The Emergence and Obstacles of the Immigrant Rights Movement

By Kathryn Hoban

News Type
Advocates' Forum

In March and May of 2006, an unprecedented number of people took to the streets to demonstrate for immigrant rights. These marches marked the public emergence of a social movement. The article uses social movement theory to conduct a reflexive analysis of the current immigrant rights mobilization, exploring its emergence and goals. This study concludes by examining strategies for the movement’s success.

On December 16, 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act (H.R. 4437) with a vote of 239 to 182 (Lazos Vargas, 2006). The legislation, introduced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner on December 6, 2005, is also popularly known as the Sensenbrenner bill. Among other things, the bill proposed to make it a felony offense to be an undocumented immigrant, make assistance to immigrants a felony, authorize the building of an additional 700 miles of wall along the U.S.-Mexico Border, require government officials to detain undocumented individuals, and require employers to confirm employees’ immigration status by conducting background checks (H.R. 4437, 2006). As the bill was taken up in the Senate, concern began to filter through the Latino community, radio stations began to discuss H.R. 4437 on air, and immigrant groups began to mobilize opposition (Lazos Vargas, 2006). The first large protest took place in Chicago on March 10, 2006, with an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 participants. On March 26, 2006, a “national day of action,” marches were organized in cities all across the nation. Marches took place in Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Washington, DC, Phoenix, Dallas,

Houston, Tucson, Denver, and many more cities (Robinson, 2006, p. 78). Estimates of attendance for the march in Los Angeles range from 500,000 to 1.3 million people. Demonstrations included widespread student walkouts (Loyd and Burridge, 2007). On May 1, 2006 another series of national protests was organized. Immigrant workers, students, and supporters were encouraged to participate in a nationwide boycott in order to demonstrate immigrant contributions to the United States (Pulido, 2007).

The first series of protests aimed to demonstrate opposition to H.R. 4437. Angela Sanbrano, one of the organizers of the March 26 demonstration in Los Angeles, is reported to have said: “We needed to send a strong and clear message to Congress and to President Bush that the immigrant community will not allow the criminalization of our people” (Bernstein, 2006, p. 1). At later marches, “instead of merely demanding the rejection of punitive immigration measures, the protesters sought nothing less than justice for immigrants and supported legislation allowing undocumented immigrants the opportunity to regularize their immigration status” (Johnson and Hing, 2007, p. 100).

The Sensenbrenner bill was not passed by the Senate. Instead, in May 2006, the Senate passed a compromise measure (S. 2611) that did not include the most controversial aspects of the Sensenbrenner bill. Congress did authorize the building of the 700-mile wall (120 Stat. 2638 [2006]). By the end of the summer, Congress turned its attention away from immigration issues, and attendance at immigrant rights demonstrations appeared to have diminished (Johnson and Hing, 2007).

This article looks at the immigrant rights movement from a national perspective. Discussion of events in particular cities are intended to contribute to an understanding of the movement as a whole. The article does not attempt the question of whether the marches in 2006 constitute a movement. The phrases “immigrant rights movement,” “the movement,” and “mobilizations” are used synonymously here to refer to the collective occurrence of demonstrations in many cities in the United States in spring 2006. The term “immigrant rights” is not used here to refer specifically to concrete legal rights. Rather, “immigrant rights” refers to the collective grievances expressed during the spring 2006 marches.

The aim of this article is to utilize frameworks for analyzing the emergence and obstacles of social movements in order to better understand the immigrant rights movement. Theoretical analysis and literature review contribute to greater understanding of what led to the emergence of the immigrant rights movement. They also contribute to a discussion of the movement’s capacity to achieve such goals as transforming class structure, democratizing society, redefining cultural identity, and confronting neoliberalism.

