The Worst and Best of Times: Contrasting Strategies of the Immigrant Rights Movement, 2000-2014

By Walter Nicholls

These are the worst and best of times for today’s immigrant rights movement. On the one hand, leading immigrant rights organizations have failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform after 10 years of campaigning. Instead, the Obama administration rolled out and perfected one of the most efficient deportation regimes in American history (Secure Communities), which resulted in the record removal of approximately 403,000 undocumented immigrants per year during 2009-2013¹. On the other hand, we have witnessed the passage of smaller, piecemeal reforms by the Obama administration (DACA, DAPA²), states (e.g. Trust Act, drivers license, healthcare for undocumented immigrants, in-state university tuition), and cities (e.g. sanctuary city). This patchwork of small measures is not a permanent fix, but it can potentially provide relief, support, and some normalcy for millions of people. It slowly degrades the legal and political foundations of the immigration state while inspiring thousands of undocumented people to come out of the shadows and engage directly in the political sphere.

Well-resourced and politically well-connected national advocates have failed to push immigration reform through federal legislative channels, but poorer and politically marginalized activists and advocates have shown great ability to push for smaller piecemeal measures through niche political openings. This presents an interesting puzzle: we would expect better-resourced and connected organizations to dominate a social movement network and get close to achieving its principal goals. Instead, a relatively fluid network of marginalized activists has captured the momentum. Radicalized students (DREAMers) and day laborers have formed the core of this dispersed network. How is it that the margins of the movement (rather than national leadership) have done a better job in moving immigration reform forward?

Some casual observers might explain for the failure of leading national organizations by pointing to hostile contexts. This is not the case here. The period under question presented some of the most favorable conditions (in terms of resource and political openings) in the history of immigrant rights advocacy. According to IRS tax filings on 49 advocacy organizations³, annual funding (“grants and contributions”) during 1999-2012 increased from $56 million in 2000 to $174.5 million in 2012. The three leading national organizations (National Council of La Raza, Center for American Progress, and Center for Community Change) amassed $365 million, $270 million, and $180 million in “grants and contributions” for the overall period. Foundations (Ford, Open Society, Gates, MacArthur, Carnegie, NEO, Atlantic, among others) placed immigration advocacy at the top of their priority list and these organizations benefited in important ways. Smaller, local, and grassroots organizations benefited from this huge influx of resources, but larger national organizations mostly located in Washington D.C. benefited the most. These resources allowed larger organizations to form national-level coalitions: Fair Immigration Reform Movement, Reform Immigration for America, and Alliance for Citizenship. These hierarchically organized and centralized coalitions had important levels of reach across media circuits and into the grassroots. They came to form an oligarchic backbone of a national social movement.

In terms of political support, immigrant rights advocates enjoyed strong and growing support by Congressional Democrats and the Obama Administration. There was a general consensus by the late 2000s that comprehensive immigration reform was needed to fix the “broken system” and reforms should consist of three basic pillars: a streamlined work visa procedure, a pathway to legalize the status of “deserving” immigrants, and enhanced security and enforcement. Republicans were divided. The idea of comprehensive reform emerged during the Bush years and was strongly supported by his administration, powerful Senators, and the Republican National Committee. Nevertheless, a handful of House Republicans vehemently rejected reform on the grounds that “amnesty” rewarded “illegality” and placed the country at heightened security risk. Republican opposition was therefore split which presented an important opportunity for reform advocates. Political opportunities improved with the election of Barack Obama who appointed several immigrant rights advocates to key White House positions (e.g. Cecilia Muñoz, Julie Rodriguez, Jorge Neri, Felicia Escobar, among others). The Obama White House also cultivated close ties with leading advocacy organizations through the Office of Public Engagement. According an analysis of White House visitors’ records for 2009-2014 (based on a sample of 49 advocacy organizations), there were 444 meetings involving immigrant advocacy organizations. Many of the meetings were between top White House officials and involved the same leading national organizations. Rather than immigrant rights organizations being locked out of high-level meetings, they enjoyed a deep reservoir of political capital and unprecedented access. Just as important, public opinion has come to overwhelmingly favor a reform package that would include a pathway to legal status (72% of respondents of a recent Pew study4).

In this favorable context, leading immigrant rights advocates enacted nearly identical strategies in 2006, 2007, 2010, and 2013 campaigns. The strategy consisted of creating overwhelming support for Senate immigration reform bills, and then using bipartisan momentum in the Senate to pressure recalcitrant House Republicans. Leading immigrant rights advocates encouraged the diverse organizations in their coalitions to follow the strategy because unity would increase leverage over Congressional targets. The national strategy, however, failed to weaken the defenses of recalcitrant members of the House. To make matters worse, Democratic leaders believed that to win more Republican support, they needed to bolster their enforcement credentials. The Obama administration expanded deportation measures (especially, Secure Communities) and Senate Democrats introduced ever-restrictive proposals into the different versions of the comprehensive reform bill ($46 billion was allocated to enforcement in the 2013 Senate immigration bill). Within a favorable environment, leading immigrant rights advocates did not only fail to achieve their principal goal but they also accepted sacrifices that weakened their political position and threatened the livelihoods of the people they were supposed to represent.

