How Undocumented Organizers Can Lead the Way to Open Borders

My perspective on open borders has been profoundly shaped by my work with undocumented organizers in the U.S. In this post, I make the argument that the people most directly affected by closed borders are best able to create the political conditions necessary for open borders because:

1. They have the most to lose and therefore work the hardest for change,

2. They can better analyze the issues and frame the arguments in support of open borders because they directly experience the consequences of closed borders, and

3. Because of 1 and 2, affected individuals are more persuasive messengers to the voting public than intermediaries.

Martin Luther King, Jr. argued that meaningful social change comes through the creation of tension in an untenable system. In a recent OB post, Paul Crider cited King:

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. . . . I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. . . . The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

King’s key insight found expression in the movement for Indian independence, the U.S. civil rights movement, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the Arab Spring.

Undocumented youth in the U.S. have created tension by engaging in direct action to force the fact of their oppression into the public consciousness. The two most significant political events relating to immigration in the U.S. in the past few years were the DREAM Act vote in December 2010 and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative announced by President Obama in June 2012. Both resulted in large part from direct action by undocumented activists.

Undocumented Youth Push the DREAM Act to a Vote

Before 2010, immigrant rights barely registered with progressives, liberals, and libertarians who weren’t directly affected by the issue. In the 2009-2010 legislative session, with solid majorities in both houses of Congress and in possession of the White House, the Democrats didn’t even introduce a bona fide comprehensive immigration reform bill in either house of Congress until after it was clear it wouldn’t be voted on. Most Democrats preferred not to talk about immigration, much less push bills through Congress.

In early 2010, the debate around Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, SB 1070, started to change the conversation on the left. The vote on the DREAM Act in December 2010 further engaged mainstream progressives, who began to learn about immigration and started to pick a side. Even though the bill failed, undocumented youth emerged from the vote as the most visible and empowered segment of the immigrant rights movement.

It wasn’t preordained that the DREAM Act would be voted on at all. In early 2010, the national immigrant rights advocacy groups, then almost exclusively citizen-led, opposed bringing the DREAM Act up for a vote as a standalone bill. Their reasoning was that, having garnered solid bipartisan majorities in the past, the DREAM Act had to be bundled with comprehensive legislation as a sweetener so the larger bill could pass. They also believed that a failure on DREAM would doom any other immigration legislation for the foreseeable future. The advocacy groups told the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to hold the DREAM Act in committee, and the CHC communicated the message to Democratic leadership in Congress. The White House was almost entirely disengaged from immigration reform efforts at this time.

By early 2010, some undocumented youth activists were fed up with the hesitance and dissimulation coming from those purporting to speak for them. Through a series of direct actions, including a sit-in in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office, Reid changed course and agreed to bring the DREAM Act up as a standalone bill. This account of Reid’s conversion from restrictionist to immigrant advocate appeared in the New York Times recently.

But this is what really happened during the run-up to the 2010 mid-term elections.

Even though Reid had been mobilized through electoral politics, most Democrats in Congress were still stuck in a reactive mode. Reid couldn’t bring the Democratic caucus into line on the DREAM Act vote, losing five Democratic votes, which killed the bill given overwhelming Republican opposition.

Rubio Challenges Obama on Immigration and Fails

June 2012 marked another turning point. The GOP presidential primaries were in full swing, with each candidate trying to outdo the next in declaiming immigrants. Obama had little to fear from the Republican candidates themselves. Latinos were not likely to vote for the GOP given the party’s hard turn against immigrants over the previous decade. The question was whether Latino voters would turn out for Obama in sufficient numbers to push him over the top in swing states like Nevada, Colorado, and Florida. Obama’s mass deportation campaign, then in its fourth year, was hurting him with Latino voters.

In the spring of 2012, Senator Marco Rubio floated a proposal for a Republican DREAM Act. Observers speculated that Romney might try to undo the damage he’d caused with Latino voters in the primary by selecting Rubio as his running mate, and Rubio seemed to be working towards that outcome with his DREAM Act proposal. Rubio consulted directly with undocumented youth activists about the bill, acknowledging that their support would be crucial to his effort.