The Emergence of a Movement

In their book, Dynamics of Contention, Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly (2001) write that during the 1960s and 1970s, much of social movement analysis focused on four key concepts. Those four concepts were:

Political opportunities, sometimes crystallized as static opportunity structures, sometimes as changing political environments; mobilizing structures, both formal movement organizations and the social networks of everyday life; collective action frames, both the cultural constants that orient participants and those they themselves construct; established repertoires of contention, and how these repertoires evolve in response to changes in capitalism, state building, and other less monumental processes. (pp. 14–15)

According to McAdam and associates (2001), focus on these four concepts took the forefront of the discussion of social movements in response to critique of prior social movement analysis. McAdam and associates (2001) lay out the primary schools of thought that developed from this critique. Resource mobilization models give emphasis to “organizational bases, resource accumulation, and collective coordination for popular political actors” (2001, p. 15). Political-process analysts, however, stress “dynamism, strategic interaction, and response to the political environment” (2001, p.16). The work of political-process analysts highlighted the role of “repertoires of contention” (15) in social movements. “Repertoires of contention” are “the culturally encoded ways in which people interact in contentious politics” (2001, p. 16). More recent research has added a fourth component to social movement studies. It draws on “social-psychological and cultural perspectives” (2001, p. 16), which contribute to social movement analysis an understanding of “how social actors frame the claims, their opponents, and their identities” (2001, p. 16). These perspectives view framing as “an active, creative, and constitutive process” (p. 16).

McAdam and associates (2001) contend that one can draw boundaries between the schools of thought: “It would do no good to exaggerate the distinctions among enthusiasts for resource mobilization, political process, repertoires of contention, and framing” (p. 16). They add: “In fact, by the 1980s, most North American students of social movements had adopted a common social movement agenda and differed chiefly in their relative emphasis on different components of that agenda” (2001, p. 16). Thus, McAdam and Associates have taken elements from different perspectives on social movement theory, resource mobilization, political process, repertoires of contention, and framing, merging those perspectives into a single model. McAdam and colleagues (2001, p. 14) term their synthesized model “the classic social movement agenda.” The model depicts social change, mobilizing structures, opportunity, threat, framing processes, and repertoires of contention, all in dynamic interaction leading towards contentious encounters. They respond to critiques that the classic social movement model is “overly structural and static” (2001, p. 18) by emphasizing aspects of dynamic mobilization. In doing so, they “try to identify the dynamic mechanisms that bring these variables into relation with one another and with other significant actors” (p. 43). This article utilizes McAdam and associates’ (2001) model as an analytical framework for describing the emergence of the contentious interaction that took place in spring 2006, when millions marched nationwide in demonstration for immigrant rights.

Parts of a Campaign

Social Change 

McAdam and associates (2001) write that social change processes “initiate a process of change and trigger changes in the political, cultural, and economic environments” (p. 41). Their discussion of social change looks at the way changes in the political, cultural, and economic environments impact the other components of the model, thus contributing to the emergence of a social movement. McAdam and associates (2001) discuss the social changes that facilitated the emergence of the civil rights movement. For example, the extension of voting rights to African Americans led to political opportunity, and southern urbanization led to the development of mobilizing structures. McAdam and associates (2001, p. 43) further note: “These changes thus loosened the cultural hold of Jim Crow, enabling civil rights forces to frame grievances in new and more contentious ways.” The changes also “gave them the capacity to embrace a broader repertoire of contention” (p. 43).

The increase in the size of the immigrant population is contemporary social change that serves as a catalyst for mobilization around issues related to immigration. In addition, mobilization on immigration can be triggered by population growth within a single cultural group. Nilda Flores-Gonzalez and associates (2006) note that 36 million Latinos live in the United States, and there are an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States (Lazos Vargas, 2006). At the May 1 demonstration in Chicago, Flores-Gonzalez and associates (2006) surveyed 410 participants using a “multi­stage block sampling technique to give respondents an equal chance of being selected for the study” (p. 2). They followed-up the survey by interviewing “participants, organizers, and leaders of organizations that participated in the mobilizations” (2006, p. 1). The Mexican cultural group is prominent among Latino immigrants in Chicago, and the salience of the Mexican cultural group is noteworthy within the current social context. Flores-Gonzalez and colleagues (2006) note that 52 percent of all surveyed individuals indicated having Mexican heritage, and 81 percent of foreign-born surveyed individuals self-identified using a term that indicated some form of Mexican cultural identity. Though unconfirmed, perhaps the perception of power derived from such a context may expand immigrants’ willingness to contend politically and to push for rights.

