The Immigrant Rights Movement: Then and Now

By Lisa M. Martinez

Nearly 10 years ago, protestors numbering in the hundreds of thousands marched in the streets of American cities in support of immigrant rights. Although activists had long been working towards comprehensive immigration reform, the protests were precipitated by a series of events that had long been developing.

One of the precipitating events was the introduction of HR 4437, which would have made it a crime for any agencies, including churches and charity organizations, to aid or assist undocumented immigrants, created stricter penalties for employers who hired undocumented workers, and allocated resources to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Although it failed in the Senate, HR 4437 paved the way for anti-immigrant legislation making it a crime to be undocumented.

Also important was the inability of the DREAM Act to pass. Introduced in 2001, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act would have granted undocumented youth conditional residency status and, after meeting a series of criteria—including graduating from college or serving in the military—they would be eligible for permanent residency. Despite bipartisan support and being reintroduced in a series of immigration-related bills, it has failed to pass multiple times.

The protests were also fueled by growing anti-immigrant sentiment. While palpable across the country, this sentiment was most notable in border states and states with significant immigrant and Latino populations. This took many forms from opposition to reforms that included a guest worker program or path to citizenship to vigilante groups patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border in hopes of apprehending immigrants. The public’s perception of immigrants was also growing more negative with a majority of Americans agreeing “immigrants threaten traditional values,” and “illegal immigrants should be required to go home” (Doherty 2006). That same year, some Republican presidential candidates espoused anti-immigrant rhetoric with one basing an entire campaign on it.

In response, immigrant rights activists mobilized a series of protests in spring 2006. First-person and media accounts provided rich descriptions of the protests in terms of turnout, the protestors themselves and, importantly, their claims. For scholars, the protests provided important insights about the relationship between the role of Spanish-language media in the mobilizations (Okamoto, Ebert, and Violet 2011), the multigenerational character of movement participants (Bloemraad and Trost 2008), the transnational and panethnic aspects of the movement (Pallares and Flores-Gonzalez 2010) as well as the frames used to mobilize protestors (Martinez 2011). In many respects, the immigrant rights movement was composed of individuals who would not ordinarily be expected to engage in high-risk activism (McAdam 1986; Martinez 2006), especially given the risks to immigrants for coming out of the shadows.

How has the immigrant rights movement changed in the last 10 years? In 2006, emphasis was in effecting change at the federal level. Meyer and Staggenborg (1996) note that movements succeed when they put issues on the public agenda or influence public policy. Although they are likely to provoke counter-movements, they raise the salience of an issue such that it gains the attention of policy makers, the media, and the public. Moreover, protest movements “can open a policy window creating an opportunity for institutional action, which in turn encourages a wide range of actors to mobilize on the issue in different venues” (Meyer and Staggenborg 1996:1635). The introduction of HR 4437 and the failure of the DREAM Act presented an open policy window for movement activists to mobilize in support of comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship.

After 2006, grievances manifested at the state and local level following the implementation of “show-me-your-papers” initiatives allowing law enforcement officials to detain individuals believed to be undocumented and, in many cases, handing them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Although repealed in several states, the advent of such laws required activists to pivot away from a federal approach to a more localized one. Focus also shifted towards addressing the criminalization of immigrants in response to the unprecedented number of deportations under the Obama administration (De Genova and Peutz 2010). Using extra-institutional tactics such as hunger strikes, prayer vigils outside detention facilities or staging small protests in their communities, their goal is to prevent families from being torn apart while also putting an end to the deportation regime (De Genova and Peutz 2010).

Snow and colleagues (1986:476) maintain that frames provide the conceptual bridges that link social psychological considerations with structural/organization goals. The goal for activists is to choose frames that will not only guide the movement’s action but, also, resonate with target audiences, including policymakers and the general public (Benford and Snow 2000; Cress and Snow 2000). In 2006, immigrant rights activists made appeals to the moveable middle, the segment of the electorate who could empathize with immigrants (Martinez 2008). For example, frames emphasizing immigrants’ contributions, (“We pay taxes”), their allegiance to the U.S. (I am an American, too), family unity, (“Please don’t tear my family apart”) as well as ones emphasizing their humanity (“No human being is illegal”) were widely used. Given that immigrants’ claims are constrained by their lack of citizenship (Giugni and Passy 2004) movement organizers were careful to choose frames that would appeal to the public (Martinez 2008; Martinez 2011).

Today, activists tend to utilize frames that emphasize the damage caused by family separation (Zayas 2015) as well as meritocracy and deservingness (Yukich 2013). While effective at garnering support from the public and elected officials, frames emphasizing meritocracy, hard work, and deservingness raise some concerns as they brighten the boundary between deserving immigrants (i.e., undocumented students) and undeserving immigrants (i.e., those not college bound) (Dingeman-Cerda et al., forthcoming; see also Lamont and Molnar 2010; Yukich 2013).

