A Steep Road Ahead for Immigration Volunteers?

In 2006, millions of protesters aEU" many of them young people aEU" poured into the streets of small and large cities to call for immigration reform. The huge mass actions, however, seem to have faded as quickly as they erupted.

But the issues that prompted the 2006 protests remain: federal policies stand unchanged. And the national debate about immigration has become a largely unmentioned elephant in the race for president. In this report, we discover what groups are now doing and thinking about immigration.

In Postville, Iowa, scores of volunteers coordinated by a local church tried to tend to emergency needs when hundreds of immigrant workers were detained in May. What may have been the largest immigration raid in Iowa history resulted in the arrest of more than 300 people, followed by speedy criminal proceedings.

"People flooded the church," recallsA Father Paul OuderkirkA of Postville's St. Bridget's Catholic Church, saying that the raid caused "complete chaos." In an interview with Blue Avocado, he explained the church was feeding hundreds of people a day, including spouses and children of those detained.

The Postville volunteers were among the hundreds who dedicate themselves in myriad ways to improve immigrant experiences in the United States.

With national elections on the horizon, immigration rights groups are rolling up their sleeves to pave the way for legislative reform, which they say is critical to addressing the issue over the long-term. A

"We're looking for the possibility for sea change," says Marissa Graciosa, immigration campaign coordinator for the Center for Community Change and the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), a national grassroots coalition. "But just because there's a new administration, doesn't mean that community groups aren't responsible for creating conditions for major progressive policy changes. Immigrants are already part of communities. They're no longer strangers - these are workers who are making our economy."

"The reality is the system is not working," says Clarissa MartAnez De Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns for the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization, with 300 affiliated organizations in the U.S. She reports that NCLR, along with local and faith-based organizations, are working to address misperceptions. "ThereaEU(tm)s a concerted effort to create fear around this and block debate."

On the national level, the presidential nominees have mostly side-stepped public debate on immigration, while federal legislative initiatives, such as the bipartisanA Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 (S.2611),A stalled out. The DREAM Act, which would provide a path to legal status for high achieving immigrant youth, remains pending in Congress. At the same time, states "are still tackling immigration-related issues in a variety of policy arenas aEU" more than 1,100 bills have been considered in the first quarter of 2008," according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

According to the White House Council of Economic Advisers' report on immigration, immigrants represent 15 percent of the U.S. workforce and even larger shares of sectors such as food services, construction and health care, contributing significantly to the nation's productivity growth. An estimated 40 percent of Ph.D. scientists working in the U.S. were born abroad. The undocumented population has grown from about 3.5 million in 1990 to 12 million in 2006, the Immigration Policy Center reported in May.

Immigration rights groups say that any policy reform must go hand-in-hand with a community dialogue. Across the country, coalitions and organizations are working to change the tone of the debate as a context for specific policy arguments. No one group is leading the charge. Instead, a series of national, regional and local engagements are underway.

FIRM and the National Immigration Forum, for instance, developed a Building America Together pledge to focus on recognizing contributions from diverse communities. "In California, organizers are using the pledge to start conversation with legislators," reports Marissa. "In New Jersey, they're using the pledge to talk to new members to be proactive with legislators, community groups and allies."

While Clarissa reports that the NCLR is "helping citizens become voters and exercise their votes on Election Day on the local, regional and national level. And, on the broader context, ensuring folks are receiving information on their community."

On the regional level, the New York Immigration Coalition, comprised of New York and New Jersey-based organizations, just wrapped up the "Truth About Immigrants Campaign."

"We worked with about 20 community-based organizations to put on community presentations, working specifically to reach non-immigrant communities," says Frances Liu, field coordinator for the Coalition. Presentations were made at schools and community centers, sometimes in partnership with other groups, such as faith-based organizations and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapters. "The presentations became dialogues," says Frances.

Sookyung Oh, immigrant rights project coordinator of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium (NAKASEC) agrees that there needs to be a real shift in public perception to set the stage for just immigration reform.

"Among the national coalitions, the focus is now on civic engagement, a moratorium on raids and more specific issues, such as immigrant integration." She adds, The values and principles are those of inclusion and respect for every human being."

Local groups, especially, are also involved in a convergence of issues, including health care, quality limited English proficiency (LEP) and bilingual education programs, better immigration integration - as well as support for policies designed to help immigrants integrate successfully and productively. Some are preoccupied with responding to escalating immigration raids conducted by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"What anyone wants in this country is to take care of themselves, their family and their community aEU" maybe it's your church, your block," says Sookyung of NAKASEC. "ThereaEU(tm)s a whole slate of things you need to make that happen: you need access to affordable health care, education, a clean environment. The challenge for the immigration reform community is how do you have laws that respect everyone's humanity?"

