Making Immigration Matter

Immigration Matters: Movements, Visions, and Strategies for a Progressive Future

Ruth Milkman, Deepak Bhargava, and Penny Lewis, eds.

The New Press, 2021, 336pp., $18.98 paperback. 

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” 

Emma Lazarus’s famous words, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty and at one time taught to every U.S. schoolchild, present one picture of this country. The reality, as many immigration activists and leftists are increasingly aware, is far from those hopeful words. The year before Lazarus’s poem was penned, the Chinese Exclusion Act became law—the first direct ethnic immigration restriction law of any major industrial country. The decades that followed saw an increase in nativist sentiment that ultimately led to a series of immigration restriction laws in the 1910s and early 1920s, capped off with quotas that essentially halted non-Western European immigration to the United States.

The 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act replaced those laws with a new liberal vision that tried to recast the United States as a “nation of immigrants.” But the new policies, though more progressive than their predecessors, set the stage for the modern immigration detention state by refusing to directly challenge the nativist sentiment from which they emerged. As immigration from Global South nations increased, a bipartisan anti-immigrant consensus took hold, with new border policing and criminalization statutes coming down in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. Decades of expanded border patrols, partial border fences, and new bureaucratic structures like the formation of the Department of Homeland Security gave Donald Trump all the tools he needed to build a political coalition primarily centered around anti-immigrant hostility and xenophobia. But the end of the Trump administration and the rise of the new Biden administration pose a difficult question for the broad coalition that opposed Trump and his open racist and nativist rhetoric: what do we actually do about immigration policy in the United States?

At its core, Immigration Matters struggles with this question. A collection of essays by progressive figures, it attempts to survey a broad range of perspectives for activists and policy makers. It starts by surveying the long, painful history of oppression inherent in our immigration laws. Alongside that history of state violence and repression, however, is an equal and opposite history of resistance and struggle for freedom driven by and for immigrants. From labor organizing to electoral involvement to targeted campaigns against complicit corporations, the book documents the diverse tactics people have taken to protect and empower immigrants. From there, various essays chart visions for the future. What strategies and tactics can we use to protect immigrants? What should be the nature of our immigration system? What would it look like to dismantle organizations such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)? What concessions can we win in the here and now, and what should be our approach moving forward? And how do we break the xenophobic electoral coalition that has united rural white folk with the corporate ruling class through their combined distrust and hatred for immigration from the Global South?

Certain essays in this book echo sentiments shared by many within DSA. They argue that immigration, especially from impoverished Global South nations, is not a threat to domestic class struggle but instead part and parcel of it. While this may seem obvious to some, it has long been a point of contention that working-class immigrants have had with their white comrades. Immigrants belong here, not simply because they provide a benefit to the economy, but because the United States has a moral obligation to provide refuge and safety to people fleeing violence, poverty, and climate disaster in their home countries for which we are directly responsible. The varied authors are in near-unanimous agreement that the old liberal canard of “comprehensive immigration reform”—amnesty for some at the expense of increased border militarization and expanded temporary guest worker visa programs—is intellectually, morally, and politically bankrupt.

Several of the authors articulate provocative and interesting new arguments for tactical demands and concessions that the Left could win. In “Immigrants are Essential,” Saket Soni argues for a new Works Progress Administration-esque agency called the “Resilience Corps,” which would intentionally employ the most marginalized members of society, including undocumented immigrants and formerly incarcerated folks, to perform lifesaving work. From home-rebuilding to community healthcare and social work, this Corps would seek not only to provide good-paying jobs, but also to rebuild the social cohesion that neoliberal capitalism has stolen from our communities. Soni argues for us to create legal refugee status for those fleeing climate disaster—not merely out of benevolence, but as reparations for the crime we have committed against the Earth.

The final essay, “The Statue of Liberty Plan,” written by co-editor Deepak Bhargava, articulates the broadest and most complete vision of what the Left should fight for regarding immigration policy. Leftists and liberals must work together to stop the rise of the nativist right, and must both accept that this coalition is necessary to stop an entrenchment of a more explicitly racist immigration policy. The Left must fight for “non-reformist reforms,” policy changes, and laws that transform the terrain of struggle, such as the scaling back of ICE powers and jurisdictions. When it comes to the inevitable compromises that Congress will have to strike, the focus of activists should be to maximize future flow of migrants and the scope of legalization. And how do we win these concessions? The Left and immigrant rights organizers must build the kind of grassroots power that militantly mobilizes immigrant communities to extract concessions from politicians and win power in workplaces, as has been done successfully in California and Nevada, and is increasingly underway in Arizona and Georgia. 

There are deep limitations in many of the plans proposed. Much of the work is contingent on actions from the White House and Congress. Even assuming a progressive president, these plans would be limited and fall prey to the whims of power brokers in the Beltway—hardly an exciting prospect to those of us who care passionately about this issue. Many of these essays were also written in early 2020, when it wasn’t clear who would win the Democratic presidential primary and who would win the general election, as well as what the makeup of Congress would be. Meanwhile, the plans focus primarily  on what can be done domestically, when emphasis must also be placed on improving the material conditions in the Global South countries these immigrants come from. As Warsan Shire eloquently put it, no one puts their children on a boat unless the water is safer than the land. As principled internationalists, we must remember that the fight against immigration restriction, imperialism, and climate change are always interlinked.

Given the terrain of struggle we face, can we reasonably win some of these critical concessions? Aspects of this truly cannot wait. The climate crisis is as serious and daunting as the most extreme voices had warned, and yet our society is failing to meet the moment. The COVID-19 pandemic has only provided the international ruling class with new justifications for immigration restriction. What is to be done? Can we rise to the occasion?

Can we make immigration matter?