clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Immigration advocates are devastated. And they want Democrats to feel their pain.

A girl whose father was deported cries at a rally outside the White House on Monday.
A girl whose father was deported cries at a rally outside the White House on Monday.
Saul Loeb/AFP

Back in late June, President Obama held a private meeting at the White House with immigration advocates. Afterward, he went out into the Rose Garden and made a public promise — he would be taking broad executive action on immigration by the end of the summer.

Advocates were barely able to contain their excitement. They spent much of August predicting that the president would grant relief from deportation to as many as 5 million unauthorized immigrants, including parents of US citizens.

But two months later, on the first Saturday morning in September, the administration backed out — announcing that President Obama wouldn't be taking any action on immigration before the November elections.

The reversal devastated immigration advocates. They had spent years trying to persuade Democrats and Republicans alike that Latino voters were a force to be reckoned with, and that Latinos couldn't be mobilized without immigration reform. It looked like Democrats, at least, had been persuaded.

Now advocates worry that Latinos are being taken for granted by the party. And they're arguing that it's time to make politicians feel a little of the pain they feel in their communities. The question is how best to make that happen.

Stop the deportations protest

A protest in front of the White House, July 31, 2014 (Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty)

'We need time to lick our wounds'

Immigration advocates were stunned by Saturday's news. While the White House claimed that advocacy groups had been notified in advance about the delay, some groups didn't know until as little as half an hour before the AP broke the story.

Even several days after the announcement, the prevailing mood among immigration advocates was that they felt devastated, and betrayed. "When your supposed friends break multiple promises, it feels really shitty. That's just a basic human reaction," says Frank Sharry, the executive director of immigration-advocacy group America's Voice.

Sharry still can't understand why Obama had given himself an end-of-the-summer deadline to begin with if he wasn't going to follow through: "[Obama] called us in on June 30 and went into the Rose Garden and said 'end of summer!' It's a remarkable M.O. ... I don't get it. I don't get it."

Advocates are taking the delay so personally that they're struggling to focus on how to respond. "It's obvious that all of us in the community, and working on the issue of immigration reform, need time to lick our wounds before moving forward," says Ben Monterroso, the director of voter-mobilization group Mi Familia Vota. Sharry adds that "a lot of community groups are really pissed and haven't figured out what to do about it."

They don't have much time to mourn the lost opportunity. The midterm elections are coming in seven weeks — so if groups like Monterroso's are going to have an impact in key races, they don't have much time. "We need to be dealing with this out of the realm of emotions. We need to be thinking about this strategically," he says.

Is getting out the vote the only solution?

immigration protest gop

Electoral organizing around immigration tends to target Republicans. (Scott Olson/Getty)

The strategic problem is that advocates "need to prevent politicians from playing with us," as Monterroso says. That includes politicians of both parties. Advocates agree that they need to keep targeting Republicans. But the delay has them reconsidering the place that Latinos and the immigration movement hold within the Democratic coalition.

"It feels like, once again, the Democratic Party is saying, 'We like you when it's convenient, but if we're going to risk white voters, we're not really into you,'" Sharry says. Paul Frymer, a professor of political science at Princeton who studies Democratic Party constituencies, says that this calculus is what leads politicians to take a voter bloc for granted — pointing to African American voters as a specific example.

Where advocates disagree is on what they need to do to force politicians to start treating them with respect.

Monterroso's feeling is clear: "The only alternative that we have, to make sure that elected officials' calculations respect Latino power at the ballot box, is to get out the vote." That means supporting Democrats in the November elections — which, he acknowledges, is a tough sell. But he points out that getting the president to give temporary deportation relief was never advocates' ultimate goal anyway — their goal is to get permanent immigration reform through Congress.

Monterroso worries that if Latinos take out their anger on Democrats, it will send the message that they're giving up. "It's not good enough for us to complain about what we were not able to do," he says. "The only solution to our problems is fixing the immigration law. And the only way that we're going to get the immigration law resolved is through politics."

