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Southern Affiliates Share Wisdom and Strategies for State-Level Immigration Advocacy

By Jen Riddle

 

The second morning of last month’s Southeast Legalization Planning Conference was devoted to state and local level advocacy around various immigration issues.  The day opened with conference participants sharing updates about legislation and trends from each of the nine Southeastern states.  This was followed by two panel discussions: the first addressing advocacy tools and strategies for promoting positive measures for immigrants, and the second discussing the unauthorized practice of immigration law and strategies for combating this pervasive problem and protecting victims. Below are a few of the lessons learned from affiliates’ and advocates’ discussions that may be of interest to other parts of the country as well.

The Power of Unlikely Coalitions

Both conference participants and panelists stressed the important role that creative coalitions can play in the advancement of pro-immigrant measures. For example, an unlikely ally of a driver’s license bill mentioned by the Associate Director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky was hospital lobbyists who support all drivers having photo identification in the case of an accident.  A Louisiana affiliate spoke about local priests and nursery workers uniting to support driver’s licenses for undocumented agricultural workers. On a national level, Bibles, Badges and Business is an alliance of conservative faith, law enforcement, and business constituencies in the Southeast, Midwest, and Mountain West committed to passing comprehensive immigration reform. Reaching outside the usual immigrant advocacy community can be effective in changing legislators’ minds on issues important to immigrant communities.   

Advocacy Approaches on Enforcement Issues Will Vary from County to County

Affiliates seemed to agree that the extent to which local law enforcement agencies engaged in immigration enforcement varied drastically from county to county.  They mentioned aggressive police and sheriff collaboration with ICE in such jurisdictions asCobb County, Georgia; Jefferson Parish, Louisiana; and Mobile, Alabama, ranging from trailer park sweeps to restaurant raids to Sunday afternoon roadblocks.  One affiliate mentioned the possible deterrent effect of a racial profiling lawsuit brought by Latino drivers against the city of Alexander, Arkansas. Several affiliates reported difficulties obtaining U visa certification from law enforcement in certain jurisdictions including a protocol in Harrison County, Mississippi of refusing to sign certifications until the criminal case is completed.  In such hostile areas, affiliates may wish to consult CLINIC’s Toolkit for Communities to Advocate Against ICE Partnerships with Local Law Enforcement Agencies. On the flip side, advocates in Jackson, Mississippi are petitioning the mayor and police department to lead cultural competency trainings for local law enforcement and the Burlington Police Department in North Carolina is assisting low income individuals with income tax preparation through the VITA program.  In jurisdictions with sympathetic local leaders, immigrant advocates can focus on cultivatingpartnerships and alliances with mayors and police departments.

You Don’t Always Need to Pass a Law

Despite the unprecedented number of states that enacted pro-immigrant legislation in 2013, there are states in which such laws simply will not garner the necessary bipartisan support for passage.  In those regions, it may be futile to advocate for a state-wide driver’s license bill, TRUST act, or tuition equity law.  Instead, advocates recommended focusing on changing the practices of individual institutions or actors – for example, convincing specific community colleges to grant in-state tuition to undocumented students or pushing certain municipalities to limit compliance with ICE detainers.  Likewise, an advocate from Louisiana spoke about her efforts to discretely convince state agencies to enforce a 2003 law that had never been put into effect to grant driver’s licenses to undocumented agricultural workers, rather than introducing a new bill. When positive policies can be implemented on the ground, it may be wiser to let such practices continue quietly rather than endangering their continuation by pushing to institutionalize them on a legislative level. 

The Unauthorized Practice of Immigration Law is More Nuanced Than We Think

When we hear the term “unauthorized practice” we tend to think about notario publicos preying upon innocent immigrants and misleading them about their options for relief.  Yet, many conference participants shared stories of clients whose immigration cases were inadvertently harmed by well-intentioned community members (teachers, priests, parishioners) attempting to assist them. Tax preparers were also mentioned as frequent scammers. In addition to pushing state laws regulating the provision of immigration services and protecting would-be victims of immigration fraud, significant education and outreach is needed to explain to immigrants and community members the many permutations of the unauthorized practice of immigration law and how to avoid not only becoming a victim but becoming an unsuspecting perpetrator.    

Bring Your Bishop On Board

An advocate from Arkansas highlighted the impact of presenting a letter from Little Rock Bishop Anthony Taylor to state legislators who were introducing an omnibus anti-immigrant bill in 2008.  The power of an active Bishop in state and local advocacy should not be underestimated. Affiliates agreed there were opportunities in many dioceses for improved collaboration with State Catholic Conferences to educate Bishops on immigration issues and encourage them to write letters or op-eds supporting pro-immigrant policies as well as help find funding for legalization and other initiatives.  CLINIC can help by sharing sample talking points and drafting op-eds.  CLINIC has also commissioned a demographic survey from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) on immigrants in the United States, and will be sharing diocesan-specific data with each Bishop.  As a CLINIC affiliate, you also have access to this information here:

Really Get To Know Your Elected Officials

According to Representative Pedro Marin of Georgia, a panelist at the conference, elected officials don’t always vote with their constituents but sometimes vote based on their own ethics. One key to swaying a state legislator is finding a personal hook. The Associate Director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops spoke about a meeting with a state legislator considering sponsoring a 2011 omnibus anti-immigrant bill. This politician was a construction contractor by profession. After being reminded of the role the Latino population played in rebuilding homes after Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav and better understanding how the bill would restrict the hiring practices of contractors reliant on immigrant labor, the legislator reconsidered his support of the bill.

The Importance of Messaging and Putting a Human Face on the Issue

Related to the previous tip about getting to know your elected representative, affiliates stressed the importance of spinning an issue in a way that will resonate with individual lawmakers.  Often times, it makes sense to sell a legislative proposal not as an immigration issue but as a bill to improve education, strengthen families, protect public safety, or enhance economic development for the state and all its residents.  As Catholic organizations, we bring a unique perspective to immigration issues and can draw from themes of Catholic Social teaching.  For example, speaking recently about the need for immigration reform, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles reminded us that “we don’t get our dignity from having the proper documents or the right paperwork.  Our human dignity comes from God.”  Finally, affiliates emphasized the power of putting a human face on the issue.  For example, when advocating on behalf of in-state tuition for all students regardless of immigration status, we can submit letters from DREAMers about the meaning of education in their lives or bring them to meetings with legislators to share their personal stories.

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