As the national leadership failed to seize resource and political opportunities, more marginalized immigrant activist organizations targeted small yet strategic openings and embraced innovative tactics to pursue piecemeal measures that would provide immediate protections to legally precarious immigrants. The coalitions pushing for these measures often consisted of grassroots immigrant organizations, radicals marginalized by national advocates (National Day Labor Organizing Network and the DREAMers), and horizontal activist networks (DREAM Activist, #not1more).

The National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON), a Los Angeles-based organization made up of local “workers centers” across the country, served as an advocacy body for day labor workers in national and subnational political arenas. While national funders and advocacy organizations built a national level social movement focused on the Congress, NDLON prioritized campaigns to push back on restrictive local, state, and federal laws. The organization opposed two important federal programs to improve partnerships and coordination with local enforcement agencies: 287[g] and Secure Communities. In the late 2000s, NDLON joined local allies in Arizona to launch a campaign against the Sheriff of Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio. Taking a page from the civil rights movement’s “Bull Connors” strategy, NDLON used one of the most egregious cases of abuse to draw national attention and moral outrage to the federal 287[g] program. After the passage of Arizona’s restrictive immigration law in 2010 (S.B.1070), NDLON and its local allies had an infrastructure in place to fight the state measure and use this fight to deter copycat laws in states across the country. In both instances, activists viewed Arizona as a pressure point to weaken federal and state repressive capacities.

During 2010, undocumented youth activists, many of whom had been trained by national organizations, broke away from the dominant strategy. The DREAMers, as the youths came to be known, argued that the opportunity for passing national comprehensive reform was no longer possible in spring 2010. There was, however, a possibility to push for a smaller law (DREAM Act) that would provide undocumented youths a viable pathway to legal status. The national leadership balked because of their insistence on prioritizing comprehensive immigration reform. Radicalizing DREAMers created their own national coalition (DREAM Activist). It consisted of local clusters of more radical youths (Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, New York) loosely connected to one another through personal and social media networks. Important elements of the radical youth network allied themselves with relatively marginalized organizations like NDLON. While the radical DREAMers failed to push for the DREAM Act in 2010, they put extraordinary pressure on the Obama administration to use its executive authority for a measure to provide temporary status to qualifying undocumented immigrant youths (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA). This win demonstrated that with sufficient pressure, the executive branch could provide relief and protections to the community through piecemeal measures.

The alliance between the DREAMers and NDLON proved to be propitious. In California, this alliance spearheaded the campaign to pass legislation to limit local police participation in the federal government’s Secure Communities program (TRUST Act). The state law was intended to provide relief to millions of undocumented residents. Its advocates also expected the law to trigger a confrontation between the Obama administration and the most populous, Latino, and Democratic state in the country. The alliance between radicalized students and workers also served as the backbone of a national coalition to end deportations in 2013-2014 (Not One More). The coalition pressured the Obama administration to use its executive authority to provide relief to millions of immigrants in the country. It was envisioned as “DACA for all”. The coalition blamed President Obama for mass deportations by calling him “Deporter in Chief,” and asserted he could change this dubious historical role by using his executive authority to stop deportations. The national leadership worried that hardball tactics would risk depleting political capital with the Obama administration and weaken elite political support for the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill. As it became clear that House Republicans would not support immigration reform, leading advocacy organizations began to pivot in the direction of the insurgents in 2014, with the executive director of National Council of La Raza (a close White House ally) using the term “Deporter in Chief” in a highly publicized meeting. Other organizations making up the leadership followed suit and began employing the same rhetoric to pressure the White House to use its executive authority. As pressure mounted from across the movement, the Obama Administration introduced the Deferred Action for Parent Arrivals in November 2014 and restructured the Secure Communities program.

The most resourced and politically connected organizations have therefore enjoyed few real wins, but the more marginalized elements of the movement have enjoyed real gains in the last five years. The tentative explanation that follows remains tentative and brief. It rests on how advocates develop strategies in response to perceptions of the political arenas they are operating in. I stress perceptions because political arenas are extremely complex and open to vastly different interpretations by the stakeholders embedded within them. The radical complexity of the arena and uneven flows of information make it impossible for stakeholders to objectively map the political arena and develop rational strategies. Experienced stakeholders use the fragmented bits of information at their disposal to assess opportunities, powers, forces, and constraints. Based on these interpretive mappings, they construct what they believe are appropriate strategies and tactics to achieve goals.

