A recent article by Rinku Sen, a leading figure in the racial justice movement, examines how immigrant rights activists in the U.S. should move forward given the stalled legislative efforts at comprehensive immigration reform. She argues that the political discourse on immigration in the United States has undergone a sharp shift to the right in the past several years. Many Republicans now view any change in status of the roughly 12 million undocumented aliens an unacceptable political price for reform. At the same time, Democrats have increasingly shifted to a harsher language of “enforcement,” and Obama’s deportations have reached record levels, concessions that have not brought the country any closer to bipartisan cooperation on immigration reform. She concludes that, “[t]he immigrant rights movement for all its vibrancy and depth, has been losing the policy fight.”
Yet the "policy fight," she argues, is only one dimension of the push for immigrant rights. These debates are as cultural as they are political. In the immediate future, immigrant rights advocates must construct a cultural "counter-narrative" to compete with widely held characterizations of immigrants as parasitic, law-breaking, job stealers. This is just as important, if not more important, than achieving policy gains. Such cultural re-framing, Sen feels, is already evident in the ways that young activists have raised awareness of their personal narratives in the fight to pass the DREAM Act, proposed legislation which would provide educational opportunities to undocumented young people brought to this country as children. Additionally, she argues we see this cultural re-framing in those who challenge usage of the term “illegal alien,” contesting its punitive overtones and the way it constructs conceptions of who is inside and who is outside the proper "circle of concern."
Sen is certainly correct to draw attention to the fluidity between politics and culture, and to suggest that narrative and storytelling are as politically significant points of struggle as raucous protests or policy advocacy. If we think of the progressive political struggles in this country, we often encounter the innovative utilization of narratives and storytelling to challenge existing dogmas. The Suffragette Movement sought to supplant conceptions that women were not sufficiently rational or capable to responsibly exercise their right to vote. During the Civil Rights Movement, placards which announced “I am a man” symbolized much more than those four simple words. They proclaimed to white society that these individuals were human beings no different than anyone else, deserving of dignity, respect, and formal political and legal equality.
The creative use of storytelling and the redeployment of cultural narratives can remind us that solutions in hard times often lie in compassion and solidarity, rather than the easy descent into scapegoating and demonization. Even in the darkest and most challenging periods in history, we have witnessed the remarkable resilience of the human capacity for empathy. Perhaps Sen is right and the narratives being shared by these cultural activists can help us envision policy opportunities that do more than merely police, detain, or expel undocumented migrants.
However, at a certain point, the promise attached to these forms of cultural activism run headlong into the legislative reality we confront in the contemporary United States. In short, we confront the 112th Congress and its utter inability to produce meaningful movement on policy of any kind, not simply the difficult business of immigration reform. A recent book by well-respected congressional scholars Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein characterized the present Congress as locked in a condition of “hyperpartisanship,” which imperils the stability of American democracy.
The current Congress will likely pass fewer pieces of legislation than any Congress in recorded history, on pace to accomplish less than that labeled the “do-nothing” Congress by Harry Truman in 1948. This is also the most partisan Congress since the end of Reconstruction, with more and more votes pitting Democrats against Republicans along strict partisan lines, and cooperation between the two parties nearly nonexistent. This partisan extremism led Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) to announce her pending retirement at the outset of this year, stating as her justification that “an atmosphere of polarization and 'my way or the highway' ideologies has become pervasive in campaigns and in our governing institutions.” It in this context that Republican lawmakers once committed to bipartisan cooperation on immigration policy have withdrawn their support from legislative proposals which, only a few years ago, they had co-sponsored.
Such bleak facts suggest the limited prospects for meaningful policy change on immigration in the near future. One would hope that the popular pressure generated by cultural efforts to rewrite the narrative of immigration would eventually circle back and create some sort of impact upon policy. However, the United States has an utterly broken policy apparatus, a Congress where partisanship is so intense that even relatively mundane issues cannot be resolved. In this setting, struggle over the cultural meaning of immigration may be an interesting exercise, but one which promises little to no impact upon policy.
What will be essential in achieving significant policy progress on immigration in the United States is a concurrent political effort. Those seeking change must mobilize to remove from office members of Congress who put partisan brinkmanship above the tremendous challenges we face as a nation, and ideological dogmatism higher than the need for immediate and constructive policy solutions. Only then can Americans have any hope of change or reform, on immigration policy or any other issue.