The NNIRR and Immigration Reform: Time for a Clear Alternative

HOUSTON, TX.  The National Conference for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (January 18-20) organized by the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR) took place during a critical period in U.S. immigration history.  Over five hundred NNIRR members, activists, and organizers (including numerous immigrants and their organizations) came to the conference to share their experiences, to learn new organizing tactics, and to help formulate effective strategies to build support for a fair and just national immigration policy.

The NNIRR mission that guided the conference is admirable: “We work to promote a just immigration and refugee policy in the United States and to defend and expand the rights of all immigrants and refugees, regardless of immigration status.”(

The Houston conference was clearly in line with NNIRR’s overall agenda which is elaborated in the organization’s mission statement:

“Over the next few years, the National Network seeks to:

  • Strengthen the capacity of immigrant community organizers and institutions, particularly increasing accessibility to emerging communities around the country;
  • Build communications strategies and skills to effectively reframe the debate on immigration policy and articulate clear messages within the immigrant communities and the broader public; and
  • Actively promote a human rights framework on policy and issues nationally and internationally, expanding on an integrated racial justice perspective through our communications, advocacy and alliance building initiatives.”

Conference attendees heard keynote speakers from across a broad spectrum of the immigrant rights front, attended workshops with both professional organizers and grassroots activists from around the country, and took time to participate in downtown rallies to support the Houston Justice for Janitors Campaign and the Southwest Workers Union‘s Protest against the Border Wall.

Although the symposium was successful in its own right, it needs to be considered in historical context in order to uncover its broader significance.

The Houston conference took place against a national backdrop of growing anti-immigrant initiatives and insistent corporate demands for a guest-worker program that will provide U.S. companies legal access to unlimited cheap labor from the nations of the global South.  The immigration reform legislation which was introduced in the 109th U.S. Congress in 2006 and taken off the table until after the U.S. presidential election will be revisited in 2009.  All of the pending legislation, except the bill introduced by Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), included repressive anti-immigrant provisions linked to various national guest-worker programs.  Adoption of any of these guest-worker programs will have devastating consequences for immigrant communities in the U.S. and condemn immigrant workers to a condition that is best described as transient servitude.  (For a historical background and in-depth analysis of this issue, see “Transient Servitude: The U.S. Guest Worker Program for Exploiting Mexican and Central American Workers.”)

As national labor policy, legalized transient servitude will also undermine native workers and their communities nationwide.  The rollbacks of the rights and fortunes of U.S. labor that have resulted from the massive offshoring of manufacturing and service jobs during the last 20 years will be pushed to the brink of economic disaster by the onshoring of a vast, cheap, and mobile temporary labor force.

In short, the U.S. is on the eve of yet another daring rescue of capitalism by sacrificing the interest of working people at home and abroad.

The political situation is more urgent than most observers realize.  The promoters of corporate guest-worker programs, both inside and outside the government, are not waiting for a rubber stamp from the U.S. Congress.  Under the guise of homeland security, the infrastructure needed to administer a national guest-worker program is already being assembled — the southern border is being sealed, elaborate identification and tracking systems are being developed and installed, detention and removal operation (DRO) policies are in place, and DRO facilities and forces are being expanded (see “Endgame: The Biggest Police Operation in U.S. History”).

In the context of these critical developments, the NNIRR conference could have been politically galvanized by a clearly articulated alternative to counter the powerful corporate agenda.

Astute political analysis of the current immigration crisis in the U.S. dictates that any program capable of effectively challenging the corporate immigration reform agenda must include the following demands:

  • No expansion of guest-worker programs without democratic debate and deliberation that includes all interested parties including labor and the immigrant community
  • The enforcement of labor law for all workers regardless of immigration status
  • The implementation of a genuine path to legalization and opportunities to adjust status for all undocumented immigrants
  • No detention or removal of undocumented immigrants without due process
  • An immediate end to the militarization of the southern U.S. border
  • A prohibition on the use of state and local police forces or other agencies for immigration enforcement
  • No denial of social services based on immigration status or criminalization of service providers
  • (Additional demands should be added to this list as they emerge.)

To avoid an open confrontation with the corporate immigration reform agenda will be to lose the impending contest by default.

Organizing activities during the upcoming year will be critical to the eventual outcome of the immigration reform debate.  Fortunately, the NNIRR is well staffed and strategically positioned to assume a leadership position in the struggle ahead.  The organization will deserve all of the support that we can muster if it rises to this historic occasion.

Richard D. Vogel is a political reporter who monitors the effects of globalization on working people and their communities.  Other works include: “The NAFTA Corridors: Offshoring U.S. Transportation Jobs to Mexico” and “The Fight of Our Lives: The War of Attrition Against U.S. Labor.”  Contact: <>.

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