Commemorating Today’s May 1 Immigrant Marches

Today’s nationwide series of marches in support of immigrants’ civil rights recalls the pain and anger that prompted them in the first place, writes Vanessa Cardenas.

SOURCE: Center for American Progress

Vanessa Cárdenas is Director of Ethnic Media at the Center for American Progress.

Back in December 2005 as I was getting ready for work, I heard on the radio that the House of Representatives had passed the infamous legislation known as the Sensenbrenner bill. The Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, introduced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), sought to criminalize the 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, and made a felon out of pretty much anyone who helped them.

What I remember the most about that morning was the impotence I felt, knowing that we in the immigrant/Latino community did not have the political clout and influence to stop the fear-mongering and scapegoating so evident in the proposed legislation. Also disheartening: Immigrants and Latinos did not have their own national leader who could articulate the dismay and anger we felt, who could demand respect for all Latinos, especially those who risk their lives to find work to provide for their families

The restrictionists who support the Sensenbrenner bill say they only want to punish “illegals,” but we know better. For those who support the mass arrest and deportation of 12 million undocumented immigrants, this is about brown people and those of us who choose to retain our first language, whether legal, illegal, or U.S. citizens.

Don’t believe me? Just ask the U.S. citizens whose homes are being raided. Ask the U.S. citizens who are being accused of having fake passports, and the legal workers who are being detained in immigration raids. Ask the children whose parents are being deported. Ask the victims of hate crimes.

Today, the public debate on immigration could not be worse. Since the marches in the spring of 2006, when millions turned out to the streets in cities across the country, immigrants in general and the Latino community in particular are facing tough times, and not just because the U.S. economy is in shambles.

Start with the collapse of the bipartisan immigration legislation in June 2007, which was so carefully crafted only to fall apart because of our congressional leaders’ inability to come to agreement on the process. That legislation was far from perfect, but allowing it to move forward was essential to keeping the immigration debate alive. It represented the best chance for reform in the short term.

Then consider the widely publicized immigration raids, which target the heart of Latino communities across the country. Or examine the anti-immigrant legislation and hate rhetoric spreading like wildfire throughout the country.

That’s why progressives need to be a key part of the renewed movement to fight such hate as activists get ready to organize a series of events on May 1 commemorating the marches of 2006. Progressives need to enter the immigration debate in force, joining the call for renewed action on immigration reform.

Without a doubt immigration is a complex problem. Everyone has an opinion on what should be done. But that does not mean we should turn a blind eye to the fact that media pundits, so-called experts and inaccurate media reports are using the immigration issue to create fear by suggesting that immigrants are a threat to our nation and our values. The website has gathered plenty of evidence that this fear-mongering is happening; the website even identifies the language and the myths that are being used to push the notion that immigrants, and specifically Mexicans, want to destroy the American way of life.

The strategy that restrictionists have espoused is one of hate and fear thinly veiled under the sound bite of “attrition,” which they define as making immigrants’ lives so miserable that they will choose to deport themselves. While this may be a good sound bite, the bottom line is that it is not realistic or practical.

The politics of “attrition,” however, do have an enormous and dangerous impact on communities where everyone ends up losing. Check out what attrition is doing to communities such as Prince William, VA, Hazleton, PA, or Riverside, NJ. Watch this video of the Prince William County Board, where the county chairman Corey Stewart made headlines after successfully passing a series of ordinances aimed at driving those without legal status out of the county. Learn more about the efforts of local elected officials who are systematically targeting Hispanics whether they admit it or not.

The result: communities divided, with U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents, and undocumented immigrants alike living in fear. These are the direct consequences of bad policy—the result of demagoguery, to be sure, but also the reluctance of many Americans, including many progressives, to take a stand and say enough is enough.

Progressives and people of good will from the right and the left are sorely needed to call on our elected leaders and media pundits to stop the hateful language. What we need to do is create the political space for reasonable ideas to be discussed, and then demand that our leaders step up and implement rational solutions to address the immigration problem. We need reform, but reform that is good for U.S. communities large and small across the country, and yes, reform that works even for immigrants.

    Vanessa Cárdenas is Director of Ethnic Media at the Center for American Progress.

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    Vanessa Cárdenas

    Vice President, Progress 2050