The political climate’s hostility toward immigrant policy is another social change that is prompting immigrant mobilization (Johnson and Hing, 2007; Lazos Vargas, 2006; Pulido, 2007). For example, Aristide Zolberg (2006) discusses how the events of September 11, 2001, and George Bush’s focus on terrorism changed the political discourse around immigration, immigration policy, and diplomacy with Mexico’s President Vincente Fox. The Sensenbrenner bill, which includes “antiterrorism” within its formal name, identifies illegal immigration as a threat to national security. Since September 11, 2001, immigration policy has been reshaped “largely as a means of fighting terrorism” (Tumlin, 2004, p. 1175). The impact of the Bush administration’s antiterrorism agenda is not lost on participants in the immigrant rights movement. Gilberto Castro, while protesting in Los Angeles, is reported to have said: “We came here to protest. They want to pass a law to treat immigrants like terrorists” (Reynolds and Fiore, 2006, p. 1).

Political Opportunity and Threat 

McAdam and associates (2001) describe political opportunity and threat in changes to the political environment that shape the “ebb and flow of a movement’s activities” (p. 41). They write: “Political opportunities and constraints confront a given challenger” (p. 41; i.e., a challenger to the social condition), and, “The political environment at any time is not immutable; the political opportunities for a challenger to engage in successful collective action vary over time” (p. 41). They note by way of example that black suffrage served as a political opportunity for the civil rights movement, “transforming the previously nonexistent ‘black vote’ into an increasingly important electoral resource in presidential politics” (McAdam et al., 2001, p. 42).

As their numbers grow, immigrants gain a political opportunity to increase their power and influence. Gastón Espinosa (2007, p. 153) writes: “The critical role of Latinos in the 2004 election … has also prompted many Democratic and Republican politicians to pay close attention to the immigration policy reform debate.” Anti-immigrant sentiment and policy, however, represent political threats to these groups. The threat of the Sensenbrenner bill certainly motivated many people to participate in demon­strations (Johnson and Hing, 2007; Larzos Vargas, 2006; Pulido, 2007). Opportunity and threat are represented in Amy Shannon’s (2007) analysis of the 2006 events. She writes: “Whereas the March and April events focused on opposition to H.R. 4437, the May 1 rallies called for an immigration reform that would allow those in the United States to legalize their status” (2007, p. 29). The May 1 rally demonstrated a shift from mobilizing in response to political threat to mobilizing to act on perceived political opportunity.

As McAdam and associates (2001) observe, this component makes the classic social movement model more dynamic: “Opportunities and threats are not objective categories, but depend on the kind of collective attribution that the classical agenda limited to framing of movement goals” (p. 45). The impact of opportunities and threats depends upon whether or not they are recognized and how they are interpreted or constructed. An interesting example of how the Latino community came to recognize the threat of anti-immigrant sentiment took place on the radio in Los Angeles. Sylvia Lazos Vargas (2006) describes and interview that El Piolin, a popular radio announcer, conducted on the air with a member of the Minuteman organization, characterizing the event as a “pivotal moment” (p. 813). The minuteman’s rant about how all Latinos should be deported “convinced listeners that anti-immigrant sentiment was real and very ugly, and it shook many out of complacency” (2006, p. 813).

Mobilizing Structures 

McAdam and associates (2001) define the mobilizing structures component of the classic social movement model as “both formal movement organizations and the social networks of everyday life” (p. 14). Mobilizing structures “promote communication, coordination, and commitment within and among potential actors” (p. 16). They offer black churches, black colleges, and NAACP chapters as examples of mobilizing structures in the civil rights movement.

Irene Bloemraad and Christine Trost (2007) outline some of the mobilizing structures that brought youth and adults to the rally in Oakland, California, on May 1, 2006. Bloemraad and Trost (2007) emphasize the role of the family as a mobilizing structure in which youth were likely to have encouraged parents to participate. They also found that schools, youth groups, and peers most often influenced youth participation in the rally, but work, church, and peers encouraged parent participation. Nik Theodore and Nina Martin (2007) examine the role of community organizations within the primarily immigrant community of Chicago’s Albany Park, documenting the organizations’ role in “immigrant incorporation, political mobilization, and civic engagement” (p. 270). The media is another mobilizing structure. Flores-Gonzalez and associates (2006) found that more than half of those surveyed reported having heard about the May 1, 2006 march in the media, especially through the Spanish-language media.