Forcing a "moral crisis"

faces at immigration protest

DREAMers have often used personal stories to call public attention to immigration. (John Moore/Getty)

United We Dream, the major national organization representing DREAMers — young unauthorized immigrants who would benefit from the long-stalled DREAM Act, many of whom have now been protected by Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — disagrees with Monterroso that the only way to get Democrats to take them seriously is to support Democrats in November.

Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez describes United We Dream as "fiercely nonpartisan." When asked about the administration's latest promise to announce executive action by the end of 2014, he responds, "We don't trust them."

"Our position is that we will hold accountable people who stand in the way of progress. And sometimes those people are the president," he says. So while DREAMers are doing get out the vote work themselves, they're not stopping there.

"Number one, we're planning to make sure that the community understands that this is another broken promise that [Obama] has made," says Sousa-Rodriguez. "We'll have vigils, we'll work with the faith community. We'll continue doing workshops and trainings for the parents and families that are most impacted by this delay. We're going to do protests, rallies, and civil disobedience as well."

"I think the DREAMers will do stuff that makes the Democrats extremely uncomfortable," says Sharry. "That's just their way."

DREAMers have pushed Democrats before

civil disobedience at immigration protest

An immigration protester engages in civil disobedience in California. (Fresno Bee/McClatchy via Getty)

For an illustration of what happens when DREAMers don't trust politicians in either party, it might be useful to look at the summer of 2010. After it became clear earlier that spring that a comprehensive immigration bill wasn't going to be introduced in the Senate, DREAMers started calling on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to bring the DREAM Act up for a vote instead. When Reid declared he wouldn't bring up the bill unless he was sure it would get the 60 votes needed to pass cloture, DREAMers struck back — holding sit-ins in the offices of Senate Democrats and protesting Reid's appearance at Netroots Nation.

Democrats were extremely displeased by the DREAMers' tactics. But they worked. Reid finally agreed to bring the DREAM Act up for a vote, and tried to attach it to a defense bill in September. (He brought the bill up on its own for a vote in December 2010, but it failed to pass cloture.) Reid was motivated, in part, by his own tough reelection battle — but because of the DREAMers' visibility, Reid ended up going through them to mobilize Latino voters.

Sousa-Rodriguez says that the DREAMers' most successful strategy has been "to create a moral crisis for the country, and the country will have to respond." That's what they did in 2010. That's what they did in 2012, when they targeted the American public as much as Washington — the week before President Obama announced the deferred action program, DREAMers appeared on the cover of Time.

Over 2013 and 2014, as immigration has been high on the political agenda, politics have absorbed a lot of the immigration movement's attention. After all, Monterroso's right — it's impossible to change immigration laws without politics. But with the "moral crisis" strategy, DREAMers will use their public visibility to make Democrats uncomfortable  — and give back some of the pain they're feeling.

Can immigration advocates replicate the success of the LGBT movement?

DADT repeal protest

Immigration advocates look to the LGBT movement as a model for success. (Alex Wong/Getty)

Advocate Sharry uses the LGBT movement as a model for what he hopes immigration reformers can achieve with Democrats. "They are a movement that doesn't take no for an answer," he says.

When Frymer, the political-science professor, describes the successes of the LGBT movement, the points he makes sounds a lot like the DREAMers' strategy. First of all, LGBT advocates have worked "across the board," using a range of tactics. Second of all, "they've fought the battle of public opinion and made it safe for people to support them," Frymer says.

Elected Democrats lagged behind the American public in supporting marriage equality. They've historically been more cautious than the American public in supporting immigration reform, as well. But what Sousa-Rodriguez is talking about isn't just getting the public to support immigrants, but communicating urgency — the pain that comes with living under the threat of deportation.

"For them, it's just a few months, but for us, it's 70,000 lives," he says. "Our position is that we will hold accountable people who stand in the way of progress. And sometimes those people are the president."

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.