Religious Adaptation: Scouts, Immigrants and Whistleblowers Make Me Wonder

Little Rock  Talking to someone yesterday who wanted to do a series of reports for KABF community radio about religion, caught me up short and forced me to actually think for a minute about the strange and interesting stirrings within religious denominations that might just indicate that in the face of declining membership, some of them may be moving towards peace with their parishioners rather than standing simply as a rock in raging rivers.

            The Boy Scouts announced that by a vote of 60-40, their advisory council had voted to accept gay scouts as a half-step towards equality in the scouting ranks.  Earlier reports reminded everyone that religious denominations were the overwhelmingly numerous sponsors of scout troops with the Mormons, Baptists, and Catholics in the lead ranks.  The Mormons, surprising many, had announced that they were encouraging their folks to vote for gay acceptance.   It is impossible to believe that this measure would have passed without a lot of very conservative religious denominations joining ranks with the Mormons to meet the shifting views of the American public way more than halfway on this measure.

            Other reports have marveled at the critical role that evangelical churches are playing in pushing for immigration reform, once again surprising many observers who count such local churches as central to the social conservatism of many on these kinds of issues.  This is actually not news, just something that it took a while for the mainstream to notice.  Five years ago when I worked as a consultant to the National Immigration Forum and Casa de Maryland, it was common to see many evangelical leaders in the ranks and Rev. Slim Coleman from Chicago and others were untiring in their advocacy of progressive reform.

            Finally we even read that some priests and nuns are organizing as whistleblowers to stand finally with their parishioners in exposing abuse of children by priests.  Certainly it is past time for an institution that has now been seen covering up such scandals all over the world, even while asking for institutional forgiveness.  Nonetheless, hearing that some are breaking ranks finally is good news for the declining number of regular participants at mass.

            Organizations, even huge mass-based institutions like religious denominations, are still ruled by the organizational laws of man, even while they advocate the laws of their gods, and the law of organizations is that they either change or die.  Maybe these are only small signs, but they are encouraging whiffs that the winds of change may finally be coming to American religions before their membership leaves them talking to themselves rather than counseling the people in the pews.

Religion Audio Blog

United We Dream, Training in Quito, and Ecuadorian Volleyball

With Valentina Ramia of Ruptura25 we begin training organizers for first visits in Quito Norte barrios

Quito    Nice to wake up and read the front page of the New York Times and see our companero/companera Carlos Saavedra from Peru and Boston and Gaby Pacheco from Ecuador and Miami, along with other young organizers and activists with United We Dream finally get the credit for their courage and skill in breaking through both the Congressional and professional nonprofit Beltway gridlock to force actions which have now given at least temporary relief for more than 300000 immigrants raised in the shadows of the United States after their parents arrival.    We met with them at length in Washington last year and couldn’t have been more impressed.  They are a case study in how to make change, despite the odds, by creating a narrative around injustice, building and holding onto a real base, and then creating tactics that are not artificial but real demonstrations of anger, courage, and resolve.  We are all so close to seeing real change for so many of these young people, and hopefully many of their families, that even though it is still too early to celebrate victory, it felt great to finally see them get a small measure of the huge credit they deserve.  Viva!  Se si puede!

Speaking of Ecuador, it was exciting to start training our first thirteen organizers preparing to go puerta a puerta or door-to-door to begin building a base in the barrios of Quito as part of our partnership between ACORN International and Ruptura25, an emerging progressive political party in the country.  It was great to see the organizers point out on the large map of Quito, where they lived, as they introduced themselves to each other.  It was also fascinating to listen to them when we got them talking about local issues in their own barrios.  There was excitement talking about the corruption of local officials, unremediated by the national law enforcement apparatus, and having to pay bribes to place their children in public schools, get accepted for public day care, and even see their fathers pay to get professional jobs with contributions to politicians and parties.

While scouting turf in various barrios in Quito Norte, I got to see and enjoy a unique scene:  Ecuadorian Volleyball, or as our companera, Valentina Ramia, called it – EcuiVolleyball.  There are three players to each side, the net is very high, there are very relaxed rules on “holding” the ball, there’s no spiking, and people seemed to have huge fun with crowds gathering along the fence and in the stands for these specially built courts, in order to watch the action from one group of players after another.   Valentina told me she has seen other courts even in New York City, but it was news to me, and wonderful to witness!

