The immigration debate, for those progressives deeply involved in it, has felt rather like waiting for Godot -- we know our fellow progressives are going to be coming along any day now to join the journey toward effective reform. Still, we sit and sit, checking our watches as the clock ticks down, and we wonder.
So far, the debate has almost entirely revolved around the division between rival factions of the right: the corporate conservatives who have benefited from the status quo and would benefit even more from a "guest worker" program; and the nativist bloc that wants every one of the 12 million "illegal aliens" in America rounded up and "sent back where they came from."
If there is a progressive position, it hasn't been enunciated clearly at all -- which means that there has been precious little advocacy from the left. It's well past time for that to change.
This is especially the case because the rightist factions have managed to simply dismiss any advocacy from the left as being about "open borders." That is, of course, a typically false and nasty smear from the right. And a clear progressive position is the only way to overcome it.
As Rick Jacobs, the Dreams Across America tour's chief organizer, observed at Huffington Post:
- he immigrant's rights movement has been more about rights than about movement. Up to now, we have seen hundreds of thousands of mostly Mexicans marching in downtown LA or other cities, opposing draconian law or demanding rights. But as my friend Paula Litt at Liberty Hill Foundation says, there is no inalienable right to become a US citizen. So the movement has brought lots of unions and people of color (read: Latino and Asian) together, it has not inspired the online activists who write blogs and checks or the white political elite who write checks to take action.
Matt Stoller has more on this:
- What is clear is that if progressives are going to play on immigration, we need a strategy and a set of arguments. My gut says that this is going to require linking immigration and trade, since this is an issue having to do with labor, capital, and goods all flowing across borders. Our current immigration 'problems' (or opportunities, depending on whether you a big business guy who likes slave labor) cannot be disassociated from NAFTA, and I'm curious why that attempt was made.
In other words, if there's a 'grand bargain' to be struck on immigration, it should address the millions of Mexicans and Americans thrown into poverty by our trade policies, who then become immigrants or dispossessed. Regardless, the immigration debate, for it to be relevant to progressives, has to be linked to a larger narrative of economic instability. There's something about labor rights in there, but labor has so little reach now that we need new arguments.
This is exactly right, so far as it goes. However, we also need to understand that immigration encompasses much more than merely economics and trade -- it's about fundamental human decency, it's about our place in the world and our cultural and economic health, but most of all it's about the meaning of what it is to be American.
Progressive values encompass all those things, and a progressive position on immigration will naturally be about them as well. But progressives haven't taken it because it hasn't been clear to them just how they can enunciate those things in a cohesive way that makes sense not just to them but to all Americans.
This, I think, is why liberals have largely sat on their hands on this. Check out, if you will, the comments that have come in to HuffPo over Jacobs' posts, or those that have been pouring in to the Dreams Across America blog: they are all overwhelmingly nativist (with many of them claiming, without much evidence, that they really are progressives, with the less-than-persuasive caveat that they're "just opposed to illegal immigration"). It has been hard to find many liberals actually willing to engage and refute their nonsense.
It also seems clear that progressives don't quite comprehend the importance of the immigration debate -- it just seems to many of us that this is an issue raised by conservatives and is simply an in-house fight among them. But the truth is that, probably more than any other issue confronting the nation beyond the Iraq war, it is a debate that will profoundly affect America's culture and economy, and its position in the world, for decades to come.
Most of all, it is probably the greatest opportunity in many years for progressives to regain their position of cultural strength, to make tremendous gains among average Americans in the heartland, and to reestablish liberalism as a powerful force for good in the political realm.
Doing so will require two significant steps:
-- Refuting the flood of wrong-headed garbage that's been coming from both factions of the right in this debate.
-- Enunciating a clear and powerful position for progressives that encompasses their values, as well as those of Americans at large.
I'll be devoting the next two posts to precisely that project.