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‘The Moment We Lost Our Way’

John Tarleton May 3

Roberto Lovato has been immersed in the struggles of this country’s Latino immigrants for more than a quarter century. The son of El Salvadoran immigrants, Lovato headed the Central American Refugee Center during the 1990s and co-founded Presente.org after the mass immigrant rights marches of 2006. There, he built a hub for online Latino political advocacy. In 2009, he designed and led the nationwide Basta Dobbs campaign that forced CNN to drop the notorious Latino-bashing television host Lou Dobbs from its lineup.

A prolific writer and commentator, Lovato’s work has appeared in an array of English and Spanish-language newspapers and websites. With the number of deportations carried out by the current administration estimated to have recently surpassed 2 million, he has developed another pressure campaign — the Obama Immigration Legacy Project — which is working to channel the Latino community’s growing anger over continued deportations directly at the President and force him to shift to a more humane and positive course. There have been some early signs that this more confrontational approach is having an impact on the White House (see page 10). For Lovato, it’s simple: judge your erstwhile friends and allies not by what they say but by what they do.

John Tarleton: Democrats and Republicans are blaming each other as a comprehensive immigration reform bill has stalled once again in Congress. Yet, you say this initiative was never meant to succeed.

Roberto Lovato: The “campaign” for comprehensive immigration reform began around 10 years ago. Since then, we have seen all manner of excuses from both Democrats and Republicans for lack of action while the situation of immigrants has sunk to the lowest state in our lifetimes. Under Obama, 2 million mostly Latino people have been deported, most of whom are innocents who have no criminal record.

Most people in the Latino community didn’t realize Obama was on his way to being the worst immigration president until he was in the White House for five years. A major reason why has to do with how “immigration reform” was used by the Democratic Party to divert attention to the legislative branch and the Republicans and away from the dastardly doings in the executive branch. But, the votes needed to pass immigration reform were never there in Congress. As a result, “comprehensive immigration reform” has become the new Mexican sombrero of Latino politics. Politicians of all stripes think they can get Latinos to vote for them by mouthing the phrase “comprehensive immigration reform” just as they used to wear a sombrero or call out “Viva Cinco de Mayo!” or “Viva Cesar Chavez!” That’s why I call this the “Si Se Pedo” (Yes, We Fart) politic; it sounds like something good until you get close and spend time with it.

JT: Obama and his supporters argue that he’s just enforcing existing immigration laws and that Republicans are thwarting his desired changes.

RL: Somehow Obama has enforced the very same laws as Bush in a way that has led to a doubling of the rate of deportations. Were it Bush or some other politician, we would be calling it travesty and a disgrace and storming the White House. Obama’s immigration madness began in 2009, back when just a lonely few of us were sounding the alarm. Now the majority of Latinos is alarmed and fed up.

JT: There was so much momentum at the time of the historic immigrant rights marches of 2006. What happened?

RL: After the 2006 marches, the Bush administration stepped up raids and deportations by the Department of Homeland Security to put the hammer down on the immigrant community and make people afraid to step out and protest.

The second thing that happened after 2006 was the acceleration of a multi-million conglomerate known as “Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR).” Even the most liberal versions of CIR promised to exacerbate all the worst parts of the failed immigration system. Knowing this, a cabal of interests including major foundations, some big labor unions, big immigrant rights and Latino organizations in Washington, D.C., and the Democratic Party all came together around immigration reform and designed their efforts to channel the energy of 2006 into support for the Democratic Party. This produced overwhelming cries of “Si Se Puede” and Latino support for Obama in 2008 and again in 2012.

This worked for a long time until those of us on the left wing of the immigrant rights movement like the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, left-leaning DREAMers, Detention Watch Network, Presente.org and many local groups started exposing the hypocrisy of Obama and the Democrats.

JT: Following Bush and now with Obama, to what extent do we have an immigration industrial complex composed of state officials and private interests that are entrenched around the current status quo?

RL: There is a bipartisan interest in maintaining systems of isolation, control and repression of Latino and immigrant communities. The immigration industrial complex was born of a Democrat, Bill Clinton, expanded by George Bush and given steroids and a robocop outfit by Barack Obama. This complex, first analyzed by Deepa Fernandes and I, consists of politicians from both parties and local communities that live off of and vote for policies and money for jailing immigrants. The complex also includes the private prison industry, military and surveillance technology companies among others.

JT: Are there other underlying reasons for why the United States has continued militarizing its southern border besides the fact that it’s a profitable business for private companies to get in on?

RL: The simple and simplistic — and wrong — answer is that Obama and the Democrats are playing “tough” to win votes in Congress and in elections. Top migration and climate scientists will tell you another story, the story of how something on the order of a billion people on this planet are potentially going to be uprooted by climate change in this century. They will travel to the north from the south, which is going to absorb the brunt of climate change as we are already beginning to see. South-to-north migration is also occurring not only in the Americas but in Asia and in Europe where they are putting up border walls with lots of boats and weapons in the waters between Africa and Europe. Even southern countries in Latin America have their own “immigration problems.” Criminalizing immigrants is an excuse to militarize the border in preparation for millions of people marching north because of climate change. Other explanations are insufficient at best and diversionary lies at worst.

JT: How much does racism account for the anti-immigrant backlash?

RL: There’s definitely a racial dimension. I went to Arizona about a decade ago when the Minutemen were conducting self-styled border patrols. I found ex-farmers who had been globalized out of existence by big agribusiness, industrial workers whose factories had moved away from Arizona, military people who lost their jobs following Clinton’s downsizing of the military. The appeal to white fear makes a lot of sense to these abandoned workers who wanted an explanation for what was happening to them. It’s much easier for politicians to say “them immigrants took your jobs” than “your jobs got evaporated by capitalism.”

JT: What would you want immigration reform to look like?

RL: The first true measure now of anybody’s commitment to immigrants is to stop the deportations. The immigrant condition has been so degraded that we have to start there. Anything else, including “comprehensive immigration reform,” is a farce. When you hear National Council of La Raza and others saying, “the Republicans have to support comprehensive immigration,” they are not being sincere. They are playing with people’s lives to protect the Democrats. Important next steps should include ending programs like Secure Communities that make mass deportations possible and a more aggressive use of executive powers by Obama to halt deportations. Without forcing changes the Executive, the Democrats and Republicans will continue foot-dragging on legalization and other major changes.

JT: Is there a way to work with the Democrats going forward?

RL: The best way to deal with the Democrats or any party is from a position of autonomous power. We have to do everything in our power to free the immigrant rights movement from the Democratic Party. The great tragedy in immigrant rights is not just Republican hostility toward immigrants, but the cynical calculations that humiliated and turned the immigrant rights movement and Latino electoral power into an appendage of the Democratic Party. The moment we started down that road was the moment we lost our way. The “strategists” and “leaders” at D.C. groups that have received hundreds of millions of dollars in funding since 2004 have nothing, nada, to show for it except a worsened immigrant condition and a humiliated Latino politics that was subservient to the Democratic Party until this year.

An independent immigrant rights movement means we can unite and begin the necessary fight against the criminal justice system that makes immigrant rights a criminal justice issue. We can’t do it alone in our silos, so why not work together? This is where our energy needs to be, not in the Democratic Party.

JT: After all these years, you are still hopeful?

RL: As hopeful as ever. The Latino and immigrant communities are fired up and awake like they were in 2006 — and then some. I feel like the hummingbird that can sense the dawn coming even though it’s completely dark. My wings are flapping like they haven’t flapped since 2006.