With the wide range of needs - and national debates focused on the flailing economy - immigrant rights nonprofits may find the challenges of changing public attitudes, mobilizing communities and providing emergency services more than daunting.

S.E. Friedman of Redmond, Washington, is a writer who previously served as communications director for the antipoverty nonprofit Share Our Strength, editor of AmeriCorps News and with Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA).A She also led volunteer English as Second Language (ESL) classes in Boston, New York and Salt Lake City. Lynora Williams (right)A is senior editor of Blue Avocado.

Comments (8)

  • I applaud the efforts these people and groups are trying to make in immigration reform, but what I find interesting is that not once did you mention the word ILLEGAL in this article when describing some of these immigrants. If there were 300 arrests made in Postville, Iowa, with "speedy criminal proceedings" then these were obviously ILLEGAL immigrants.
    Call them what they are.

    Nov 01, 2008
  • Not only were there illegal immigrants, but one or more of the company's supervisiors were discharged and is up on numeroous charges...hiring "illegals", providing finances for purchase of false documents, and underage workers (esp. underage workers around very dangerous equipment in the meatpacking company) to name a few.
    Omaha, NE

    Nov 03, 2008
  • I think it helps to remember that no human being is illegal. I don't hear anyone calling these employers "illegal employers."

    Nov 03, 2008
  • There is a flaw in your "if/then statement" (IF there were 300 arrests made with speedy criminal proceedings, THEN these were obviously illegal immigrants). According to your logic, anyone subject to arrest and a criminal court proceeding is obviously guilty. Here is where your thinking is flawed: in this great country, anyone who is charged with a crime is considered "innocent until PROVEN guilty". What if one of the people arrested was the victim of mistaken identity, or any other number of potential human errors??
    Also, one of the great controversies surrounding the "illegal" status of many immigrants right now is due to the fact that multitudes of people who have already completed all of the legal requirements for becoming a citizen are being ILLEGALLY DETAINED. Call them ILLEGAL; however, take note that oftentimes their status is such, not through any fault of their own, but because – even though they have taken all of the steps required by law to sanction their residency here – the officials employed by the government that sets out those requirements are breaking its own rules by refusing to grant legal status to those who are entitled to it!
    Lastly, I take huge exception to the “call them what they are” statement made in connection with the “illegal” label. Call them what they are indeed: sons, daughters, mothers, fathers – do you get the point yet? Out of a 300-person roundup, probably a good percentage of them are average, everyday PEOPLE like yourself – just trying to make a better life for themselves and their families!

    Nov 03, 2008
  • Yes...America is a nation of LEGAL immigrants. The rest are unwelcome parasites, taking far more than they contribute. Mass deportations would be worth the effort.
    One illegal Mexican in Atlanta was interviewed in the left wing rag, the Atlanta Constitution She was protesting the GA legislature for cracking down on illegal aliens, stating that she stole someone's social security number to get a loan--and her problem was that the proposed GA law would make it more difficult for her to refinance her home in Decatur at a lower rate. Her name was even published with her admission of stealing a SS number. What do you want to bet she is still here, drawing money from the public dole somewhere?
    This is madness. America must defend her borders and national sovereignty or cease to exist as a separate nation.

    Nov 03, 2008
  • I agree with an earlier post: the article makes no reference to "illegal". If people are in this country illegally, I believe our immigration laws are clear on that point and the action taken in Postville, Iowa for those who are here illegally is the correct action. I question why Blue Avocado is posting what appears to be unbalanced reports.

    Nov 04, 2008
  • Bravo to Blue Avocado for this thoughtful article about creating a movement to ensure rights and provide humane treatment for all immigrants - who are all human beings.
    As long as our country's policies promote the impoverishment of other countries, we will have peopleforced to leave home in order to make a living. As long as we have a complicated maze of bureaucracy posing as an immigration system, we will have people who enter this country without benefit of the "right" documents. They are already living and working here. Le't find a way to be sure they aren't criminalized for it.
    Providence, RI

    Nov 05, 2008
  • Thanks for your comments, everyone. For this article on nonprofits' responses to the immigration crisis, we could only skim the surface of the many complexities of the  situation - one that involves documented and undocumented immigrants. Your responses show what a challenge it will be to develop policies that really work. Especially in this economic climate, nonprofits have a monumental task in supporting immigrants of all backgrounds. Many are working with grassroots, legislative and business communities to create a productive dialogue. We thought Sookyung of NAKASEC's question hit the nail on the head: "how do you have laws that respect everyone's humanity?"  

    Nov 06, 2008

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