In reframing the mobilizing structure as one in an increased state of dynamism, McAdam and associates (2001, p. 45) note: “Mobilizing structures can be preexisting or created in the course of contention but in any case need to be appropriated as vehicles of struggle.” This new understanding of mobilizing structures suggests that they are no longer static. Instead, existing organizations shift their goals and become vehicles of struggle, and new mobilizing structures can emerge. The dynamic understanding of mobilizing structures is evident in the immigrant rights movement, as students transformed schools into spaces for organizing and workers caused their places of employment to close for the day (Pulido, 2007).

Collective Action Frames 

McAdam and associates (2001) describe the “collective action frames” component of the classic social movement model as “both the cultural constants that orient participants and those they themselves construct” (p. 14). In other words, frames that guide participation in movements are both built into social norms and consciously constructed. Framing, “a collective process of interpretation, attribution, and social construction, mediates between opportunity and action,” producing “shared definitions of what is happening” (2001, p. 16). They write that through this “collective process … movements frame specific grievances within general collective action frames which dignify claims, connect them to others, and help to produce a collective identity among claimants” (p. 41). McAdam and associates (2001) reinterpret framing as a dynamic process by arguing that framing is not restricted to only impacting movement goals. Instead, it takes place throughout all parts of a social movement. They write: “Entire episodes, their actors, and their actions are interactively framed by participants, their opponents, the press, and important third parties” (2001, p. 45).

Two main frames have substantially affected the movement under discussion. The first frame shifted from an initial response to political threat at the March and April rallies to a later response to political opportunity at the May 1 rally. Organizers of the March and April demonstrations framed the events as opportunities to demonstrate against the threats they saw in H.R. 4437. The May 1, 2006, rally represents the frame’s shift to emphasize collective power to assert demands. As they marched, participants chanted, “Hoy marchamos, mañana votamos!” [Today we march, tomorrow we vote!] (Shannon 2007, p. 31), as an opportunity to demonstrate the movement’s political power to politicians, media, and the movement’s many participants. Kevin Johnson and Bill Hing (2007, p. 103) write: “The nascent movement, at least at the outset, represented a reaction to the Sensenbrenner bill, not a proactive movement seeking positive change…. At least for a time, however, the movement later transformed itself into a quest for justice for immigrants that moved well beyond blocking the passage of one restrictionist bill.”

In this movement, a second frame is the perception that anti-immigrant sentiment and policy pose threats to all Latinos, not just to new undocumented immigrants. The relevant threats are seen as dangerous to the Latino American culture, not simply to immigrants. In her study on Latino high school seniors in Los Angeles, Lisa García Bedolla (2000) found that youths’ participation in the movement was guided by (1) whether they felt connected to or identified with the immigrant community, and (2) whether they viewed immigrant legislation as only anti-immigrant or also as anti-Latino.

Repertoires of Contention 

McAdam and associates (2001) describe “repertoires of contention,” another component of the classic social movement model, as “the array of means by which participants in contentious politics make collective claims” (p. 18). They distinguish between two types of contention: transgressive and contained contention. Transgressive contention “offers the advantages of surprise, uncertainty, and novelty” (2001, 41). Contained contention has “the advantage of being accepted, familiar, and relatively easy to employ by claimants without special resources or willingness to incur costs and take great risks” (p. 41). Examples of the repertoires of contention used in the civil rights movement include “marches, sit-ins, and other transgressions of white power” (p. 43). McAdam and associates (2001, p. 49) then present a dynamic interpretation of the component: “Innovative contention is action that incorporates claims, selects objects of claims, includes collective self-representations, and/or adopts means that are either unprecedented or forbidden within the regime in question.” Rarely, however, do these parties to the conflict adopt innovative forms of action that are truly new.