Last, although 2006 protestors were multigenerational (Bloemraad and Trost 2008), youth activists have been the most active and visible in recent years due, in large part, to their tactics. These include the undocubus—a bus tour that traveled from Arizona to Washington D.C. to raise awareness about immigration through “civil disobedience, art, and organizing” (, n.d.)—hunger strikes, blockading buses full of detainees, and campus protests. Frames such as “Undocumented and unafraid,” have become more commonplace, signaling youths’ unwillingness to be deterred as well as their privileged status relative to family members who are unable to come out as undocumented. Narratives and frames highlighting the promise and accomplishments of immigrant youth are popular among movement activists (Yukich 2013) and have been effective insofar as they have been used to achieve legislative successes, including in-state tuition measures for undocumented students.

As the country enters a new presidential election cycle, the climate has once again become hostile towards immigrants and refugees. While Democratic candidates have provided very little information regarding their immigration policies, several Republican candidates have moved to the most extreme end of the spectrum on the issue with one candidate, in particular, vilifying immigrants as job stealers and rapists who bring drugs, crime, and violence to the U.S. (Burns 2015).

For immigrant rights activists, work in support of the millions of undocumented immigrants living, working, and attending schools in this country continues. Although the movement has changed its tactics, strategies, and frames in the last 10 years, the circumstances prompting the 2006 protests are similar today, leaving open the possibility of widespread mobilizations and pro-immigrant reform.


Benford, Robert D. and David A. Snow. 2000. “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment.” Annual Review of Sociology 26:611-639.

Bloemraad, Irene and Christine Trost. 2008. “It’s a Family Affair: Intergenerational Mobilization in the Spring 2006 Protests.” American Behavioral Scientist 52:507-532.

Burns, Alexander. July 2015. “Donald Trump’s Instinct for Racially Charged Rhetoric, Before His Presidential Bid.” New York Times. Retrieved November 27, 2015. URL:

Cress, Daniel M. and David A. Snow. 2000. “The Outcomes of Homeless Mobilization: The Influence of Organization, Disruption, Political Mediation, and Framing.” American Journal of Sociology 105(4):1063-1104.

De Genova, Nicholas and Nathalie Peutz (eds). 2010. The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and the Freedom of Movement. Duke University Press.

Dingeman-Cerda, Katie, Edelina Burciaga, and Lisa. Martinez. Forthcoming. “Neither Sinners Nor Saints: Complicating the Discourse of Noncitizen Deservingness.” Association of Mexican American Educators Journal.

Doherty, Carroll. 2006. “Attitudes toward Immigration in Red and Blue.” Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center. Retrieved November 27, 2015. URL:

Giugni, Marco and Florence Passy. 2004. “Migration Mobilization between Political Institutions and Citizenship Regimes: A Comparison of France and Switzerland.” European Journal of Political Research 43:51-82.

Golash Boza, Tanya. 2015. Deported: Policing Immigrants, Disposable Labor, and Global
Capitalism. New York: New York University Press.

Lamont, Michele and Virag Molnar. 2010. “The Study of Boundaries in Social Sciences. Annual Review of Sociology 28:167-195.

McAdam, Doug. 1986. “Recruitment to High-Risk Activism.” American Journal of Sociology

Martinez, Lisa M. 2006. “Yes We Can! Latino Participation in Unconventional Politics.” Social Forces 84(1):134-155.

Martinez, Lisa M. 2008. “The Individual and Contextual Determinants of Protest among Latinos.” Mobilization 13(2):189-204.

Martinez, Lisa M. 2011. “Mobilizing Marchers in the Mile-High City: The Role of Community-Based Organizations.” Pp. 123-141 in Rallying for Immigrant Rights by Irene Bloemraad and Kim Voss (eds.). University of California Press.

Meyer, David S. and Suzanne Staggenborg. 1996. “Movements, Countermovements, and the Structure of Political Opportunity.” American Journal of Sociology 101(6):1628-1660.

Okamoto, Dina G., Kim Ebert, and Carla Violet. 2011. “¿El Campeón de Los Hispanos? Comparing the Coverage of Latino/a Collective Action in Spanish- and English-Language Newspapers. Latino Studies 9:219-241.

Pallares, Amalia and Nilda Flores-Gonzlaes (eds). 2010. Marcha! Latino Chicago and the Immigrant Rights Movement. University of Illinois Press.

Snow, David A., R. Burke Rockford, Jr., Steven K. Worden, and Robert D. Benford. 1986. “Frame Alignment Processes, Micromobilization, and Movement Participation.” American Sociological Review 51(4):464-481.

Undocubus: n.d. Retrieved November 30. URL:

Yukich, Grace B. 2013. “Constructing the Model Immigrant: Movement Strategy and Immigrant Deservingness in the New Sanctuary Movement.” Social Problems 60(3):302-320.

Zayas, Luis. 2015. Forgotten Citizens: Deportation, Children, and the Making of American Exiles and Orphans. Oxford University Press.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Immigrants and Refugees

One response to “The Immigrant Rights Movement: Then and Now

  1. Pingback: Opposing Mass Incarceration Is “Trendy,” but Can We Stop the Train of Piecemeal Reform? | Wayne Northey

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