To Counter Xenophobia, Invest in Immigrants

For US immigrant rights advocates, the current presidential campaign has historically high stakes. The Republican Party is running a presidential candidate who launched his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and whose idea of immigration and asylum policy centers on mass deportations, a border wall to Mexico, and the banning of Muslims.

Trump is only the loudest voice in a rising chorus of virulently xenophobic, right-wing populist movements that are shaping Europe as much as the US. The UK Independence Party, the Sweden Democrats, the French Front National, the Polish Law and Justice Party, Hungary’s Jobbik, Austria’s Freedom Party and its Alliance for the Future of Austria, the Danish People’s Party, Belgiums’ Vlaams Belang, the People's Party-Our Slovakia, Greece’s Golden Dawn – the list of growing, far-right wing, venomously xenophobic parties extends to nearly every EU member state. In Germany, in particular, the Alternative for Germany has successfully capitalized on the arrival of more than a million refugees to spread fear and win seats in local and state governments. The populist rhetoric—a critique of establishment politicians, a  virulent defense of the “native” population and its “authentic” cultures, a willingness to exploit the plight of incoming refugees and immigrants for political gains, along with a healthy dose of sexism and racism—is identical on both sides of the Atlantic.

But there is an important difference in the American response. While Trump is among the most notorious and (so far) successful anti-immigrant populists,  he also faces one of the most coordinated and powerful counter campaigns. Unlike in Germany and much of Europe, it is America’s immigrant organizations that are taking Trump and his followers head on.

The Immigrant-Led Response

The National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA) brings together the country’s 37 largest regional immigrant rights organizations in 30 states. Helping immigrants gain citizenship and register to vote has been a core mission of NPNA’s member organizations for decades. But Trump’s rhetoric has spurred a national, coordinated campaign to ensure that immigrants get citizenship in time to vote against him.

Over the past months, the NPNA network, along with some of the country’s oldest immigrant rights organizations, has made headlines across the country for achieving a drastic spike in naturalizations and voter registration through its “Stand up to Hate” campaign. According to the Pew Research Center, “The number of legal permanent residents applying for U.S. citizenship in the four months starting last October is at its highest level in four years, and it is up 5% from the same period before the 2012 elections.” Although it is not certain that the increase is due purely to immigrant organizing, NPNA’s homepage is filled with news articles highlighting the organization’s success:

  • NBC News, March 20, In citizenship drives, Latinos sign up to vote against Trump.
  • Al Jazeera, March 18, Seeking citizenship to vote against Trump.
  • CNN, March 17, Latinos line up to get citizenship and stop Trump.
  • Raw Story, March 14, Trump inspiring Hispanics to become citizens- so they can vote against him.
  • Times of Israel, March 13, Latinos seek citizenship so they can vote against Trump.
  • CNN Espanol, March 9, Donald Trump inspira a latinos a solicitar la ciudadanía para votar contra él.
  • Fox News Latino, March 8, Latino immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship in record numbers thanks to Trump.
  • International Business Times, March 8, US election 2016: More Latinos seek citizenship to vote against Donald Trump.”

This week, the efforts of NPNA’s affiliate, the Resurrection Project in Chicago’s Southwest Side, even made it into the political comedy run-down on the Daily Show. According to the Washington Post, naturalizations in heavily immigrant and Latino states like California and Texas have doubled compared to the 2012 election cycle. That those who naturalize firmly intend to vote is well documented: “More than 80 percent of those [recently] naturalized then register to vote, compared with 60 percent previously.”

The potential for Latino immigrants to shape the election is significant: The Pew Hispanic Center projects that 27.3 million Latinos will be citizens and eligible to vote for the 2016 elections. In Florida, Nevada, and Colorado, three “toss-up” states where a democratic or republican victory cannot be clearly predicted, “Latinos make up about 15% or more of the electorate.”

