Grassroots action adds a missing voice to the immigration reform debate

Last May Day hundreds marched to Westlake Park in support of immigrant worker's rights. The march was mostly overshadowed in the media by unrelated vandalism downtown. (Photo by Ian Terry)

In honor of May Day, here’s a point by point critique of the proposed immigration reform bill by a representative of the May First Action Coalition, a group of grassroots organizations sponsoring the May Day march. 

This week’s edition of Seattle Weekly features a rehashing of last year’s May Day demonstrations and their aftermath that predicts how they might impact this year’s series of events.

Unfortunately, the story made no mention of Seattle’s annual May First Immigrant Rights March and Rally—led by May First Action Coalition (M1AC).

This oversight demonstrates how grassroots organizing around immigration reform is routinely excluded from broader conversations. Similarly, Comprehensive Immigration Reform means something very different to the folks most directly impacted by immigration legislation than it does to our elected officials.

M1AC—with whom I volunteer—brings together those directly impacted by immigration policy: community leaders and allies from a variety of labor, religious, advocacy, and cultural backgrounds who work to develop a framework for supporting immigration reform that makes sense in their lives, to challenge the mainstream discourse, and to demand a change to it.

It’s with their voices in mind that I write this piece—sparked by Melissa McEwan’s recent post about ally work—about why we are very excited about our 13th Annual May First March.

There are far too many immigrant rights advocates, organizations, and coalitions to compile in any comprehensive way (see the end of the post for an attempt to do so anyways). But suffice it to say that this work has been done for as long as there’s been a need (seriously—just hang out for an afternoon at Douglas Truth for a snapshot of the roots of immigrant Seattle). These organizations make up a local movement that intersects with larger networks as well as with other advocacy interests.

The City of Seattle is also doing the work—launching its first ever Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs last year. It’s several years into implementing a Race and Social Justice Initiative within and across all of its departments; a recent survey reveals mostly promising results.

5 things to know about the new immigration bill
A Globalist infographic summarizing the key points of the proposed immigration reform bill — click to enlarge. (By Sara Stogner and Alex Stonehill)

Legislative-oriented approaches to immigration reform arguably strengthen our society but they also accept existing power relationships. We want to know: Do these approaches respect and represent our immigrant communities? Do they honor the authenticity of grassroots efforts?

M1AC believes that instead of understanding immigration reform efforts as better “bottom-up” than “top-down,” it might be more useful to simply shift the public narrative to how each approach complements the other; to view the impact of government reliance on community organizing and vice-versa.

This relationship frames a set of demands created by the workers and family members that make up El Comite Pro Reforma Migratoria y Justicia Social, to push for Comprehensive Immigration Reform by interrupting stagnant bi-partisanship and inserting their voices into these dialogs.

Exactly how do these demands apply to the proposed Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill as introduced by the Senate’s Gang of Eight this April?

Here is how M1AC would respond to five of the bill’s main features (as outlined by the Globalist last month):

1. Ending the threat of deportation for most undocumented immigrants within six months.

We’re skeptical:

The current administration is responsible for unprecedented numbers of deportations—upwards of 400,000 in both 2011 and 2012 and 90,000 of those deported last year were parents of documented children. The administration spent $18 billion in immigration enforcement last year—more than was spent combined on the FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshal Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

How do we get such astronomical figures? It starts with the immigrant detention at the local level—which has been fueled by the Secure Communities program, a federal mandate that authorizes local police to detain undocumented immigrants. The program is notorious for inequitably targeting non-violent offenders and dramatically increasing jail time and its costs. Is there actual relief on the way? So far only budget sequestration—the legislative procedure that forced limits the size of the federal budget—seems to have resulted in fewer detentions.

Instead we propose:

  • An immediate cease to the 287 (g), E-Verify, and Secure Communities Programs, and an end to indiscriminate detentions and deportations of immigrant workers, and to subsidies for private detention centers.

