This evening we’re honoring Frank Sharry, Founder and Executive Director of America’s Voice, with the NCLR Capital Award for Public Service. We asked Sharry to share some insight with us on the state of the fight for comprehensive immigration reform.
NCLR: You have been an advocate for immigrants in this country for more than three decades. How would you describe that struggle as it stands today?
Sharry: After many ups and downs over many years, we have turned the corner and are now winning. In 2012, our movement followed the lead of DREAMers and helped win protection for hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants. That same year, the Supreme Court dealt anti-immigrant legislation in states such as Arizona and Alabama a deathblow. Later in the year, the president was reelected with a strong showing from the Latino community, making it evident that immigration is a defining and mobilizing issue for many voters.
In 2013, the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill that would have allowed millions to get on a path to citizenship. In 2014, when the House of Representatives blocked reform, our movement compelled the president to announce historic policy changes through executive action. These will result in protection and work permits for millions of undocumented immigrants, and they will contain and restrict the formidable enforcement machinery that has ripped apart too many families.
Now, in 2015 our job is to defend these policy changes, implement them, and then, going forward, look to expand on them—until we have a Congress prepared to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation that grants immediate legal status and achievable citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in America. Despite a terrible district court ruling and aggressive Republican opposition, I’m very optimistic that we will prevail and the new policies will be fully implemented.
NCLR: Taking into account the current political climate, do you think we are closer to comprehensive immigration reform, or are the challenges bigger than ever?
Sharry: I believe that comprehensive immigration reform is inevitable. It is the best policy to modernize our dysfunctional immigration system in a way that reflects our values and restores our confidence. And politically, it enjoys strong majority support in the country, support from constituencies across the political spectrum, and majorities in the Congress.
While it’s quite clear that for this Congress the Republican majority is more interested in nullifying the president’s executive actions than in passing pro-immigrant reforms, I am hopeful that the 2016 election will open space for comprehensive immigration legislation in 2017. In fact, it could be similar to what happened after the 2012 election, but on steroids.
If not, then until we have a Congress that will do what the American people want, we may have to rely on a combination of additional executive actions and state and local pro-immigrant policies that will give the majority of undocumented immigrants living in America work permits, driver’s licenses, access to higher education, worker protections, and travel permission. However long it takes, I think we’ve won the argument, we’ve won the politics, and we’re gaining strength every day as a movement. Victory is a matter of when, not if.
NCLR: NCLR and other organizations are making the case that President Obama’s executive actions are good not just for those who benefit directly, but for the country as a whole. Should advocates put more emphasis on these economic benefits to convince those in the general public who might be swayed by the argument that administrative relief puts jobs in danger?
Sharry: First of all, NCLR deserves enormous credit for its leadership on immigration reform. Without the organization’s dedication to this fight, I don’t think we would have made the progress we’ve made. And without Janet Murguía’s courage to speak out in 2014, I don’t think we would have won such a significant victory through executive action.
As for the best arguments for executive action, the economic case is a strong and persuasive one, especially for skeptics in the middle. There’s no doubt that protecting millions of hardworking immigrants will lead to higher productivity, more small business formation, increased tax revenues, higher wages, and more workplace fairness.
The argument that providing work permits to workers already in the country and in the workplace will take jobs away from others is all heat and no light. First of all, these workers are already here and already working. Being able to work legally, change jobs, and speak up without fear will help create a more level playing field in which the pressures are to increase fairness, wages, and revenues that benefit all of us.
NCLR: What’s the one thing that has changed the most for advocates since your time with ACNS and Centro Presente?
Sharry: The biggest change is that over time, in fits and starts, and through frequent internal turbulence, all of us have created one of the most powerful social and political movements of our generation.
Our movement is broad, deep, and aggressive. It includes DREAMers, immigrant leaders, grassroots activists, unusual allies, faith communities, ethnic communities, civil rights groups, the labor movement, national organizations, organizing networks, service providers, and millions of ordinary people who take part through actions, events, and social media campaigns.
I am honored and humbled to be part of such a beautiful and powerful expression of the need for far-reaching changes in how we, as a society, welcome and include newcomers.
NCLR: There are always ups and downs when working in public advocacy. How do you maintain your optimism?
Sharry: For one, I am confident we are on the right side of history and that the harder and smarter we work, the sooner we will achieve our destiny.
Second, I’m a happy warrior. I love that our movement is resilient, persistent, and creative, and I am inspired every day by my colleagues in the struggle.
But the most important reason I love this work is that I love the people we stand with and for. I love the strength, humanity, humor, and optimism. I love the ability to be dignified and resolute even when their dignity is under attack and their futures are uncertain. I love the love they have for family, culture, and the country they now call home. It’s a long, difficult road to victory, to be sure, but we will get there—and beyond. In fact, I want to live long enough to be there in the gallery of the House and Senate when, in the not-so-distant future, Congress enacts resolutions apologizing to undocumented immigrants from this generation and celebrating their remarkable contributions.
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