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With Liberty and Justice for All?

Jon Liss
Date Published: 
June 1, 2010

The war against immigrants has just taken another turn for the worse with the passage of SB 1070 by the Arizona state legislature. This law is designed to criminalize undocumented immigrants, all who help them, and ultimately all who "look" like them! It is a continuation of a 20-year battle that will ultimately determine the future of the US. Winning full political and economic rights for 10 to 15 million immigrants will have an impact comparable to that of freed slaves and the rise of Black reconstruction in the 1860s and 1870s or to the formation of Roosevelt's New Deal coalition in the 1930s and 1940s.

This battle is a product of the wave of immigrants who have moved to the US over the last 30 years intersecting with the historic Chicano lands (Aztlan) in the Southwest, and with the Black Belt and its historic concentration of African Americans in the Southeast. This confluence is creating a new demography and the threat of a new majority with a progressive politic. What is being fought in Arizona and elsewhere will in many ways determine the political direction for decades to come.

Immigrants, particularly undocumented Latino/a immigrants, are low-income workers who have lived at the vortex of police attacks, limited political or worker rights, and the denial of public services and benefits. Most come from countries with well-developed social movements which have deeply impacted their consciousnesses. Thus, a move to full rights and powers of citizenship for immigrants will likely shift a host of policies and practices in a progressive, more radical democratic direction.

You don't need to be Karl Rove to see which way this wind is blowing. It was Bush and Rove who raised the cost of citizenship applications to $675 and unleashed an unprecedented wave of workplace and street sweeps against immigrants. And it is Obama, who is "committed" to immigration reform, who has continued this war on immigrants through ongoing deportations -159,000 annually at the current pace with a projected annual goal of 400,000.

On March 21, 2010, two hundred thousand immigrants and allies rallied in Washington in support of "comprehensive immigration reform" (CIR). For the last two years, a center-left coalition of immigrants' rights organizations has doggedly pushed for a legislative remedy to a political crisis. The political center is well-organized, well-funded, and has largely driven the efforts for CIR. The largely inside-the-beltway center includes: National Council of La Raza, Center for Community Change, National Immigration Forum, and Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

The Left in this movement are the hundreds of local and statewide immigrants' rights organizations that have emerged and grown over the last decade. This Left popular base includes groups such as Florida Immigrant Coalition, Make the Road (New York), Casa de Maryland, and Tenants and Workers United (Virginia). The Left popular base is not tightly or collectively organized but has deep ties to its members and the ability to mobilize tens of thousands.

Post-March 21, we are at a crossroads. Increasingly groups at the base doubt that CIR will pass through the legislative process and believe that anything that does make it through is unlikely to be supported by the base. The Schumer Bill is representative of the political center's framing of reform. It criminalizes those who are undocumented prior to their application for legal status.

It also further militarizes the border and introduces biometric national identity cards. Others, including the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (NALACC), are increasingly calling for direct pressure on President Obama to stop the deportations until reform is achieved. Until recently, groups were reluctant to target a President who was committed to reform. This was further complicated by the ongoing racist attacks on the President by the tea baggers.

This line between center and left has often been played out in the tension between access and results. Many of the center forces have been unwilling to risk their privileged access to the Executive Branch through aggressive targeting. Simultaneously, calls are increasing to escalate and move from large (and largely passive) demonstrations to civil disobedience, economic boycotts, and other disruptive activities. Along these lines, there is sure to be tension around this fall's congressional elections as the center calls for more voter turnout to elect good (mostly) Democrats. The popular base is growing much more ambivalent about ongoing blind support for Democrats.

Importantly, youth are taking the lead and pushing the envelope. Four undocumented youth have recently completed an 1,800 mile march demanding documentation for qualified youth (the Dream Act). In a number of cities youth have publicly "outed" themselves as undocumented and challenged officials to arrest them. Others, including the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON), are focusing efforts on local and state efforts to roll back cooperation agreements like 287 G and Secure Communities with Homeland Security. These agreements essentially deputize local police or sheriffs as immigration enforcement officers.

Given the ongoing federal legislative logjam and its logic of measuring reform in terms of popular votes gained or lost, combined with rising mass immigrant frustration, anger, and militancy, we may be moving toward a crisis of legitimacy in which tens of millions of US residents-immigrants and their families and supporters - move toward open conflict with the law and dominant institutions.

For this to move from random acts into a winning strategy, it is critical that left/popular leaders and organizations get together and plan. A left-center alliance which relies on the inside-the-beltway center for organizational glue and strategy has taken us as far as we can go. The future of millions, to say nothing of the country, requires nothing less.

With the passage of the virulently racist law in Arizona, the stakes and intensity of struggle have further escalated. On April 29, activists in Chicago blocked an immigration van trying to leave a detention center. On May, 35 people-including US Representative Luis Gutierrez-were arrested in front of the White House calling for presidential initiative. In cities across the county thousands marched: 50,000 in Los Angeles, 20,000 in Chicago, and 20,000 in Dallas. While smaller than the uprising of 2006, these numbers still represent a post-Arizona upsurge. This upsurge is likely to be ongoing and increasingly militant in its tactics. On May 5, 14 more people were arrested after blockading a detention center in Los Angeles. On May 17, four students were arrested while sitting in Senator John McCain's Tucson office. Three of them were undocumented and risked likely deportation.

Variations of the Arizona law are being discussed or actively considered in a half-dozen other states. Essentially, white rightists are making a last desperate grasp-under the cloak of "legality/illegality" and economic crisis-to reinstall de jure legal apartheid. Sixty-five jurisdictions-states, counties, and towns-have in place 287 G or Secure Communities agreements. The Left popular base is looking to challenge enforcement boldly and aggressively, reframing the debate as a moral and ethical fight over fundamental human rights.

There are ongoing struggles to unite around a common strategy. What is the relationship between building militant actions and building the broadest united front? What is the appropriate relationship between long-term indigenous (to Arizona) leadership like Tonatierra Community Development Institute and pro-immigrant leaders and organizations elsewhere in the country? How does electoral work relate to this ongoing organizing? Do we reward Democrats for being less racist or punish them because they have not moved immigration reform in any meaningful way?

Given the diffused nature of the movement it is unlikely that a single unified strategy will emerge in the short term. However, a number of national alliances including NDLON, Domestic Workers Alliance, Jobs with Justice, Pushback, Grassroots Global Justice, and the Right to the City Alliance are all vigorously involved in efforts to send organizers to Arizona, fight local immigration law enforcement, and move toward a more coherent and coordinated national strategy.

Left Turn readers should get involved in the following:

  • NDLON and the Arizona-based Puente Movement have called for a national mobilization to shut down Phoenix on May 29. This rally targets Arizona and Obama and seeks to move immigration back to a human rights rather than enforcement framework. (
  • Join the effort to move the 2011 baseball all-star game from Arizona and participate in local protests when the Arizona Diamondbacks play. The Diamondbacks' owner, Ken Kendrick, is a major donor to anti-immigrant Arizona politicians. (
  • Join local efforts to break the link between local law enforcement and immigration enforcement - roll back 287 G and Secure Communities agreements. Look up the 65 jurisdictions that have these agreements at

With aggressive, but patient and thoughtful organizing we can overturn both the Arizona ordinance and the 287 G and Secure Communities agreements that spawned it. Rolling back these laws, targeting, and reversing the practice of the Obama Administration will open the possibilities for broader, just, national reform.

Jon Liss was a founding member and is currently the Executive Director of Tenants and Workers United and Virginia New Majority. He is also a founder and steering committee member of the Right to the City Alliance.