Two main threads of contention can be seen within the current mobilization around immigrant rights. Both expressions represent contained contention in that they are common culturally and politically acceptable forms of social resistance. The rallies represent the first expression of contention. Media reports note the high numbers of participants and comment on the peaceful, well-contained nature of the demonstrations. One article described the May 1 demonstration as “a peaceful gathering awash with American flags” (Avila and Olivo, 2006b, p. 1). Another characterized the March 10 demonstration as a “festive” event full of baby-stroller pushers and, as a Chicago Police deputy superintendent put it, “a very good march” (Avila and Olivo, 2006a, p. 1).

The second strategy of contention within this movement is evident in the informal strikes by workers and students. In noting the effects of the marches on local businesses and schools, the Chicago Tribune observed that immigrant participants in the rallies made a “powerful statement elsewhere by their absence” (Avila and Olivo, 2006a, p. 1). While their immigrant (and immigrant-supporting) employees were demonstrating, many businesses across the nation were forced to close. Also remarkable, were the empty classrooms that resulted from droves of high school students opting out of school for the day to participate in the demonstrations (Lazos Vargas, 2006; Loyd and Burridge, 2007; Robinson, 2006).

Emergence Explained by the City and beyond 

An additional way to understand the emergence of the movement is to examine it within the geographic context of the city. The density of social ties and networks in the city, and their diversity, shapes the emergence of social movements (Nicholls, 2007). Regional and national networks also contribute to the emergence of social movements (Pastor, 2001).

Utilizing Social Ties 

Walter Nicholls (2007), a contemporary social movement theorist, considers cities to be hot spots for social movements because of the richness of relationships that urban settings foster, both within and across communities. At an organizational level, there are “strong tie” connections within social change organizations, as well as “weak tie” connections that link organizations with each other and with political structures (Nicholls, 2007, p. 3). The presence of both strong and weak ties within cities offers a valuable foundation for social change organizing. Nicholls’s theory builds upon the classical discussion of the role of mobilizing structures in promoting the emergence of social movements. He observes the value of organizations operating independently but also the value of organizations working together in networks towards shared or complementary goals.

In the current mobilization, there is evidence that both strong and weak ties play important roles in mobilizing people. Bloemraad and Trost (2007) focus on the crucial role that youth played by informing their parents about the movement and motivating them to participate. This is an example of how Nicholls’s (2007, p. 3) “strong tie” networks play a role in mobilizing participation in the movement. Bloemraad and Trost (2007) also discuss the role of the media and the Web site MySpace in dispersing information about the marches. Media and online networks facilitate communication between “weak tie” networks (Nicholls, 2007, p. 3). Flores-Gonzalez and colleagues (2006) note the role of personal relationships in mobilizing movement participants, finding that 56 percent of participants in Chicago’s May 1 march came with family members and 54 percent came with friends. Their results also suggest that weak ties can be influential in mobilization. They find that 71 percent of surveyed march participants reported receiving encouragement from religious leaders to attend the march, and 56 percent reported that they heard about the march on the radio.

Networking beyond the City 

Byron Miller (2000) and Manuel Pastor (2001) discuss the benefit of organizing around an issue that transcends restrictive identities or locations. Pastor (2001) identifies potential opportunity for mobilization around issues that extend beyond the impact of local geographies. Miller (2000) identifies opportunity for mobilization through the use of “place-based collective identities … [that] can offer social movements a very effective means … by which to bridge or partially transcend identities constructed along lines of class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality” (Miller, 2000, p. 61).

Immigration issues have the potential to unite diverse groups, but the extent of that potential depends on the scope of the issues confronted and the tactics used in doing so. Pastor (2001) identifies opportunity for successful social movements in taking on issues, using frames, and choosing tactics that extend the scope of the movement beyond the local and beyond a single identity group. By framing immigrant issues as broadly relevant to Latino culture, organizers may incite participation, but this framing may also alienate immigrant groups and may therefore diminish opportunities for cross-cultural organizing, weakening the potential for success. In addition, organizing around immigrant issues can be very location-specific, resulting, for example, in the establishment of a day-labor center in a particular neighborhood (Theodore and Martin, 2007). Such efforts bring valuable accomplishments but fail to maximize participation beyond the immediate location due to the geographic limits of the organizing goals. Manuel Castells (1983) is concerned that urban social movements have the tendency to take on issues of municipal resource allocation rather than confronting broad underlying issues of class and racial inequality. Movement strategies, and the cultural groups thus included or excluded by each strategy, can have great implications for the success of a movement.

