BEYOND BUSH AND TANCREDO

Catching up on the immigration debate that broke out amongst some of my co-bloggers over at Campus Progress while I was out of the country, I think it exemplifies an unfortunate trend in the contemporary debate: conflating the questions of how immigration should be regulated and of what rights immigrants should have in this country. Every issue has some pundit out there convinced that there are not two sides but three or seven or nineteen, but the immigration question is actually one where there are three camps – counting not the number of potentially coherent ideologies out there but the number of discrete large-scale positions people are visibly lobbying for – which can’t be placed along along a single spectrum without losing a good deal of meaning.

The position which has gotten the most colorful press coverage recently is the one advocated by Tom Tancredo (R-CA) and the Minutemen vigilantes who’ve taken it on themselves the patrol the border and chase down people who look to them like immigrants. Tancredo wants to cut immigration to this country (drastically) by building a wall and wants to curtail the rights of immigrants here (drastically) by denying their children birthright citizenship. It’s a position which resonates with a significant swath of the Republican base, as well as some traditionally Democratic-voting folks. It’s the position of the National Review. Shamefully, it used to be (roughly) the official position of the AFL-CIO (arguably that position would have fit better in a fourth quadrant – fewer immigrants but more rights for them – which I’ll leave out here because it lacks many advocates).

The position which has unfortunately been the primary alternative portrayed in the media is the cluster of policy proposals represented by George W. Bush: more legal immigration but fewer rights for immigrants. That would be the consequence of the crypto-bracero program he offered two years ago, under which undocumented immigrants are invited to come out of the shadows and into the trust of their employers, who can sponsor them for as long as they see fit but are given no reason not to have them deported if they do something the boss doesn’t like. This is the position of the Wall Street Journal and the Cato foundation and the business elites they’re looking out for.

There’s a progressive position in this debate, but it isn’t either of these. It’s the position for which immigrants, advocates, and allies rode from around the country to Flushing Meadows Park for two years ago: open our country to more legal immigration and protect the rights of everyone who lives here. It’s the position of the national labor movement, the NAACP, and the National Council of La Raza, and it’s the one reflected in the principles of the New American Opportunity Campaign: offer a path to citizenship, reunite families, protect civil liberties, and safeguard the right to organize and bargain collectively for everyone who lives and works here. That’s the goal towards which the legislation offered by senators Kennedy and McCain is a crucial step.

Conservatives reap the benefits from any debate which pits low-income workers against each other based on race or gender or citizenship – even when such a debate makes cracks in their electoral coalition in the short term. Building a progressive movement in this country depends on bringing together working people across such divisions to confront shared challenges and opponents with common cause. It’s a task which ostensibly progressive organizations too often have failed – to their own detriment. A two-tiered workforce is bad for workers, and it’s bad for America. But the right answer to that challenge, on the immigration question as on the race question and the gender question, is to welcome new workers and ensure that they have the same rights as old ones, so that they can organize and bargain together to raise their standard of living. Pushing marginalized workers out of the workforce was the wrong position then, and it’s the wrong one now. It consigns more men and women to die crossing the border, and it endangers our security by perpetuating a system in which millions of people needlessly live outside of the law. And it denies the historical promise and dynamism of this country.

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ROSA PARKS, MISREMEMBERED

Rosa Parks died yesterday at age 92. Over the days to come, we’ll hear a lot of very-much deserved prasie for Parks’ refusal to abide bigotry and her courage in the service of a cause. Unfortunately, we’ll also hear a new round of recitations of the stubborn myth that Parks was an anonymous, apolitical woman who spontaneously refused to yield to authority and in so doing inspired a movement. The truth, as Aldon Morris wrote in his book The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, is that a decade earlier

in the 1940s Mrs. Parks had refused several times to comply with segregation rules on the buses. In the early 1940s Mrs. Parks was ejected from a bus for failing to comply. The very same bus driver who ejected her that time was the one who had her arrested on December 1, 1955…She began serving as secretary for the local NAACP in 1943 and still held that post when arrested in 1955…In the early 1940s Mrs. Parks organized the local NAACP Youth Council…During the 1950s the youth in this organization attempted to borrow books from a white library. They also took rides and sat in the front seats of segregated buses, then returned to the Youth Council to discuss their acts of defiance with Mrs. Parks.

This history is not hidden. But the Times’ obituary describes Parks’ arrest nonetheless as an event which “turned a very private woman into a reluctant symbol and torchbearer…” Parks was certainly reluctant to see too personal valoration of her as heroine distract from the broader movement. But she was not private about her politics. And her refusal to give up her bus seat was nothing new for her. As she would later tell an interviewer, “My resistance to being mistreated on the buses and anywhere else was just a regular thing with me and not just that day.”

The myth of Parks as a pre-political seamstress who was too physically worn out to move has such staying power not because there’s any factual basis but because it appeals to an all-too popular narrative about how social change happens in America: When things get bad enough, an individual steps up alone, unsupported and unmediated, and spontaneously resists. And then an equally spontaneous movement follows. Such a myth makes good TV, but it’s poor history.

Movement-building takes hard work, no matter how righteous the cause or how desperate the circumstances.

The pivotal moments of the 60’s civil rights movement, as Morris recounts in his book, were not random stirrings or automatic responses. Most of them were carefully planned events which followed months of organizing and were conceived with an eye to political tactics and media imagery. There were even some long meetings involved.

That shouldn’t be seen as a dirty little secret, because strategic organizing and planned imagery shouldn’t be seen as signs of moral impurity. Organizations, like the people in them, each have their faults (Ella Baker was frequently and justifiably furious with the sexism and condescension of much of CORE’s leadership). But the choice of individuals to work together and find common cause in common challenges doesn’t become less pure or less honest or less noble when they choose to do it through political organizations. And there’s nothing particularly progressive about a historical perspective in which Rosa Parks’ defiance of racism is made less genuine by the knowledge that she was secretary of the NAACP.

The myth of Rosa Parks as a private apolitical seamstress, like the myth of Martin Luther King as a race-blind moderate, has real consequences as we face the urgent civil rights struggles of today. Seeing acts of civil disobedience like Parks’ as spontaneous responses to the enormity of the injustice justifies the all-too common impulses to refuse our support for organized acts of resistance and regard organized groups as inherently corrupt. Those are impulses people like Rosa Parks had to confront and overcome amongst members of her community long before she ever made national headlines for refusing to give up her seat on the bus.