Ecuadorian Volleyball

Was there a DREAM versus Secure Communities Immigration Deal?

CeciliaMunozBuenos Aires        I want to share how exciting it was to be with the organizing committee in the Isidor Casanova district of the mega-slum, La Matanza, yesterday as they planned their first major campaign to clean up the fouled, garbage laden dump that their river has become, but that will have to wait until tomorrow.  Working with these Uruguayan immigrants now living permanently in Argentina, made me think even more about the twists and turns around immigration and immigrants in the USA this week while I have traveled.

Earlier in the week there was major concern about the continued backward, and repressive, direction that the Obama Administration has taken around immigrants in the United States and its mouthing of reform while it mandated repression.  Loud cries of anger and protest rose at the announcements of a toughening stance by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) over the controversial and coercive Secure Communities program which too often has been a fast track to criminalizing economic refugees rather than violent interlopers, as well as a tool for the worst among us on these issues like Sheriff Joe Arpaio and other wannabe police officials that Secure Communities forcibly impresses into being immigration cops.  Some states, many cities, and other political jurisdictions have refused to comply with Secure Communities, rejected its attack on human rights and civil liberties, and refused the money, while the Administration has continued to force feed the program regardless and upped the ante in doing so recently.  Illinois and some other jurisdictions have continued their resistance, but clearly a deeper and perhaps more cynical politics is at work.

What seemed especially traitorous was the endorsement of Secure Communities in a hearty embrace by Cecilia Munoz, who has been a shining light for immigrant rights and before joining the Obama Administration after the election, one of the clearest and most effective voices for change with friends and allies in all sorts of organizations.  We certainly counted ourselves proudly among them at ACORN.   One of my friends speculated earlier this week about whether Cecilia had jumped to this conclusion or been pushed.

Yesterday’s announcement that the Administration will use “prosecutorial discretion” in dealing with deportation cases involving children who have been in the USA virtually all of their lives because they were brought here by their parents, perhaps illegally, families of servicemen and other divided family situations, those trying to serve in our military or attend college or similar situations, and instead only focus deportation procedures on criminal elements with records, gang membership, or similar problems essentially implements much of the promise of the DREAM Act.  Advocates estimated this could impact up to 2 million immigrants in the USA now.  Senator Durbin of Illinois, who has been a consistent and courageous advocate of the DREAM Act, was more subdued and guessed it might impact 100-200,000.  Anyway you count it, the announcement is a major step forward in alleviating a huge injustice and moral insult on the deepest principles of America.  DHS’s Napoliano was quick to point out that it doesn’t change the need for real reform or the DREAM Act, and for the first time in a long time, I have to say I absolutely agree with her on that point!

This is all temporary, and the President is making clear through these actions not only that he wants to hide behind Secure Communities on his right flank, but also that Latino and other voters in 2012 have to see him as the thin line between coming and going for immigrants and their families in this beleaguered category.

Though the details have not emerged, there can’t be much doubt that this was a deal that had Cecilia’s fingerprints all over it, while leveraging Senator Durban big time along with Majority Senate Leader Harry Reid, who still needed to deliver for the huge lift he got from Latino voters in his Nevada re-election last fall.  Obama never seems to understand that you have to give as well as get in politics to hold support, but Munoz, Durban, and Reid all understand the political equation only too well and no doubt knew the anger and frustration at losing everything was disillusioning if the only hope was the thin one of taking back control of Congress.

This was a classic velvet gloved fist political deal.  Give some relief to the the more innocent victims of our failure to enact DREAM and immigration reform, while hitting immigrants hard where they live and work, day after day, in their communities.  As NDLON attorney, Chris Newman, remarked on twitter last night, the new announcements on careful reading, still have moved to criminalize all immigrants in the USA.  The foot has been lifted from some necks with “prosecutorial discretion,” the principle continues to press down on all immigrants that the foot is still there, hovering, and can fall with any misstep or political push in an opposite direction.

There’s little doubt in my mind that Cecilia and the Senators crafted a deal, and it’s definitely better than nothing, so that’s something to celebrate.  Thank goodness Obama is facing an election, so he had to finally deliver something.  The sad part of it has to remain, that this is the best that all of their work on the inside could deliver.

