Going forward there is only one option; hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
The path to immigration reform has always been a narrow one. But just a couple of weeks ago it seemed that a reform could shimmy its way through the Senate and squeeze its way past the House of Representatives. Today, in the wake of the Boston bombings and the Heritage Foundation’s fear-mongering report, that path to reform looks increasingly tight.
So being a cautious yet practical optimist I am bracing myself for immigration reform going down in flames. And if this happens, the last thing we should do is keep banging our heads against the D.C. wall or just sit around strategizing for the 2014 or 2016 election. If immigration reform fails at the federal level then the emphasis must move to our state capitals and city councils.
Since 2005 there have been an increasing number of state bills that broadly address the issue of immigration. Such legislation runs the gamut of banning the provision of driver’s licenses to undocumented persons, to criminalizing persons hiring undocumented day laborers. The bulk of this legislation has been immigrant unfriendly in nature, seeking to make life as difficult as possible for undocumented immigrants so as to ultimately lead to the decision to “self-deport.”
But not all local-level immigrant legislation is restrictive in nature. There have been notable exceptions to the rule, such as Texas’ DREAM Act where in 2001 Texas became the first state to pass a bill providing tuition equity to undocumented students. And just last month, Colorado became the latest DREAMer state when the governor signed into law a tuition equity bill. In all, thirteen states provide tuition equity for undocumented students.
Immigrant rights activists must shift to a strategy of both offense and defense at the state and local level. In more immigrant-friendly states that are controlled by Democratic legislatures, the approach should be to put forward legislation that seeks to ease the day-to-day hurdles of those living in the shadows, such as not being able to attain a driver’s license or receive an education at an equitable cost.
A defensive strategy in less immigrant-friendly states is equally as important. In states with a history of immigrant-unfriendly legislatures, the strategy must be to kill bills that could further infringe on the civil and human rights of immigrants.
The same strategy that the Gang of Eight took in building a bi-partisan coalition of business, faith, labor, and law enforcement must be implemented on a state-by-state basis.
Beyond our state capitals we should also pursue immigrant rights reform through municipalities. In his 2011 campaign for mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emmanuel put forward the proposition of a Chicago DREAM Act where undocumented students would have access to tuition assistance if they attended Chicago community colleges. Once in office, the initiative was not enacted but the idea is exemplary of how small steps can be taken to have a big impact on the lives of individuals.
And finally, a shift to a local level strategy isn’t just about the local level. Building momentum at the ground level will ease the larger national movement for immigration reform, not unlike what is happening with the gay marriage movement. At the end of the day all politics is local and in this case turning toward the local will keep the immigration reform ball moving forward.
Dr. Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto is an NBC Latino and MSNBC contributor, Senior Analyst for Latino Decisions and Fellow at the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, at Austin.