Direct Action And Immigration Reform

As I alluded to previously, immigration reform seems to me like an issue where radical tactics, if people could be organized to engage in them, would have high prospects for success. Among other things, Jose Antonio Vargas’ story today makes that clear on a number of levels.

One is that people were willing to help him in a civilly disobedient way, starting with the woman at the DMV who whispered to him that his papers were fake rather than reporting him. Another is that whatever ultimately happens to Vargas, INS agents haven’t rushed to his house to deport him ASAP. He’s not currently sitting in a detention cell being questioned about what knowledge editors at the Washington Post and Huffington Post had of his immigration status. When Vargas pitched the story to the Post, they apparently rejected it, but they didn’t turn around and immediately drop a dime on the guy.

Which is all just to say that the treatment of undocumented workers in this country is one of those things where we’re only kinda sorta willing to enforce the law. Faced with a known quantity — a friend, a colleague — nobody really wants to see a good person deported. Nobody really wants to make powerful people pay the price for complying with the law. And everyone knows we wouldn’t really even have the logistical capacity to deport every unauthorized migrant in the United States if they all turned themselves in tomorrow. The undocumented and their friends and family and allies have, in other words, the potential to take the broken immigration and really smash it the point where it doesn’t work at all. What the practical output of a crisis like that would be is difficult to say. But the point is that Washington basically doesn’t want this on the agenda. Politicians want to talk about deficit reduction and posture about jobs. But undocumented people could in principle force their way onto the agenda if there was enough will and organization. And I think the experience of the filibuster-happy 111th Congress makes it pretty clear that if we are going to see dramatic legislative change on this front it’s going to take something like that.