Building a Movement to Win the DREAM

pass-dream-actNew Orleans As part of Paladin Partners, Drummond Pike and I spent an invigorating and productive day meeting in Washington with Carlos Saavadra and Gaby Pacheco, two of the principle organizers behind the courageous and expectation-challenging push for the DREAM Act, which culminated in a near miss in Congress late in 2010.  It is fair these days to describe a lot of the work around critical immigration reform as stalled and stuttering as the forces of reform count the bleak prospects for a vote in Congress and try to reposition and find consensus for a future.

Not so for proponents for the DREAM Act.   This is not to say that some of the troops around the country are not demoralized and depressed, but is to say that the organizers are still moving aggressively and adamantly refusing to accept the possibility of delay or defeat.    Talking to Gaby and Carlos only days past their meeting with over 200 student activists from the United We Dream chapters in Memphis, the old axiom of organizing that acknowledges that when you have a real base, there’s never a choice but to keep fighting was proven once again.

The DREAM team understands that the political stalemate in DC does not dictate the strategy, but whether or not they can build the movement, the heat, the leverage, whatever one might call it, to trigger the change both locally and nationally.  Below the radar for example the visibility and inspiration produced in 2010, have inspired half a dozen fights even in these times of austerity to provide tuition for DREAM-type immigrant students at the state level in places as diverse as Maryland and Colorado.  And, bet on this, they will hang some new scalps on their belt in some of these states, which will help recharge the movement.

As exciting to me is the fact that they are thinking deeply and strategically about ways to continue to force their “story” (as Gaby continually called it) into the political and cultural equation at the grassroots level in 30 or more locations around the country in coming weeks and months.  The stories are compelling, because there is no way to get around the fact that these young people are the classic “innocent victims” of our national systemic policy failure.  Planted in a country through no agency or action of their own, they do their best to adapt and succeed in the new country’s terms until they hit the wall or in many cases the very high ceilings of their aspirations.  Then everything comes down to their status and it is hell to pay.  In building a movement the first key ingredient is the ability to establish “moral superiority,” and this they have in spades.

I wouldn’t bet against them when you look closely at their record to date and when you consider their desperation.  They don’t have time to wait, especially given the astronomical increases in deportations under the Obama Administration.

Before meeting the DREAM organizers I had a cup of coffee with a colleague working with Casa de Maryland, the huge immigrant rights and service organization.  She had a perfect metaphor for the crises in immigration reform.  She described all of us as reaching out of the water to grab at the reform being waved above our hands by the Obama Administration (think Tantalus in the classic Greek myth going for the grapes) and finally looking down to find that we had been eaten away from legs to waist by the deportations in the immigrant community while our eyes were skyward.

They have a shrewd fightback strategy on the deportations and the solid understanding that this is something that President Obama can and should do and the willingness and urgency to push him hard and directly to make it happen.

They are counting their friends and targeting their enemies and organizing widely and deeply outside of DC, in fact Carlos though still executive director of United We Dream has relocated back to Boston to keep it real.

We’re betting they can keep the DREAM alive, and so should you!

Remembering Carlos Guerra and La Raza Unida

Ncarlos+guerraew Orleans         I was sitting in a staff meeting two weeks ago and casually mentioned that my friend Carlos Guerra had said to me on the phone that he got more response from notes that he would post on Facebook than the silence he would sometimes get from columns he wrote for many years for the San Antonio Express-News.  Our lawyer from Austin, Doug Young, was in the room, and stated simply that I must have heard that Carlos had died suddenly.  I had not, and didn’t believe it until I was able to get on the internet latter and confirm it to my disbelief.

Carlos had been pushed into a too early retirement and silencing of his voice and in that interval last year we had had a number of conversations about pieces I wanted him to write for Social Policy.  I urged him to write an overview of the prospects for immigration reform early in 2010, but he continually demurred that he wasn’t up to speed and promised to try with both of us knowing he wasn’t going to do it.  My bigger regret was that he had not delivered on his promise to write the larger piece I had asked for which would give his perspective on his time as an organizer and activist with La Raza Unida Partry, the political organizing and takeover of Crystal City, Texas, and all of the events in which he was so prominent when I knew him in Robstown, San Antonio, and Washington in the 1970’s.  We emailed, phoned, and Facebooked on the project for months through one missed deadline after another as I tried to wheedle him back down memory lane.  He would always counter with an invitation for me to come down to the Corpus area and share his passion for fishing on the Gulf and cooking whatever came up on the line.  That was a promise I often made, which I regret not having kept.

