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Personal Experience Once Again Changing People: Immigration & Gay Rights

Little Rock   Polls out today from Brookings and the Public Religion Research Institute indicate that the American people continue to shift significantly to favor a legal path to citizenship for immigrants by a huge 70%+ majority among Democrats and over 50% for Republicans.  The hater patrol stoked by rightwing radio and television only finds 17% of Americans in the “pack ‘em up, and send them where they came” from camp now.  Politicians have had their fingers in the wind for quite some time, and a gale force is starting to blow them over demanding change.

The same seems to be true for gay rights.  Colorado added itself to the list of states approving gay marriages yesterday and the Supreme Court looks increasingly hard pressed to not open the doors farther, if not declaring bars discriminatory on a federal level, accelerating the inevitability that except for a few holdout hater areas, we will likely see this the law of the land, perhaps before the end of this decade.

The tipping point, as it was for the movements against the Vietnam War and the fuller acceptance of the Civil Rights Movement is increasingly clear to see:  personal experience.  Four years ago I did a strategy memo for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), one of the largest state-based immigration reform organizations in the United States that was looking for a game-changer to accelerate immigration reform.

I speculated to them then that we needed to duplicate the antiwar and civil rights experience and learn those lessons by forcing the issues so that they could not be avoided by those in the middle.  The leadership had offhandedly remarked to me at one point that they kept getting calls from housewives in the suburbs looking for advice on how they could get help making an “exception” for their “good” worker who they knew as undocumented.  Hearing that was all too reminiscent of the way southerners talked about their maids and house help, that created the kinds of wedges in Montgomery and elsewhere that fueled the civil rights movement.  The personal is the political.  I argued that we needed to take advantage of the fact that the middle class in the suburbs increasingly knew their housekeepers, childcare workers, home health workers, landscape crew, maintenance repair folks, roofers, carpenters, and others were undocumented and regardless liked them and increasingly identified with their problems.  We needed strategy and tactics that would make the issue personal and convert it into political change.

My reading of these polls gives a powerful, factual foundation for what had been my analysis and speculation at the time.  Several remarks in the Times’ report on the polls underline what I believe we need to increasingly develop as a campaign strategy to find and then tactically trigger these “tipping points” for social change.

Immigration is increasingly shaping the experience of many Americans. Of those polled, 50 percent said they often came in contact with immigrants who spoke little or no English, while 61 percent said they had close friends who were born outside the United States. Younger generations of Americans are significantly more ethnically mixed than older ones, the poll found, in ways that the political parties will have to take into account. In the poll, nearly one quarter of Americans age 18 to 29 identified as Hispanic, while only a slim majority of 52 percent identified as white.

The young immigrants of the DREAM movement who stood out made the issue impossible to ignore and very personal particularly since they occupied the moral high ground in the argument that was undeniable.  Their parents made decisions.  They had lived with insecurity and fear, but had done their best and made America home.  Why should they have a life sentence punishment for a crime they never committed?  Couple that to the ubiquitous experience with immigrants, and the character of Americans, rather than their politics and we finally have a chance for change.  I would argue that it is virtually a rule of political organizing that political position cannot trump human experience.  If we can force there to be personal and empathetic experience then we can trigger the change from the political to the personal that can then alter the publicly political landscape.

Whether it is Dick Cheney or now Senator Portman from Ohio essentially conceding de facto or very publicly as Portman has done this week that their own personal experience with their own gay children make it impossible for them to countenance discrimination against them or their very American right to the “pursuit of happiness,” it makes change possible.  Obviously, we cannot wait for this to happen.  Men have always had spouses and daughters but for millennia there was – and still is – discrimination, but if, as organizers, we can force the experience to move to the public sphere from the private, discrimination cannot survive.

There’s a trigger at this tipping point.  Whether we can find it or build it is a different question.