Immigration Reform and the Latino Civil Rights Movement: A Shift Rather Than A Conflict

Immigration Reform and
the Latino Civil Rights Movement:
A Shift Rather Than A Conflict
By Juan Cartagena (April 25, 2014)

In his April 22nd NiLP Commentary, "Immigration Reform and the Latino Civil Rights Movement: Are They Now in Conflict?," Falcon's question about an alleged conflict between the necessary push for civil rights enforcement for Latinos and the recent push for immigration reform raises a number of questions for organizations like ours at LatinoJustice PRLDEF. As provocative as his title purports to be, the text of his post doesn't actually pose a conflict as much as it highlights a shift in emphasis between traditional civil rights issues like affirmative action and the need to resolve the immigration debate soon. LatinoJustice PRLDEF, like a number of other civil rights organizations in our larger and national community, straddle both worlds - we have to because both are equally important, equally relevant.

While I agree with a number of his observations, where I would differ with Angelo is on his assessment that immigration reform only affects 20% of the Latino population, on his assertion that Latino civil rights groups simply gravitated to the fad of the year (decade?) when taking on immigrants' rights, and on his limitation of not fleshing out racial profiling and law enforcement as it exists today in our communities as one of real harmful practices that affects all Latinos and that it is nurtured by the lack of sensible immigration policies. Since he promised more rumination on the topic I'm sure he'd welcome the feedback.

In 1986, at the time of the IRCA immigration amendments, the biggest Latino civil rights issue of the day was the employer sanction provisions of the law. Every immigrant's rights and Latino civil rights organization recognized the harm that sanctions would promote for all Latino job-seekers - not just the undocumented. Those concerns were real and remain so because the profiling and stereotyping that occurs in the job market knows no bounds such that Latinos who had U.S. citizenship were and are still marginalized.

Starting with employer sanctions and IRCA contextualizes in traditional civil rights concepts my main divergence with Falcon's post. The dichotomy between 11 million on the one side and 40 million on the other fails to acknowledge that a lot more than 20% of the Latino population is affected by the failure of reform. First, I'm not sure where the numbers come from: 11 million is the estimate of all undocumented immigrants in the country from all countries. 40 million may well be the current population of Latinos in the U.S. but I thought that most estimates of the non-citizen proportion within the Latino community approximate a third of the entire U.S. Latino community. So by limiting the counterpoint to 11 million it unnecessarily limits the immigration debate to just the undocumented.

But my larger point is that the racial profiling that has been the immediate effect on Latinos in the wake of anti-immigrant (read: anti-Latino) laws ensnares a lot more people than the undocumented among us. And the fact that for every undocumented bread winner in a household there are multiple U.S. citizens and lawful residents in the same household adds to the universe of those affected by today's immigration policies by an Obama administration that has reached the unbelievable distinction of deporting 2 million people more than any prior administration in history. For these reasons and more, the debate over deportations, anti-immigrant laws and profiling affects a larger portion of Latinos than just 20%.

The second area where I submit Falcon needs to think through a bit more is his blithely combining foundations, corporations, politicians and Latino civil rights groups in one large mass looking for a new product, as if they were all looking to increase their market share. It's true that the increases in citizenship among Latinos will likely increase the influence of Democrats, unions, and the need for the extreme right to scapegoat immigrants for the country's economic woes - a practice that goes back even further than the Know Nothing Party of the early 1900s. But to fold traditional civil rights organizations into this mix fails to account for the largest wave of virulent anti-Latino legislation that captivated state capitols and seats of local government throughout the country with racialized legislation, probably not seen since the days of Juan Crow in the first half of the 20th century in the Southwest and West when Mexicans and all Latinos lived amongst laws that created de jure segregated schools, public facilities, etc.

These anti-immigrant movements are all part of an orchestrated, well-financed movement of the extreme right that, as per my colleague Sulma Arias in Kansas, links financially and otherwise, the Chris Kobach's of today with the John Tanton's of the 1980s and the beginnings of the modern-version of the English-Only movement and the modern retelling of eugenics. Kobach's model legislation tested in Hazleton, Pennsylvania became the new thing with copycat laws in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, among others, at the state level and similar enactments multiplied ten times at the local level.

Those anti-Latino laws, which contribute directly to the increased racial profiling, stop and frisk, stop and steal, driving while Brown, and even eating while Brown (yes, eating lunch in public! As per our case in Frederick County, MD) repressive tactics of law enforcement today had to be stopped. And it was the work of traditional Latino civil rights organizations, along with our allies, that stopped many of the worse ones -- a job unfinished even today. So it is less about being fatigued of talking race in a myopic Black-White binary and looking for the next fad - it's about the relevance of civil rights approaches born in the 1960s to the pressing issues of the day: overt racist legislation that uses anti-immigrant as code for anti-Latino and that green lights private vigilantism against Latino victims, regardless of status .

It is undoubtedly true that polling data supports the contention that affirmative action and the other bread and butter staples of the movement in the 1980s and thereafter may seem dated in the opinion of many Latinos. But it doesn't mean that they are any less important. Polling data can only go so far, in my opinion (no pun intended). It is also true that the legal landscape has changed dramatically as yesterday's decision regarding Michigan voters by the Supreme Court has signaled - but it doesn't make diversity and racial equity any less important. Especially for organizations like LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

What has quickly been added to this mix is the phenomenon of a "punishment industry" gone wild with more racial disparities in our criminal justice system than ever before, a private corrections sector feeding itself on Latinos detained in a hyper-deportation Obama world, and the unabated status of America as the number one jailer in the world. These pressing civil rights issues, nurtured daily by the police profiling that emanates from a broken immigration system, have expanded our civil rights agenda in profound and challenging ways. Our next level of engagement at LJP will be to match the concerns, fears, and illegitimacy about policing from a Puerto Rican young man in the Bronx subject to the invidious racial profiling of Stop-and-Frisk, with concerns, fears and Illegitimacy about policing from a Mexican worker pulled over in his car in a Stop-and-Steal operation by police in Long Island. Policing, and by extension the entire criminal justice system, puts these issues in stark relief and will create a convergence of interests that links the fate of both citizen and undocumented alike in our Latino communities.

Where I definitely join with Angelo is the need to push back on the generalized and dangerous notion of a Latino monolith. Of course, we will have different and multi-layered concerns that drive us to choose X over Y in the ballot box - that's because, like most any other voter, we intelligently read, listen, understand. By limiting the election year discourse to only immigration reform for Latinos and, say, only voting rights restoration for Blacks, we understate the nuanced nature of election decisions among both electorates.

What is fascinating in this regard are Angelo's points about assimilationist divergence of the activists of today with those of the 1960s and 70s. Assimilation, however, is not a one way, unilateral act. The people that you apparently want to assimilate with have to want you as well (just ask any objective statehooder from Puerto Rico) - so we'll see how far that goes after any form of immigration reform is passed, whenever that is. But assimilation even within the ranks of Latinos urging reform is no longer clear as the more grass-roots organizations amongst us have long heard the voices of the Latino undocumented that citizenship may not be all that. Instead, free travel back and forth between home and host country along with authorization to work and drive are equally if not more, important. So even on that score we have to listen more closely to our own.

Not sure where you'll take this Angelo. But if your aim was to provoke you've succeeded, at least with me.

Juan Cartagena is President and General Counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF. He can be reached at