Exclusive Commentary

What Can Poverty Fighters Learn from Immigration Reform?

Deepak Bhargava, Center for Community Change - Posted May 1, 2013


Although the vast majority of undocumented immigrants come to the U.S. seeking ways to make better lives for their families, many are exploited by unscrupulous employers that use their workers’ citizenship statuses to force them to work for lower wages and in poor conditions. Instead of finding better opportunities and financial security, these undocumented immigrants remain in poverty. Many are reluctant to fight back or speak out for fear of being deported.

In 2000, grassroots groups gearing up to change welfare reform in this country realized that economic justice could not be won if there was a lack of wage equality and worker protections for undocumented immigrants. Out of those discussions, the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM) was born. FIRM’s experiences fighting for immigrant justice have provided us with a number of useful methods for effecting real policy change, which anti-poverty advocates can employ in their other struggles to help low-income families. 

Since its inception, FIRM, a project of the Center for Community Change, has grown into a coalition of the largest and most powerful immigrant rights organizations in 30 states. Together with its partners in the civil rights, labor, LGBT, faith, and other communities, FIRM has worked tirelessly to elevate the importance of changing our broken immigration system. We advocate for a compassionate, humane bill that includes a path to citizenship and protections for workers that allow them to earn a fair wage.

FIRM’s formation and its rise to the powerful coalition that it is today is an example of how organizations can work toward making economic justice a reality. Our fight against the extremely anti-immigrant SB1070 – also known as Arizona’s “show me your papers” law – allowed us to learn important lessons about the most effective ways to advocate for policy change.

Through our efforts to both overturn this law and advocate for national immigration reform, we have developed five key strategies:

Lift the narrative of people affected: Undocumented immigrants were reluctant at first to leave the shadows for fear of being deported. But leaders emerged among them to tell their stories. And now the Keeping Families Together campaign, which details the experiences of undocumented immigrants in our country, has inserted their voices centrally into the immigration reform debate.

Don’t forget about youth: DREAMers – those who came as children and are now eligible for the administration’s “deferred action” initiative – have been instrumental in getting the media and politicians to care about immigrants. Their stories of their families’ sacrifice and dreams for better opportunities have resonated with Americans of all stripes.

Social media is critical: With a strong youth presence came a flood of social media in the form of Twitter, Facebook, and other new ways of communicating. Online actions have driven thousands to attend rallies and make calls to Congress. Social media has been used to immediately notify reporters when someone was going through an unfair deportation, and in some cases, stopped that proceeding.

The fight is national and local: Politicians must be held accountable at home as well as in Washington for their actions and that means engaging the issue as voters. Immigration reform is front and center on the national agenda today because voters have demanded it.

Enlist other partners: FIRM is not alone in the fight for immigrant rights. We are joined in solidarity by labor, civil rights, faith, education, LGBT, and many other communities.

All these lessons have enabled FIRM to truly transform the politics of immigration reform. The president has vowed to sign comprehensive immigration reform into law this year. Republican support in Congress for immigration reform has surged. The American public demands and expects a solution to the problem.

Now we need to employ these successful strategies in our broader fight against poverty if we are going to make real progress. Any hope of addressing the needs of low-income families will require a unified front that will not back down in the face of opposition. As the immigration fight has shown, lawmakers are moved to act when politically motivated. Nothing motivated lawmakers more than the 2012 election, when Latinos and other immigrants showed up at the ballot box and voted for candidates who have embraced immigration reform.

Economic justice will only be achieved when progressives build a vibrant movement to end poverty—one that learns from and builds on the successes of the immigration reform movement. There are growing signs that such a movement is developing. In senior centers in Akron, in housing projects in Charlotte, and churches in Phoenix, ordinary people are coming together to talk about how we got into our current economic circumstances, what it has meant to them and the people they love, and what we can do to get out of it.

The immigrant rights movement grew out of the fight for economic justice. Now, immigration reform is poised at the gates of victory and has much to teach us as we engage in our broader fight to end poverty and inequality. Our approach may be nontraditional, but our results are real, and low-income families will reap the benefits.

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Deepak Bhargava is the executive director of the Center for Community Change.

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