In the case at hand, I suggest that the immigrant rights movement has created two different interpretations of the political arena and two contrasting strategies, one of which has been more successful than the other.

Leading national organizations developed a textbook interpretation of the political arena. The immigration state was essentially viewed as centralized, hierarchical, vertically integrated, and marked by a clear division between federal branches and local powers. The federal government had and needed to maintain its legitimate monopoly over the “means of movement”5 because it provided universal and transparent rules. Within this institutional framework, Congress was a major center of power because it had the authority to “fix the broken system”. Opportunities were assessed on the basis of supporters and adversaries in government. Supporters and allies should be cultivated and adversaries should be isolated. Criticizing allies was a bad tactic because it depleted political capital, thereby limiting support for reform and denying access to high-level, information rich meetings. This textbook interpretation of the political arena resulted in a corresponding strategy. Targeting and pressuring adversaries in Congress was spearheaded by national level, hierarchically integrated, and resource-rich coalitions. Unity and discipline across this dispersed national coalition was essential to increase pressure on hardliners and change public opinion. Thus, the interpretation of a hierarchical and nationally integrated political arena resulted in a strategy that was also hierarchical and nationally centralized. In spite of its elegance, the strategy failed over and over again to persuade House Republicans. Safely gerrymandered districts protected Republicans from reformist pressures but made them vulnerable to disgruntled Tea Party constituents who used immigration as an ideological litmus test. Overcoming Republican resistance meant intensifying pressure on more pragmatic House Republicans and ceding ground on restrictions, enforcement, and security. This introduced a perverse incentive structure for hardliners: the more they refused to participate in reform, the more rights advocates were willing to support egregious repressive measures as a part of “common sense” reform.

The marginalized activists and advocates had a very different interpretation. The arena was not necessarily a single political space dominated by a center of power (Congress) but a highly fractured space consisting of multiple arenas with various connections between them. It was more horizontally networked “governance” and less vertically integrated “government.” Federal efforts to develop partnerships with local officials transformed subnational governments (municipalities and states) into frontline political arenas with important de facto and de jure powers in the immigration state. This resulted in a network made up of plural and dispersed nodal points (political arenas) with uneven levels of power. These nodes were linked to one another through complex connections like technologies between law enforcement agencies, policies, legal rulings, memos, organizations, agencies, discourses, personalities, and so on. This political space resembled Clarence Stone’s complex regimes, where there is “seldom a fixed ‘go to’ body in place, the exercise of power has become less steady, and its institutional base lacks […] convergence.”6 Congress is an important node within this networked world but paralysis has diminished the importance of this node, while making other nodes (subnational governments, executive branch, courts) more interesting and accessible strategic arenas. Congress could be a target but there was no need to prioritize it as the principal center of power. Interpreting the political arena in this networked way, NDLON and their radical student allies assessed how different nodes are connected to one another and identified certain nodes as “pressure points”. Pressure points are conceived here as strategic nodes or political arenas that could be used to send disruptive tremors throughout the system. Arizona, for example, was a pressure point that was used to exert pressure on federal government deportation programs and to deter states from pursuing restrictive laws. Pressure directly on President Obama was used to pass DACA, which then set the legal and political precedence for DACA in subsequent years. By strategically targeting and mobilizing across nodes and strategic pressure points, activists have effectively built powerful momentum and steered the immigration state in a progressive direction while sidestepping the battle for comprehensive immigration reform in Congress. Thus, a flatter and more networked interpretation of the political arena resulted in a networked strategy of building up mobilization capacities in and across different nodes and pressure points.


[¹] Gonzalez-Barrera, A. (2014) “U.S. deportations of immigrants reach record high in 2013,” Pew Research Center, Fact Tank,

[²] Respectively, Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA). The latter remains bogged down in court fights.

[³] The survey included large national advocacy organizations (e.g. National Council of La Raza, Center for Community Change, America’s Voice, Center for America Progress, among others) to a sample of local and regional organizations throughout the country.

[4] Kehaulani Goo, Sara (2015) “What Americans want to do about illegal immigration,”

[5] Torpey, John (2000) The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[6] Stone, C. (2015) “Reflections on Regime Politics: From Governing Coalition to Urban

Political Order,” Urban Affairs Review, 51(1): 101-137, pp. 112.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Immigrants and Refugees

One response to “The Worst and Best of Times: Contrasting Strategies of the Immigrant Rights Movement, 2000-2014

  1. Pingback: On Executive Orders and Movement Building: Immigration Reform and Gun Control – Building Movement

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