When I Googled for the story of what could have happened, it seems to have mostly been noted by young Hispanic writers he had influenced or who had seen his career as a pioneering breakthrough.  I gathered he had passed suddenly of a heart attack or stroke by himself at a rented condo at Port Aransas, which I remember mostly as a working class small town on the  before you take the ferry to Corpus.

Without a doubt Carlos was a standup progressive voice at the paper.  He gave my work some props in the 1990’s when Local 100 was organizing city and county workers in San Antonio and Bexar, and bought me a couple of lunches thanks to the paper and his friendship.  Nonetheless I was surprised not to see more voices from the days when he was the chief fundraiser and facilitator at the sharp edge of the Chicano movement in Texas as director of the TIED, the Texas Institute for Educational Development, which was essentially the 501c3 arm of the movement.

It is hard for me to believe that any organizer doesn’t know the name Jose Angel Guiterrez, who last I knew was a lawyer in Dallas after a stint in Oregon, but as Mayor of Crystal City was the face and voice organizing the “brown power” political takeover of the city and schools.  Those of us organizing low and moderate income people and people of color followed every detail and made pilgrimages to the city and county deep in the Texas valley to see what power meant in practice.  I can remember driving down there on vacation in either the fall of 1975 or maybe 1976 and camping along the way with my dog at the time, a cocker spaniel named JP (for Justice of the Peace after our own Pulaski County version of a political takeover, but that’s another story) to visit folks and see it all for myself and take away what I could learn from the experience.   Guiterrez was quoted in one Carlos’ obituary where he was only identified as a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

I think I met Carlos that trip in Robstown, his old hometown, where he showed me around.  I can remember another time visiting in San Antonio for something, where he picked me up in a Mustang and later I stayed at his place on the couch.  I can also remember a cute girlfriend of his and us waking up and almost missing my flight as hotroded me out to the airport.

In those days Carlos was the behind the scenes organizer maintaining the research, communication, and paper trails that provided the financial support work for Crystal City and the movement.  His skilled writing moved the proposals, his silver tongue knocked on the doors in DC and NYC to raise the money, and his time as an activist allowed him to beat it back to lead the David Hunters of the Stern Fund, the Dick Boones of the Field Foundation, and anyone else he could down to the Valley to deepen their commitment and support.

La Raza Unida Party was big stuff.  In 1972 the party fielded a third party effort in Texas behind a 29-year old Ramsey Muniz and while losing garnering over 215,000 votes or 6% of the total establishing its ballot line for years and its position as a force not only in Texas but throughout the Southwest and wherever Hispanics where looking seriously at politics.  Carlos was active in the campaign, though I never can recall whether he was campaign manager on the first run in ’72 or the second in ’76..  I think likely the second shot, since the overt nature of the party effort and his role would have made it harder to protect the tax exemption of TIED.

There is no bigger backer of multi-party endorsement or fusion tactics than I have been, but even the great Working Families Party of New York is only now pushing past 200,000 votes while the La Raza Unida Party had lightening in a bottle almost from the beginning if only the pieces could have been welded together as tightly.  They were the civil rights movement in the Texas Rio Grande Valley and built the inspiration and bridge for majority Latino political constituencies to win empowerment.  Their local base was always contentious given the history of Democratic machine voting and the padrone system in the Valley made so famous in Lyndon Johnson’s elections all the way to the White House.  The push back on their radical empowerment and educational programs from more conservative Latino voices and entrenched business and agricultural interests was intense and still casts a long shadow.

All of these are stories that Carlos should have told and could have told better than anyone.  Almost two decades as a San Antonio journalist and columnist no doubt gave him the skills to weave the pieces together.  Missing his work and writing creates a vacuum.

