By Wendy Sefsaf
New America Media
Editor’s Note: “Anti-immigrant” measures aren’t the only immigration laws taking effect in states across the country. They may not make the headlines, but some important work is being done across the country by progressives.
WASHINGTON, D.C. With punitive, enforcement-only immigration measures dominating the headlines around the country, the Center for American Progress brought together a panel last week to discuss what progressive work is being done in state capitols to fight these measures and encourage a constructive dialogue on immigration.
Ten states have already passed the DREAM Act (a bill that gives immigrant children access to college), according to Nathan Newman of the Progressive States Network. Numerous local law enforcement agencies have also refused to give their police officers the power to enforce immigration laws.
In 2006, many so-called “anti-immigrant” politicians did not win re-election. And the Republican presidential nomination of moderate John McCain reflects a different view by the Republican mainstream on immigration, Newman argues. McCain has worked with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to push through legalization proposals in broad-ranging legislation.
States are also expanding laws that enforce fair wages and positive “New American” policies, Newman says. A Virginia bill, for example, protects witnesses and victims of crimes from being asked about their immigration status.
Frank Sharry, longtime director of the National Immigration Forum and founder of America’s Voice, says a new narrative on immigration is emerging as the characterizations of immigrants as “lawbreakers” and a “drain” on the economy is falling apart due to little proof.
Sharry believes Democrats must learn to use immigration as a wedge issue to their advantage. Fourteen million voters in 2008 will be Latino, he explains, and “when you insult the fastest-growing sector of voters in the country, you will lose.”
He also warns that politicians must wake up to the fact that Latino and other immigrant families are a mix of documented and undocumented and it doesn’t work play one group against the other. Efforts by Prince William County, Va., police officers, who now ask for proof of legal status during routine traffic stops, are terrorizing an entire community, says Sharry. America has a fundamental misunderstanding of the way immigration works, Sharry says. “There is no line to get into…you can’t just go to the post office and pick up your green card.”
Texas Representative Garnet Coleman says legislators are attempting to stop punitive laws in Texas, where the Mexican-American legislative caucus in Austin was able to successfully defeat a measure that would have denied public school access to immigrant children.
Anti-illegal immigration groups have tried to divide African-Americans and Latinos over the immigration issue, adds Coleman. But in Texas, he says, these efforts have largely failed.
The Mexican-American legislative caucus in Austin includes African Americans; and Texas businesses like the Greater Houston Partnership have joined forces with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) to fight an initiative that would give police officers the power to enforce national immigration laws.
Representative Kyrsten Sinema, a state legislator from Arizona, says that businesses in Arizona could be the key to defeating anti-immigration measures that are having a cooling effect on the local economy. “Efforts to criminalize immigrants in Arizona have failed, so now they are going after the employers,” Sinema says. Arizona’s business community is now joining together to battle these initiatives.
But the business sector should not limit its focus to defeating employer sanctions, Sinema argues, because ultimately all immigration laws will affect them. “The immigrants are staying home because they are afraid, and so now the business community is suffering.”
When asked what she thought of the 15 punitive bills introduced last week by GOP senators in Washington, Sinema said that she was too busy killing bad legislation in her own state to worry about federal action.
Representative Ana Sol Gutierrez of Maryland says her state has passed a living wage law, the first in the country, along with a $1 million appropriation bill for work with new Americans in the state. She also touts the creation of a “New America Caucus” in the Maryland legislature, which includes Russian, Asian, and Latino members.
Following the collapse of immigration reform last year, Frank Sharry says states would have to take the lead in the fight to secure immigrants’ rights and keep punitive measures from going into effect. “It will be hard to get play on immigration at the federal level,” he says, “until it plays out locally.”