Major political changes do not happen overnight.
For many immigrants, this reality is not acceptable. They want change now – if not yesterday – and absent such an outcome, they lose heart.
Instead of continuing to fight for change, some retreat to the confines of living in the shadows.
Others seek short term benefits, risking the potential for deportation in the future.
They are willing to take poorly-calculated risks and seek short term benefits . . . benefits which carry the potential for possible deportation measures in the future.
Both subsets of immigrants – the drifters and the driven – would do well to step back and learn from the June 26, 2015 Supreme Court same-sex marriage victory.
Three lessons stand out.
Persistence, Persistence, Persistence
Change does not happen on demand – and Rome wasn’t built in a day.
To prevail, immigration activists need to understand that persistence is a crucial key to long-term success.
A quick glance at the history of the same-sex marriage battle is instructive.
Although the nation’s first known gay rights organization began in 1924 and the first national gay rights organization started in 1951, the movement did not pick up steam until 1969, following a police raid at a popular gay pub, the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village.
The raid sparked three days of public protests and demonstrations.
It gave birth to Gay-pride festivities across the country a year later, on the anniversary of the Stonewall riots – and fueled a nationwide movement for gay rights.
These events continue today, and represent an important political symbol for LGBT activists in their battle for full equality.
In short, the road to the Supreme Court victory took over 40 years. Nothing short of political persistence would have sufficed.
That’s political reality.
Major political changes – like same-sex marriages, like immigration family unity reform – do not happen overnight.
Gay leaders comprehended electoral losses can result in political victories.
Incrementalism is the name of the political game.
Even if a preferred candidate only wins 25% of the vote, that 25% is the basis for growth in the future. It sets the stage for the next go-round in four years.
As noted in Liberation Politics And The Future Of Immigration Reform, to be effective in the long term, a movement has to be open to losing in the short term.
This does not mean the goal should be anything short of victory in the short term. Rather, it reflects an understanding that retreating from political combat will not occur upon the first news of defeat.
The Gay community proved its ability to persist in the face of mean-spirited adversity. Over the course of the next decade, and likely beyond, the immigration reform movement will need to demonstrate a similar commitment to its avowed cause.
To Win Big, Reformers Must First Win Small
As a Riverside immigration attorney, I’ve learned the shortest distance between two points, when it comes to legal, political, or social change, is not a straight line.
More often than not, the road to political success requires a few detours and change of direction along the way. More often than not, the shortest path to political success requires going the long way around.
During one of the first campaigns I managed, back in my activist days, I decided to support a candidate who was polling at 2% just six months before the primaries election day.
After much back-and-forth debate, I convinced him to not roll the dice on an “all or nothing” strategy against his three opponents, each with higher voter support. My strategy was to knock off the lowest hanging fruit, one at a time, and place second on primary day.
We could then focus on picking up support from those who voted for one of the losing candidates, as we battled one-to-one versus the front runner in the general election.
The strategy prevailed. Four years later, he won a seat in Congress. In his tenure, he was one of the most reliable House votes on pro-immigrant issues.
To be truthful, my plan took a lot of convincing in the campaign war room. For several months, I had to endure consistent second-guessing by naysayers.
Today I have similar concerns about the political goals of the reform movement’s leadership. We cannot win big without planning small.
As a former political insider turned green card lawyer, I wonder if the reform movement even has a long term plan for victory. From my vantage point, the movement at times seems rudderless, reacting to the media flavor of the day.
There appears to be little political consistency from one month to the next, from one organization to the next, from one election to the next.
True immigration reform will not be achieved without a quasi-coordinated strategy. The movement must guide itself, and not be guided by external sources.
Despite my misgivings, there is a road to the house of reform.
Start small. Win small. Celebrate small.
Then build from small.
Members of Congress are made, not born into office. They rise up from small beginnings in local political offices. They work their way up the political ladder.
Small victories today are the basis for bigger victories tomorrow.
The LGBT leadership did not wait for a benevolent politician to reach out to them and guide them through the landmines of political deception and false promises. They participated in campaigns of sympathetic candidates . . . and they groomed their own candidates.
These victories forced their battle into the legal system at the highest levels.
This is an important aspect of the same-sex marriage movement victory. Their Supreme Court success was not just a legal victory. It was also a political victory.
. . . And an immigration victory. For some same-sex couples, the battle incorporated an implied challenge to rules governing same-sex immigrant relative visa petitions and same-sex marriage green cards.
The victory was set in motion by a political strategy centered on winning local and state elections. Over time, the movement gained positive momentum.
Winning begets winning.
Mere lip service for those running for local office is not enough. Rather, active support and participation for candidates is needed. This is the type of involvement which elected officials recall when it’s time to vote on immigrant-friendly legislation.
Once this stage of inside influence is reached, it is only a matter of time before real measures of reform work their way into the higher courts of various states – and ultimately, the Supreme Court.
In my view, this strategy is largely overlooked by the immigration reform movement. A slight Democratic majority in Congress does not ensure comprehensive and compassionate immigration reform.
Instead, local candidates who demonstrate their commitment to immigrant communities on their rise to higher office, should be identified and groomed for Congress tomorrow.
Although Johnny-Come-Lately immigration reform supporters in the House and Senate are welcomed to join the bandwagon, deeper, long-lasting, more meaningful reforms require reformers to gradually develop the drivers of the immigration bandwagons.
Failure Is A Choice, Not An Option
There is only one way out from political darkness.
To keep fighting.
Consider, for a moment, the 40+ years of struggle leading to the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriages.
In the early years, the Gay Pride political movement experienced little success. The rude, disgusting, and vile commentaries about same-sex relations aimed at building widespread public opposition to the merits of the movement’s grievances were more than political insults.
They were designed to destroy the morale of movement supporters.
Same-sex marriage proponents committed to change, however, continued to labor, knowing there was no other other road to political and legal success.
Quitting meant failure . . . and failure was not an option.
Immigrants are exposed to the same type of distorting and insulting xenophobic attacks. In spite of these misplaced criticisms, reformers must hold the line.
This means neither retreating in the face of electoral, legislative, or legal setbacks – nor accepting piecemeal, potentially destructive measures without issuing publicly espoused reservations.
To do otherwise is a choice . . . a choice to accept failure.
This was not the path followed by LGBT activists.
It ought not be the path followed by immigration activists.
By Carlos Batara, Immigration Law, Policy, And Politics