Analyzing the Social Movement

Taking on the Challenge: Castells’s Goals for a Social Movement 

Castells (1983) identifies three potential goals for urban social movements. He defines goals as “purposive desires and demands present in the collective practice of the movement” (1983, p. 319). His three goals are: “collective consumption demands, community culture, and political self management” (p. 322). By making demands concerning city resource allocation, urban social movements aim to transform class structure. By pushing to define community culture internally or to bridge cultural identities, movements redefine cultural identity. As movements promote increased power in government, they further democratize society. In his analysis of various social movements, Castells observed: “Not all of the movements we observed had the three basic goals; nor did they pursue them with the same intensity” (p. 319). Yet, Castells argues: “To accomplish the transformation of urban meaning in the full extent of its political and cultural implications, an urban movement must articulate in its praxis the three goals” (1983, p. 322). The following section analyzes the current immigrant rights mobilization in light of Castells’s three goals, arguing that the immigrant rights movement has the capacity to take on all three of the goals.

Transforming Class Structure 

Castells asserts that successful social movements challenge class structure. He argues that they must also push for a redistribution of power and resources for workers. Castells (1979) challenges social movements to achieve their revolutionary potential by partnering with labor organizations and radical political groups.

The mobilization under study here is tied to labor issues. Some participants in the demonstrations expressed a clear desire for workers’ rights and legalized working status. Flores-Gonzalez and associates (2006) found that 12 percent of surveyed participants identified work or workers’ rights as reasons for marching. They also note that 27 percent of surveyed marchers said they were marching for legalization. Legalization would offer political legitimacy and legal work status. Other participants expressed a desire for recognition of immigrant contributions to the city and economy. One demonstrator is reported to have said: “Most people don’t realize how much work we do, but it’s part of their daily lives.… We are putting up all the buildings and cooking all the food. Today, they’ll understand” (Avila and Olivo, 2006a, p. 1).

The current class structure within the United States relies upon subclass laborers who have compromised protection under U.S. labor laws (Ontiveros, 2008; Robinson, 2006). Maria Linda Ontiveros (2008, p. 157) writes: “Historically, labor laws systematically excluded immigrant workers from their protections in several ways.” First, immigrant workers are excluded by industry; “many of the industries in which immigrants labor, such as agriculture and domestic work, are excluded from federal statutory protections for the right to from unions” (p. 158). Additionally, most labor laws extend only to those who are employees, and exclude from protection temporary or subcontracted employment, the very type of employment agreements under which many immigrants work. William Robinson (2006) writes that Latino immigration benefits employers because they “want to sustain a vast exploitable labor pool that exists under precarious conditions, that does not enjoy the civil, political, and labour rights of citizens and is disposable through deportation” (p. 84). He describes the “new class relations of the global capitalism,” relations that “dissolve the notion of responsibility, however minimal, that governments have for their citizens or that employers have towards their employees” (2006, p. 89). He states that workers are the archetypes of the new class relations because “they are a naked commodity, no longer embedded in relations of reciprocity rooted in social and political communities that have, historically been institutionalised in nation states” (p. 89).

Robinson notes that the movement’s success in challenging the U.S. and transnational class structure depends upon how the movement sets its goals. First, the movement has potential to transform class structure by taking a role in shaping policy that impacts workers. The Sensenbrenner bill is an example of such a policy (Robinson, 2006). Second, as the movement sets its goals at achieving legalized status for undocumented workers and paths toward citizenship, there is potential to transform the class structure. Robinson (2006, p. 89) writes that the immigrant rights movement demands “full rights for all immigrants, including amnesty, worker protections, family reunification measure, a path to citizenship or permanent residency … an end to attacks against immigrants and to the criminalisation of immigrant communities.” He asserts that the movement goes “beyond immediate demands; it challenges the class relations that are at the very core of global capitalism” (p. 89). He thus concludes that “the struggle for immigrant rights is at the cutting edge of the global working-class fight-back against capitalist globalisation” (2006, p. 89).

