The Coalitions That Can Win

Grassroots immigration groups are in the best position to thwart Trump's mass deportation schemes.

A US Border Patrol truck along the US-Mexico border. USBP_Guy / Flickr

Trump won. Now what?

In recent weeks, the president-elect has selected a white nationalist (Steve Bannon) to be his chief strategist. He’s tapped the most virulent anti-immigrant senator (Jeff Sessions) to be his attorney general. Come January 20, the instruments of state repression will be in the hands of some of the country’s most reactionary forces.

Politically, Trump will owe nothing to immigrant communities and owe much to a xenophobic Republican base. Undocumented immigrants, who won some victories but endured many more deportations over the last eight years, will be forced to contend with a man who launched his presidential campaign calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists.

The only humane response is all-out resistance.

With all branches of the federal government effectively closed off to immigrant rights activists, the local and state levels will be the best place to throw sand in the gears. Encouragingly, many cities and counties have already passed, or vowed to continue enforcing, sanctuary city laws. These measures restrict local cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security, limiting the ability of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to use police agencies to detect, detain, and deport undocumented immigrants. While Trump has threatened to suspend federal funding to sanctuary cities, cutting off appropriations for a wide swath of major cities would debilitate the national economy.

The power to rebuff Trump therefore depends on the immigrant rights movement’s ability to build interconnected enclaves of solidarity, across counties, cities, and states. What types of organizations are best positioned to do so? The recent past provides some guide.

The Two Wings of Immigration Reform

Over the past decade or so, immigrant rights groups have roughly split into two camps.

More establishment organizations have focused on lobbying for comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level. Grassroots groups have worked outside the halls of power, often at the local level and often adopting a more confrontational posture.

The establishment wing of the immigrant rights movement has been dominated by a handful of organizations, mostly located in Washington DC. These organizations have benefited greatly from a massive infusion of funding from foundations: Ford, Open Society, Gates, and many others. From 2000 to 2012, according to IRS tax forms, the total annual funding for these lobbying-centric organizations increased from $56 million to $174.5 million. The three leading national groups — National Council of La Raza, the Center for American Progress, and the Center for Community Change — amassed $365 million, $270 million, and $180 million, respectively, in “grants and contributions” during the twelve-year period.

These organizations erected an impressive national infrastructure, launched extensive communication campaigns, and developed sophisticated lobbying strategies at the federal level. Yet they failed to win the holy grail — comprehensive immigration reform — in 2006, 2007, 2010, and 2013, in political environments much more favorable than today.

Over the last eight years, the second wing of the movement has put its energy into resisting the Obama administration’s unprecedented wave of deportations. Struggling at the local level, they have won a string of victories: Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA, 2012), Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA, 2014), sanctuary city legislation, the California TRUST Act (2014). They successfully pushed back against Arizona’s repressive SB 1070 law in 2010. They fought for access to driver’s licenses, health care, and in-state college tuition.

While this patchwork of wins wasn’t a permanent fix, it provided relief, support, and some level of stability for millions of people. These and other victories also degraded the legal and ideological foundations of the deportation state, while inspiring thousands of undocumented people to come out of the shadows and into the political sphere.

Typically, the winning coalitions consisted of grassroots immigrant organizations, undocumented youths, national networks of local organizations, and national legal organizations.

The involvement of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), a Los Angeles–based group comprised of workers centers across the country, is a good example. While national funders and advocacy organizations focused on Congress, NDLON worked with its allies to beat back draconian laws and programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities (which enlist local police agencies to help enforce federal immigration law).

In the late 2000s, NDLON joined local allies in Arizona to mount a campaign against the sheriff of Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio. Embracing the Civil Rights Movement’s “Bull Connor” strategy, NDLON used one of the most odious anti-immigrant figures to draw national attention to the 287(g) program.

After the passage in 2010 of Arizona’s SB 1070, NDLON and its local and national allies drew on existing infrastructure to fight the state measure and copycat laws across the country.

The same year, undocumented youth activists, many of whom had been trained by national organizations, began to publicly question the strategy of establishment reform organizations. The DREAMers, as the youths came to be known, argued that the opportunity for securing comprehensive immigration reform had passed. The new priority, they argued, should be advancing the DREAM Act, which would provide undocumented youths a viable path to legal status.

National organizations, having already sunk untold millions into comprehensive reform, balked. So the DREAMers stepped back from these national allies and created their own national coalition (DREAM Activist), assembling local clusters of more radical youths loosely connected through personal and social media networks.

Important elements of the radical youth network joined forces with organizations like NDLON. While the DREAMers failed to push through the DREAM Act in 2010, the extraordinary pressure they placed on the Obama administration — including through direct action tactics that establishment groups couldn’t have pulled off — reaped benefits: he issued an executive order providing temporary status to thousands of undocumented immigrant youths.

In California, this alliance of radicalized students and worker organizations spearheaded the successful campaign to restrict local police participation in the Secure Communities program.

And in 2013–14, it served as the backbone of a national coalition to end deportations (#NOT1MORE). Deriding Obama as the “deporter in chief,” activists asserted that the president could save his dubious legacy by using his executive authority to stop deportations. Not content with Obama’s 2012 executive order, they called for a “DACA for all.”

As it became clear that House Republicans would not support immigration reform, leading reform organizations in Washington DC began to pivot and support the anti-deportation struggle. In February 2014 the executive director of National Council of La Raza (a close White House ally) embraced NDLON and #Not1more’s use of the term “deporter in chief” in a highly publicized meeting.

Other DC organizations followed suit and began employing the same rhetoric to press the White House to use its executive authority. As pressure mounted from even friendly quarters, the Obama administration introduced the Deferred Action for Parent Arrivals in November 2014 and restructured the Secure Communities program.

Building Concrete Resistance

A brief review of the past decade shows that the victories against Obama’s deportation regime came through grassroots coalitions of student, worker, and immigrant rights groups that, over time, developed considerable tactical knowledge and mobilizing wherewithal.

If Trump’s most egregious plans are to be foiled, it will take a similar (if significantly scaled-up) effort. These organizations have a proven track record in pushing cities and states to provide protections for undocumented immigrants, and experience fighting repressive immigration laws like SB 1070 in Arizona.

The groups that have long been foundation favorites aren’t as well-equipped for the next administration. They spent millions of dollars, only to see immigration reform fail. At best they’ll be junior partners, following the lead of grassroots organizations and providing support for anti-deportation campaigns.

Over the next four years, excoriating Trump’s nativist agenda won’t be enough. As movement actors are well aware, they’ll have to build on existing organizational structures and coalitions, translating moral outrage into concrete and forceful resistance.