The National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), an undocumented youth group formed by the activists who led the first undocumented civil disobedience actions in 2010, came out early in favor of the Rubio proposal. United We Dream, the other, larger national undocumented youth organization, followed suit. Rubio had presented a way for the GOP to get out of the corner it had painted itself in with the Latino electorate. Obama was feeling pressure.

Then in early June, undocumented youth began staging sit-ins at Organizing for America offices in Oakland and Denver. Days later, President Obama announced the most significant immigration policy reform in over a decade: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The policy tracked the requirements of the DREAM Act, and offered formal protection from deportation to certain undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. With DACA, Obama neutralized whatever momentum for the GOP the Rubio proposal had sparked. The predictable backlash against DACA from Republicans, along with the ongoing public theater around Arizona SB 1070 and other anti-immigrant state bills, sealed a lopsided majority of the Latino vote for Obama in the 2012 presidential election.

Without the last several years of youth activism, there would have been no comprehensive immigration bill, as flawed as it is, passing last month in the Senate with a unified Democratic caucus and 17 Republican votes. There would be no generally-acknowledged connection between the future of the Republican Party and its position on immigration policy. Democrats would still be running from the issue or trying to out-enforce the Republicans. Obama likely wouldn’t have beaten Romney in the Latino and Asian-American vote by the margins that he did. Even had Obama won, the election results wouldn’t have been connected to a major immigration policy closely identified with the President–DACA–because the policy wouldn’t have existed without the organizing efforts that forced the President’s hand.

Documented and Afraid

Driving much of the change over the past few years has been a strategy developed by undocumented youth of publicly identifying themselves as undocumented and encouraging others to do so. The concept of “coming out” as undocumented and unafraid was adapted from the LGBT rights movement by LGBT undocumented activists. “Coming out” is an enormously effective strategy, but early adopters risk harsh penalties for challenging the dominant paradigm. As undocumented activists came out, they presented a different immigration narrative than the public had seen. Citizens came to realize that undocumented youth were not much different than their children or peers. Other undocumented youth saw those who had come out and were empowered to come out themselves. This had a ripple effect that rapidly changed the narrative about undocumented youth. The feared repercussions–deportation of those who exposed themselves as undocumented–never materialized.

Initially, most citizen advocates discouraged activists from being public about their undocumented status. “Know your rights” training sessions held by community organizations teach undocumented people never to disclose their immigration status to the police. Lawyers, advocates, and legislators have gone to great lengths to discourage undocumented activists from participating in civil disobedience actions, usually out of a misguided desire to protect the activists from themselves. Undocumented journalist Jose Antonio Vargas has talked about how most of the people he consulted before writing his seminal “coming out” piece in the New York Times in 2011 discouraged him from publishing it.

Not only did documented advocates fail to formulate effective organizing strategies, many actively tried to prevent undocumented activists from carrying out their own plans. While often based in good intentions, these efforts to suppress the political expression of oppressed people are patronizing and disempowering. This problem is caused by diverging incentives. Citizen advocates are not themselves at risk of harm, though some have loved ones who are at risk. Immigration lawyers like me–including those at legal services nonprofits–get paid whether we are fighting deportations or helping people apply for status; that is, whether immigration reform passes or not. Advocacy organizations can get funding for immigration work, whether to promote immigration reform or to implement it.

Undocumented activists were driven to riskier tactics out of desperation. Not long ago, ICE was routinely deporting all undocumented youth regardless of the balance of equities in individual cases. The risks the activists took in exposing themselves were real and extended to their families.

Citizen advocates are not only not the best immigrant rights analysts or strategists, but also not the best messengers. Over the past several years, I have appeared in my role as lawyer on panels or at interviews along with undocumented activists. Invariably, the interviewer’s or audience’s interest is drawn to the person who is herself affected, who herself risks imprisonment just by being there. For years, organizations and legislators have told the stories of clients or constituents to generate public support for immigration reform. On this, there is a fine line between empowerment and tokenism. Too often, advocates fail this test.

Leading the Way

Moving forward, affected people must continue to create the political conditions that will make better legislation possible. Momentum is on the side of the reformers. U.S. immigration laws are selectively and arbitrarily enforced. Counterintuitively, those who defy the immigration regime most publicly are the safest from deportation. This tells us that the legal system has become disconnected from the moral and political spheres. Citizen advocates and allies can play an important supporting role in reform efforts, but should not take the lead. If they do, they risk forestalling change yet again.