But this is my disappointment, not necessarily Carlos’ regret.  We got together a few years ago in San Francisco at a dinner where I cadged him an invite to see me and other old friends on the Coast.  He was visiting his daughter who was taking a program at Stanford that summer.  We all laughed about the old times.  We worried about the new times and the usual struggles of jobs and L.I.F.E.  He was happy and resiliently rode good spirits through the struggles and setbacks of the day right to the end.

There are many stories that must continue to be told and learned.  We lost many with Carlos.  Enough said.  Deeply missed.

New Tactics As DREAM Deferred

Langston Hughes Poem

Langston Hughes Poem

Orange Beach When looking at the Senate’s Saturday work, it’s important to remember the difference between people who volunteered and those who didn’t.  In DADT we are talking about some protection and relief for brave men and women who volunteered to serve and die for our country.  The defeat of the DREAM Act would have provided some protection and relief for brave men and women who in fact did not volunteer to be in our country, but who were so young that they had no choice as their parents united the families in America.   DADT and DREAM actually had something in common because the involuntary young people could become citizens by volunteering to serve and die in the military.  This is all salt in the wound for these young people.

Some of the DREAM organizers said that they were going to follow some of the “NO” Senators back home to continue pushing for justice.  There was handwringing in the Times about how the Obama Administration would resurrect what has clearly always been a failed immigration reform policy.

Proponents of immigration reform should also need to revisit tactics and strategy, since much of what the DREAM vote was involved the political equivalent of playing politics with a “hail, Mary” pass.  From the minute the majority changed and Obama was elected, there were choices about whether to go “comprehensive” or carve out attractive and politically salable pieces of immigration reform, and passage of the DREAM Act was the lowest hanging fruit on the second strategy.   This is a case where in retrospect going big or going home meant going to a home country on the Obama deportation express if the bets were wrongly placed.

In the fall of 2008, making the big bet seemed right, but as early as spring 2009, the facts were probably already in hand arguing for radical changes in strategy and tactics for immigration reformers.    The cold realities of the situation were lay between slim and none.   When pressure from the base was ruled out as early as the Inauguration by the funders and powers that be, immigration reform was off the table for the first 100 days, when the chances were best with the consequences still years away and the surge of aspiration and power still strong.  Not moving to accelerate local fights in cities and states or target weak Congressmen on immigration in areas where the numbers in the base favored immigration reformers weakened the prospect within the first six months of any real reform.  By the Tea Party Summer of 2009 comprehensive reform for all intents and purposes was DOA, yet even so reformers seemed slow to embrace and advance the real movement and courage of DREAM act students were standing up and putting themselves on the line or to make the repressive excesses in Arizona or the widespread abuse and misuse of 287 (g) immigration police function subcontracting the new Selma’s or Marches to Montgomery.

Now it’s back to the drawing board and once again the strategy, I believe, has to be to go deep at the local level, find opportunities to repurpose reform at the city and state level for progressive reform in the same way that Arizona has manipulated reform for repressive measures, and then target and punish Congressmen, local sheriffs, and even Senators where the opportunities exist to send a message about re-elections, rather than moralities.  Taking down some big bear like Congressman Issa who I would argue is in a very vulnerable district on this issue would create shockwaves in Congress that would be impossible to ignore.

Coming late to the local targeting and base mobilization helped kept a heartbeat alive because of the leverage on Senator Harry Reid in the Nevada election.  We should have done this in scores of elections identified in 2009.  Hopefully we have learned a lesson and are willing to live it in the field.  This is not a DC fight.  This is a door-to-door, community-to-community, state-to-state fight with a DC rearguard in waiting to help when the job is done around the country, and not the opposite.  Lessons taught for sure, so hopefully lessons taken to heart as well.

There shouldn’t be any back slapping among immigration reformers about “how close we came,” because payback is going to be hell as long as the Obama Administration is triangulating this issue with the right and accelerating detentions and deportations, some of which inevitably will hit the best of the DREAM organizers.  Reformers need to stand up and create a sanctuary movement for these organizers now.

Organizing decisions always have consequences and a merciless accounting, even if they do not immediately have accountability.  In this case we may have started on the right foot, but didn’t step quickly enough on the floor when the music changed and the band was willing to play our song.  This isn’t musical chairs though, and everything is going to be harder now, but we need to use the next two years to keep from making the mistakes of the last two years and just hope we have another shot in the opening days of the 2013 session to finally make something happen for millions.