2. A new path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.


According to Pew Research, 71% of Americans support means for undocumented people to stay in the country—with 43% of those supporting citizenship eligibility. But the new proposal means It could take up to 13 years for many undocumented immigrants to become naturalized, and those who have access to quicker temporary legalization or who can stay in the country as a guest-worker must follow a strict set of conditions that demean, dehumanize, and require resources to which too many don’t have access. Further, current pathways discriminate against women—who only receive 27% of employment visas.

Instead we propose: 

  • Unconditional legalization of immigration status with a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented workers and their families, and all candidates for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and the DREAM Act who, through their work, studies, and other social contributions, have demonstrated a desire to contribute to the commonwealth of this country.
  • Reduce the backlog of immigration applicants by streamlining the paperwork and requirements that make it nearly impossible for lower and middle class people to immigrate to this country.

3. Amped up border security with more fences, agents, surveillance, drones, and electronic tracking at border entries.


Aside from the problematic use of Orwellian tools that over-criminalize migrants, lead to racial profiling, and threaten our human right to privacy, there is little evidence to support the idea that increased border security—and its ever increasing costs—actually improve reasonable border control. In fact, the current system almost already meets the proposed system’s targeted “effectiveness rate” of 90%. Worse, while far fewer people are now even attempting to immigrate, hundreds are still dying in the act.

Instead we propose:

  • A demilitarized border control system that values human rights to life and to freely migrate.
  • Respect for our immigrant communities and a cease to the repression and criminalization of undocumented workers.

4. A big shift from a family-based system to a skills-based system.


Immigration is indeed a labor issue, but favoring a skills-based system devalues the contributions made disproportionately by people of color—mainly immigrants—in the “invisible” areas of our economy, including our construction, agricultural, domestic, manufacturing, and care sectors. Without these contributions, the foundation to our economy would disintegrate.

Instead we propose:

  • A review of all immigration policies to encourage and enhance family reunification, protect the unity and sanctity of the family, including the families of bi-national same-sex couples, by reducing the family backlogs and keeping spouses, parents, and children together.
  • A voice at the table to argue not only for dignified jobs but for empowered migration that comes with rights and respect.
  • Freedom from repression by employers seeking to scare workers away from labor organizing with threats about their documented status.

5. With support from both parties, the bill will move to congress and the President this June.

We’re skeptical:

Bi-partisan bickering around the details of the bill that do or do not support business, that do or do not protect our society from terrorism, or that do or do not conflict with the interests of lobbyists leads to political paralysis, as we have seen with recent pushes to pass gun ownership reform and budget-balancing proposals. While elected officials sort through “dealbreakers” and “riders,” people are suffering because they do not have access to health-care, education, and other vital social services.

Instead we propose:

  • March with us on May 1st and show your solidarity with our family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors and help us continue to build our movement toward a more just, equitable, inclusive, and sustainable approach to immigration! Click here for details.
  • Follow us as we live-Tweet during the March @May1stAC and #M1SEA


The list of groups doing immigration reform related work on the ground today include, but are certainly not limited to: : Care Campaign Council; Communities United; Dream Act CoalitionDuwamish TribeEl Centro de La RazaLegacy of Equality, Leadership, and OrganizingCasa Latina and its Mujeres Sin FronterasNorthwest Immigrant Rights ProjectOneAmericaPhilippine US Solidarity OrganizationRefugee Women’s AllianceSocial Justice Fund’s Immigration Reform Giving ProjectWashington Community Action NetworkWashington Immigration Reform Coalition; and Who Ya Callin‘ Illegal? 

Can’t make it out to the march? You can see the live stream from M1AC below starting at 1pm

Live stream by Ustream

Jacob Galfano

Jacob Galfano volunteers as a base-supporter with Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites (CARW) and, through it, supports the work of its partner organizations Casa Latina and El Comite Pro-Reforma Migratoria Y Justicia Social. He also advocates that ice-hockey is the greatest thing in the entire world.