If Congress approves anything like the comprehensive bill passed by the Senate last month, opportunities for citizen civil disobedience will proliferate. For instance, citizens could unlawfully help deported immigrants re-enter the country or knowingly and publicly employ unauthorized workers. The more that citizen allies risk, the more moral authority they will wield. But few will have the incentive or resolve to risk long-term imprisonment–I know I don’t.

Most Americans are taught early on that U.S. democracy is principled, ordered, and fair. Opposing views on a topic are aired and consensus develops. Policymakers respond to and are held accountable by voters. While there were some hiccups in the past (slavery, Native American genocide) we’ve moved beyond those now.

The reality is that millions of noncitizens in the U.S. are exploited, targeted, and reviled with the sanction of the government and approval of the voting public. The U.S. political system not only produced and produces this result but is incapable of rectifying it. These problems are not unique to this time and place. Institutional systems of oppression are rarely overturned through sanctioned channels. Instead, oppressed people must themselves, through nonviolent direct action, create the political conditions necessary to reform the system.

The undocumented population in the U.S. and around the world is a small fraction of the total number of people profoundly harmed by closed borders. But undocumented organizers may present the best hope for reforming the global immigration and citizenship regime.

Undocumented youth in the U.S. are uniquely positioned to mobilize for legislative change because they are able to navigate U.S. culture while credibly speaking for the larger undocumented community. More than the citizens of most other countries, Americans claim to be willing to accept immigrants who make efforts to assimilate. This gives undocumented youth, who often pass as citizens, moral leverage they would not possess in most other countries.

As children, undocumented youth were promised the opportunities afforded to their citizen peers, finding those promises to be hollow only upon reaching adulthood. Straddling the line between global haves and have nots, undocumented youth in the U.S. personify the contradictions between the stated values of the political-economic order and the actual inequality and injustice that the order perpetuates. They blur that line and hint at the possibility of erasing it. If they are able to connect with victims of closed borders in other countries to organize transnationally, undocumented youth in the U.S. could point the way to achieving open borders on a much larger scale.

David Bennion

David Bennion is a lawyer and immigration activist who has worked with undocumented organizers for several years. See also:

blog post introducing David Bennion
David Bennion’s personal website

12 thoughts on “How Undocumented Organizers Can Lead the Way to Open Borders”

  1. I’d be curious if you have examples of undocumented organizers in recent times who have explicitly supported open borders.

    1. That’s a good point. I’m not aware of any pieces written by undocumented organizers explicitly making arguments for open borders like you see on this site. In person and in practice, some organizers express support for open borders, perhaps not in so many words. Going forward, I hope to see more dialogue between organizers and academics/economists/philosophers writing about open borders.

      Also, keep an eye on this: http://www.theniya.org/
      5 days and counting …

      1. Yeah, my personal view (based entirely on anecdotal evidence) is that a lot of people familiar with immigration issues are sympathetic to open borders or something very close to it — they just don’t actively discuss or advocate it.

  2. This post reminds me of my article “A Face for the Faceless” (here: http://american.com/archive/2012/july/a-face-for-the-faceless) and also of Chapter 8 of my book Principles of a Free Society, in which I argue that while the “who guards the guards?” problem seems to elude any robust solution, freedom has one very fortunate ally in civil disobedience, which always and necessarily favors freedom. I give a brief history of civil disobedience, including Jesus, Socrates, the early Christian martyrs, the resistance to the draft, Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement, Gandhi’s movement for the independence of India, and the Solidarity movement in Poland that brought down communism. It’s always very hopeful to see civil disobedience underway. It’s an extraordinarily powerful and beneficent force in history. It’s an honor to see it advocated with such clarity and tactical acumen at Open Borders.

    1. Thanks, Nathan. That’s a great article. Jose Antonio Vargas is compelling in print and in person. I agree with your statement that “Successful civil disobedience movements are among the most exhilarating, edifying, and transformative chapters in history.” I’ve found that to be true on a personal level. There is something transcendental about struggle against oppression that resonates on a primal level–I’d like to see that unpacked and analyzed because understanding it would tell us a lot about ourselves.

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