Redefining Cultural Identity 

Two elements comprise Castells’s (1983) second classification of social movement goals. The first way that movements have the capacity to redefine cultural identity is by developing community and asserting the right for a cultural group to maintain or develop its own identity. The second way that movements can redefine cultural identity is by connecting cultural groups that do not normally align, thereby creating transcultural networks.

According to Sylvia Lazos Vargas (2006), the immigrant rights movement has both reconstructed the cultural narrative of immigrants and redefined American cultural identity. She writes: The new immigrant narrative was about risking one’s life to cross the border, working tirelessly in difficult jobs to make a better life for one’s children, living in fear of deportation but somehow hanging on until one could legalize immigration status. In this new narrative, the immigrant, whether authorized or unauthorized, was part of America and could lay claim to the American dream, too. (p. 808) Results of the survey by Flores-Gonzalez and associates (2006, p. 5) indicated that 91 percent of respondents “expressed strong love” for the United States; 94 percent maintain that dual-citizens can be dually loyal. These results suggest that the movement’s participants do not view cultural identity as a barrier to national identity. This is an example of what Richard Alba (2005) would view as a blurred, or ambiguous, boundary.

Castells (1983) cautions social movements against defining themselves as culturally homogenous. Rather, he argues, they should work to ground identity in constructs that transcend individual racial or cultural groups. Flores-Gonzalez and colleagues (2006) observe that the May 1 demonstration showed “the potential for Latinos of different national backgrounds to work together towards a common goal” (p. 4). Lazos Vargas (2006) agrees that “this movement began to forge a new political Latina/o common identity and break down the identity silos that have divided Latina/os” (p. 808). García Bedolla’s (2000) research with Latino high school seniors indicates that whether the movement is framed as an immigrant movement or a Latino rights movement impacts the students’ level of identification with the movement as well as their participation. Broadening the movement to address issues that all Latinos face may enable a successful social movement to bridge differences among Latino cultural groups. Framing the movement as a Latino movement too firmly, however, may have unintended consequences. Doing so may exclude other immigrant and culturally oppressed groups. Johnson and Hing (2007, p. 102) observe: “Although masses of people participated, the marchers were not as representative of different minority groups as might have been desired.” They argue that, for the immigrant rights movement to develop into a new civil rights movement, it “must not just be about immigration, but also must include African Americans” (p. 101). To build such a movement, they suggest finding common ground on such issues as wage and labor protections, housing, education, and racial discrimination.

Democratizing Society 

Castells’s third category is the struggle to increase citizens’ power and to build a more democratic society. Included in this goal is the aspiration to increase local self-government at the expense of the centralized state.

Flores-Gonzalez and associates (2006) suggest that the rallies may have “awakened the ‘sleeping giant,’ propelling people who were not politicized to march on the streets and risk losing their jobs for something that matters deeply to them” (p. 4). Demonstrations in March of 2006 had record-breaking attendance in both Chicago and Los Angeles (Robinson, 2006). By drawing participants in this way, the immigrant rights movement has already succeeded in democratizing society. Lazos Vargas (2006) describes the impact of movement participation on high school students who organized student strikes in Las Vegas, Nevada. She writes: “Students’ political consciousness was awakened…. The students were determined to be heard” (p. 814). The increased political participation within the movement carries a strong message to policy makers. Johnson and Hing (2007, p. 104) write: “In future debates over immigration, lawmakers will not soon be able to forget the power, emotion, and sheer size of the spring of 2006 mass marches. Nor will they forget the firestorm of anger, controversy, and resistance created by the punitive immigration measures in the Sensenbrenner bill.” The immigrant rights movement has created a space for public participation in the immigration policy process.

