In a new book, civil rights veteran and UnidosUS Senior Cabinet Advisor Charles Kamasaki recounts the fight to pass the Immigration Reform and Control Act in the mid-1980s.
By Stephanie Presch, Content Specialist, UnidosUS
“Immigration bills are hard to pass and often die before they are revived,” said UnidosUS Senior Cabinet Advisor Charles Kamasaki during a fireside chat about his new book, Immigration Reform: The Corpse That Will Not Die, during the 2019 UnidosUS Annual Conference in San Diego.
Kamasaki is a veteran of the civil rights movement. In his new book, he recounts the fight to pass the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in the mid-1980s.
The book not only revisits the effort to pass the legislation, but it also does so from the perspective of Latino advocacy groups and delves into the circumstances that made it possible.
The details matter
The book, Kamasaki noted, was originally an astounding 800-page manuscript. It was shortened to 560 pages by the time it made it to print.
He explained that competing desires—such as wanting to write a political science book and wanting to approach race from a theoretical perspective in the book led to it being longer than his editor wanted.
But one chapter that he would not let his editor cut was one that recounted the history of the pre-Mexican War period and the Chicano movement.
Kamasaki added that his editor asked him, ”Why can’t you summarize these 40 pages in five?”
To that, he had a simple four-word answer: “Because the details matter.”
Kamasaki views the current fight over immigration policy as being the latest point in a long history of how Latinos are treated in the United States. To fully understand the current events surrounding immigration, you have to understand the post-Mexican War period and the beginnings of the Chicano civil rights movement.
“One reason why Latino civil rights advocates viewed immigration reform as their civil rights movement is because of the previous 100 years,” Kamasaki explained.
So much of history, Kamasaki noted, is told from the perspective of White men. He added that there is a perception that all important moments are when a White lawmaker, businessperson, or president decides to take action.
But with such strong roots in the civil rights and advocacy world, focusing only on the actions of White men only tells a fraction of the story, and excludes the people most affected by reform. “I try to be fair to the lawmakers, but I also wanted to tell the story from the perspective that I knew,” Kamasaki explained.
Representing the entire community
Latinos in the United States have long been treated not as citizens, but as subjects of the United States, according to Kamasaki. In fact, as he notes, the first immigration policy focused on our community wasn’t about how many people can come to the United States—it was focused on sending Mexicans back to Mexico as soon and as quickly as possible.
However, civil rights theory and Chicano radicals led to new ideas and a new consensus.
“This new consensus emerged that if you were really going to be a civil rights advocate, you had to represent the whole community, and a good chunk of that community was foreign-born,” Kamasaki added.
IRCA was intended to take a comprehensive approach to immigration—it would sanction employers that knowingly hired undocumented immigrants, heighten border enforcement, and contain a broad legalization program. How to treat seasonal agricultural workers, according to Kamasaki, was an unofficial part of the legislation.
Some Latino labor advocates like César Chávez vehemently opposed IRCA. Indeed, UnidosUS (at the time NCLR) also initially opposed IRCA, believing that it would create employment discrimination against Latinos, including those who are lawfully present, and because the organization believed that the proposed legislation didn’t go far enough.
Kamasaki noted that while the organization had begun from a place of opposition, they soon shifted to an affirmative defense of the bill, trying to nudge it toward a place that they believed would be beneficial to the most number of people in the community.
In the end, it seemed like many of the fears that UnidosUS had at the time were justified. For example, as Kamasaki explained, “The agricultural growers—the western growers in particular—were so powerful that they essentially got a massive guest worker program that was a reenactment of the Bracero program,” a migrant farmworker program in the 1940s and 50 that was meant to guarantee decent living conditions and a minimum wage, but in reality often left migrant workers vulnerable, for example, to employers who would neglect payment or not provide them with adequate food.
We’ve tried enforcement-only
Kamasaki took a clear line against an enforcement-only approach to undocumented immigration during the discussion.
He pointed to another significant package of immigration legislation that came out a decade after IRCA: the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. This law increased penalties for undocumented immigration and made it easier to deport immigrants.
“An enforcement-only regime has already been tried,” said Kamasaki. “It’s the law now, and it’s not working.”
Although the Trump administration’s rhetoric and actions toward the Latino community have been draconian (or unnecessarily harsh) and cruel, anger and division over immigrants isn’t new. Kamasaki recounted the Vietnamese shrimp boat burnings in Corpus Christi, as well as the controversy over Cuban and Haitian boat lifts in South Florida.
“People tend to have somewhat nostalgic memories,” he added. Kamasaki explained that one reason that Jimmy Carter is thought to have lost the 1980 presidential election is because he allowed Cubans to enter Florida when they were fleeing the Castro regime.
“There was no dog whistle, this was blatant, outright, discrimination,” he continued. Stereotypes, as he noted, have always existed, and they were still recent memory during the last major immigration debate as well.
Nostalgia has also been a key discussion point when it comes to rural White voters who supported Trump in the last election.
On this issue, Kamasaki was pessimistic. “I don’t think we’ve found a way to convince them that we have a shared future,” he explained. He emphasized the need to talk to our opponents, and not about them, so that we may be able to convince them to see the immigration debate differently.
Kamasaki believes that the Latino community has an important role to play in the immigration debate. He also added that even with a big victory like the passage of IRCA, it’s important to keep going forward. He noted that Prop 187, which tried to restrict immigrants access to non-emergency services, like public education; Newt Gingrich and the first Republican-controlled Congress; and Bill Clinton’s calculations to win re-election threatened to—and did—push back on the progress that IRCA created for the Latino community, and all came within a few years of it becoming law.
At the same time, Kamasaki noted that even though many attempts at immigration reform have repeatedly died in Congress, the same is true for earlier versions of IRCA.
“Have some hope,” he implored the audience. “It’s so easy to look at the failures.”
The rest of the conversation can be viewed on our YouTube channel.