and tactics - you need to get out in the streets. The fact that they were willing to make that kind of sacrifice, to put themselves on the line, was really inspiring.

But undocumented were also in the streets during the massive 2006 rallies, the biggest demonstrations ever on any issue in this country. Those mobilized older immigrants, families, everyone. But they were rallying against something – the anti-immigrant legislation. Sometimes it’s harder to get people out for something. So we may not mimic those rallies but I think that if we can begin to change the environment and make it acceptable, safe for people to come out, then we will get those larger numbers and the breadth that we need to exert greater pressure.

And it’s going to have to be with allies because, frankly, Congress is not necessarily intimidated by immigrants – they’ve said, ‘Frankly, you don’t matter, you don’t vote.’ And I think the movement as a whole is much more prepared to mobilize allies. We’ve seen more sectors willing to enjoin in doing that which is great. We’ve always thought this is not a go-alone movement. It can’t just be immigrants. It has to be something broader where people are seeing a common agenda.

We can see, for example, the work of BAJI – the Black Alliance for Just Immigration - here in Oakland that has really anchored work among African Americans and also with other allies bringing in new populations of African migrants and even bringing those two communities together. Because they ARE two communities. So it’s led to the creation of the Black Immigration Network and we have these new vehicles that we didn’t have 4 years ago.

WT: Organizing in the Latino immigrant community, in the Asian immigrant community and now in the African immigrant community - how are those different communities coming together in this next phase to push the government for reforms?

CT: We hope they are going to come together in greater ways. We’re actually working in California now to convene a dialogue among Asian Pacific Islander communities who are not homogenous. There are challenges on how immigration reform is addressed. So in a lot of Asian communities, for example, they look at legalization that is opposed to dealing with the backlog. There is susceptibility to the charges from the Right that the “good” immigrants have been standing and waiting in line to come in, waiting for their visas, and these “bad” immigrants have crossed the border and are getting in line first. So we see attempts to divide communities. But we recognize that there are different communities and you can’t treat everyone the same. You have to listen to what people are saying.

We have a lot of African migrant populations who are refugees and who look at immigration in a different way who are nonetheless facing similar conditions. We’ve had a lot of conversations with the Arab community too who have undocumented but didn’t necessarily perceive themselves as immigrants. It’s just that the spectrum has shifted a whole lot.

I just had a conversation with a friend and we’re going to be connecting with some of the LGBT groups, and we have our own caucus of LGBT immigrant organizations, to weigh in on some of the policy language to make sure that it’s inclusive and will bring in allies from the LGBT movement.

It’s challenging but challenging in a good way because I think some of these alliances were much more fragile or non-existent in previous years and a lot has actually matured in the last 4-5 years.

WT: What has been the role of organized labor in this work?

CT: We’ve always had a strong relationship with the labor movement and over the years, a number of unions have specifically seen their ranks grow because they dedicated themselves to organizing among immigrant workers. The AFL-CIO, for example, has affiliated with non-union groups like day laborers and domestic workers groups who are largely immigrants. That’s something very new that didn’t exist 20 years ago.

Organized labor has been a declining force yet it is a good friend here in the U.S. and globally. We work closely with the global labor movement as well. We see our futures as intertwined and as a distinct vehicle that has its own base of influence, labor is still a critical partner for the immigrant rights movement.

We are very much agreed that immigration reform has to be very solid in terms the provision on workers’ right so we don’t want to use immigration reform in any way to diminish labor protections. I know we are going to face a big fight in immigration reform on the guest worker issue, temporary workers, which the Republicans have said, is their main focus. They’re willing to engage in immigration reform if they get a guest worker program that is temporary with no guarantee for permanent residency and largely based among the skilled and highly educated immigrants. So they don’t want any poor, uneducated immigrants. They want to continue the whole phenomena of the brain drain. “These are the ‘good’ immigrants. They’re acceptable.” So it’s going to be a fight because we are unified in our opposition to temporary workers and I think we are agreed that family unity is still a core anchor for immigration policy in the U.S.

We are also looking at what it means to have employment visas, for people to be able to migrate on the basis of employment as long as it’s on equal footing with workers here, where there’s access to permanent residency, where their rights are protected at the same level as U.S. workers. Those are issues that we really need to work with labor on to insure that that kind of language is included.

WT: Do you think serving in the military as a path to citizenship will be part of the coming debates?

CT: I’m not sure. This was an issue around the DREAMers. When we first worked on the DREAM Act 10 years ago we did not have as one of the criteria for young immigrants to gain citizenship status through service in the military. That was added by the Republicans and specifically the language that was written into current versions of the DREAM Act was done by the Defense Department.

It’s not surprising that they drafted that provision. My own dad came from the Philippines and had some form of legal status but was drafted into the U.S. military during World War II and received his expedited citizenship by his military service. Our position is that it’s likely that some of that language will continue and you have to continue to do education in the community about what that means. People have to be able to make their own decisions. We just think there should not be barriers to people to have other avenues to gain legal status apart from the military, and the fact that the Defense Department wrote that provision in the DREAM Act is very telling in about how young immigrants are perceived.

WT: Your organization, the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, talks about the fight for immigrant rights as not just a fight for legislation. What is some of the other work that goes hand in hand with the work for immigration law reform? 

CT: We just came out of a California meeting where we were talking about this. I think it’s very important for us, as a movement, to understand what our broader political agenda is in terms of justice for immigrants. Legislation is one route and there’s considerable pressure to push legislation through. And you do need legislation. But under these circumstances there’s also a lot of pressure to cut a deal, to compromise, so we have to be very careful about what that bottom line is. We also have to realize that we don’t get everything that we want through legislation. There’s a lot of other work to do. There’s administrative pushes, there’s litigation, but moreover, I think the movement is much more recognizing the importance of organizing and building capacity for the long-run.

The kind of justice we’re seeking at the legislative level is only going to take place when we’re able to do transformative work around the country. We have to change the base of power the base of influence, who gets elected to Congress. It’s certainly not going to be through effective congressional education that we’re going to get what we want. We have to change the character of the legislature itself.

We have to shift the public narrative. We recognize that’s a huge agenda and it’s not just an immigrant rights agenda. So we’re in conversation with folks around health care reform where on the one hand, the current health care reform leaves out lots of people including large sectors of immigrants. That access won’t be there, even by reforming the Affordable Care Act.

Right now we have a door open so everyone is eager to play this out but on a sober note, the challenge is to keep the door open. We’re not going to get everything we want. We have to keep pushing. Unfortunately that door has been closed, certainly since 9/11. In a very token way, it appeared to be open in the last four years – but that wasn’t a serious effort to have immigration reform on the table. It was a campaign promise and we didn’t think it would come around until a second term of the Obama administration. That door is now ajar and we’re going through it!

[This interview was originally published by War Times.]

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