Attempts to democratize by organizing face several challenges. This is particularly true of attempts to organize a social group that is not politically enfranchised. Citizenship “affects the sense of membership and the willingness to make claims asserting rights” (Alba, 2005, p. 27). Yet, even Latinos who are citizens are underrepresented at voting polls (García Bedolla, 2000). Latinos are 14 percent of the population but only 8 percent of the electorate (Lazos Vargas, 2006). One way that the immigrant rights movement expands democratization in the Latino community is by offering many the opportunity for political participation without citizenship. In this case, such participation took the form of demonstrations and strikes. Through participation, noncitizens exercised civic power. The networks of community organizations and service agencies that comprise the “migrant civil society” have “emerged as a leading voice in policy debates at the federal, state, and local levels” on behalf of those who cannot make themselves heard through voting (Theodore and Martin, 2007, p. 271). Such organizations are also “crucial conduits of information and assistance with political incorporation” (Bloemraad, 2006, p. 678).

The popular slogan, “Hoy marchamos, mañana votamos!” (Shannon, 2007, p. 31), demonstrates the centrality of democratization as a goal for the immigrant rights movement. Yet, the difficulty the movement has encountered in following through on this assertion reveals the challenge of working with a group that represents the politically alienated and disempowered. Lazos Vargas (2006, p. 840) reports that “independent exit polls of Latina/os voters for the 2006 elections show that Latina/o voter turnout in November 2006 (58.9%) was only slightly higher than it was in the last midterm elections of 2002 (57.9%).” The slight differences do not indicate increased Latino voter turnout. However, Latinos were much more likely to vote Democrat, turning away from the party of the Republican Representative Sensenbrenner. She concludes: “The promise—or threat—of ‘hoy marchamos, mañana votamos’ may take several election cycles to show tangible numerical results” (Lazos Vargas, 2006, p. 840).

Confronting Neoliberalism at (the New) Home 

Globalization and neoliberalism have made immigration a central issue in domestic policy. The expansion of global poverty has been due in part to the aggressive implementation of capitalism in developing countries, an implementation driven by policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (Davis, 2006). Robinson (2006) discusses the push-and-pull factors that shape immigration flows: “If capital’s need for cheap, malleable and deportable labour in the centres of the global economy is the main ‘pull factor’ inducing Latino immigration into the US, the ‘push factor’ is the devastation left by two decades of neoliberalism in Latin America” (p. 85). These factors, and the growth of modern transportation technology have lifted many natural restrictions on the flow of immigration (Zolberg, 2006). Although immigration is a transnational issue, the policies of the nation-state have significant effects on the political incorporation of immigrants (Bloemraad, 2006), and the nation’s policies are implemented by individual states and cities (Ellis, 2006). The city, state, and nation-state are therefore all appropriate levels at which to contest neoliberalism, the transnational system at the root of injustice against immigrants (Margit Mayer, 2007; Pastor, 2001). Theodore and Martin (2007) document the role of social movement and community-based organizations in mediating between immigrants and the “forces of global capitalism” that affect their “everyday lived experiences” (p. 275). The challenge for the immigrant rights movement is to identify local, state, and national opportunities to effectively push against neoliberalism.


Castells’s critique of urban social movements is that too often “they are a reaction not an alternative” (Castells, 1983, p. 322). To avoid falling into this pit, the immigrant rights movement can direct efforts to extend rights for immigrants rather than only reacting against bills that limit immigrant rights. The shift in framing, from resisting H.R. 4437 to making demands for legalization, demonstrates a sense of the movement’s power and a strong strategic use of framing. To promote a movement’s success, Castells (1983) recommends that actors should avoid setting goals too small. Successful movements also bridge identities (Castells, 1983), build networks (Nicholls, 2007), and extend both the geographical and cultural reach of the campaign (Pastor, 2001; Theodore and Martin 2007). Local action may offer opportunities to confront the underlying power inequalities inherent in neoliberalism where it touches down (Margit Mayer, 2007).

Revisiting theoretical considerations can enhance understanding of the ways by which social movements emerge. The application of Castells’s three types of social movement goals enables one to examine the extent to which the movement is succeeding in efforts to effect social change. Pausing to consider the movement’s challenges creates the opportunity to strategically overcome them.


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About the Author

KATHRYN HOBAN is a second-year student at the School of Social Service Administration. While a student of the Peace and Conflict Studies Department at the University of California, Berkeley, she collaboratively founded the Conflict Resolution and Transformation Center. She previously worked with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), organizing parents and teachers for education reform. She currently engages in political education and organizing with high school students.