But this coordinated response to Trump is much more than a demographic success. It is the result of a carefully built and meticulously coordinated network. After years of fighting for immigration reform, the immigrant rights movement has created a powerful infrastructure of well-connected, immigrant-led organizations trained in everything from grassroots mobilization to strategic and rapid-response communications, and with high-level connections to lawmakers. Alongside the old vanguard of Latino and immigrant civil rights organizations like the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), new organizations like the Latino Victory Fund have sprung up in recent years. Launched by Latina celebrity Eva Longoria in 2014, the Fund’s mission explicitly targets “Empowering Latino voters through increased political participation.” Although Latinos are often the most visible voice in the immigrant movement, intersecting and parallel networks exist to advocate for other immigrant and cultural groups such as Asian-Americans and American Muslims.

Organizations like America’s Voice have established themselves as the communications mastermind of the immigrant movement, developing language and messaging strategies and providing training to grassroots efforts across the country. They have shaped the language that mainstream media now use to describe immigration: advocating for terms like “undocumented” over “illegal,” developing the concept of “a path to citizenship,” and emphasizing the need to “keep families together.”

Meanwhile, Spanish-language media, spearheaded by Univision, plays a critical role in spreading the movement’s message and challenging anti-immigrant politicians. Jorge Ramos, the beloved anchor of Univision, was one of the first journalists to directly confront Trump at a news conference last August. He challenged the candidate on his plans to deport 11 million people, and was physically removed in response. A few months later, in a sign of both Univision and the movement’s influence, Ramos and his colleague Maria Elena Salinas moderated the Democratic primary debates. Univision is also directly supporting the naturalization effort: On the platform “Univision Contigo,” Salinas explains in flawless Spanish and English how to begin the naturalization process. Supported by NCLR, NALEO, and LULAC, the website includes simple guides for citizenship applications and voter registration, as well as bilingual resources and phone numbers for more assistance.

This network of immigrant-led organizations has become a major force in US politics. At the annual National Immigrant Integration Conference hosted by NPNA last December, all three Democratic presidential candidates attended – a clear signal of the growing importance of the immigrant and minority vote. (Senator Sanders’ decision to speak via videoconference, rather than attend alongside Governor O’Malley and Secretary Clinton, was widely seen to confirm his lack of understanding and real regard for the concerns of the immigrant community.) This capacity to both influence the left-wing and confront the anti-immigrant right-wing is anything but coincidental. Certainly, the desire to gain citizenship and vote is an organic response from the movement’s base: minorities across the country feel threatened and angered by Trump’s rhetoric. But the infrastructure to channel that energy into the democratic process has been carefully built over decades.

A well-coordinated, high-capacity, and solidly institutionalized immigrant rights movement did not spring up to respond to Trump. It is the result of decades of community organizing, movement building, and hard-fought investment from foundations, government, and the private sector.

An Opportunity for Germany

On a recent visit with German integration practitioners to the US, they were amazed at the strength and reliability of the US immigrant organizations’ networks. Where is all this mobilization in Europe – and, in particular, in Germany? Where, in Germany, are the immigrant and minority rights organizations and their immigrant-led media outlets? Where is the civil society infrastructure to challenge inadequate asylum reforms or to question the persistent rhetoric of a German Leitkultur and the need to properly transmit German values (Wertevermittlung)? Where were the coordinated immigrant voices to challenge the xenophobic narrative that emerged after the New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne? Who is offering an alternative discourse to the persistent concern among even the most educated Germans that investing in strong immigrant organizations will lead to ghettoized, parallel societies? As if it were the embrace of strong, complex, multicultural identities and communities, not the lack thereof, that leads to ghettoization.

Many Germans will explain that the demographics and the histories on the two sides of the Atlantic are different. The US has been a country of immigration for centuries. Without a strong welfare state, civil society organizations and the philanthropic sector are correspondingly stronger. US minority populations are much larger and have greater electoral influence. As the Washington Post noted, “this will be the most racially and ethnically diverse election in U.S. history. Nearly a third of eligible voters will be racial minorities, due mostly to growth among Hispanics." And yet, Germany, too has been a country of immigration for decades. Today, one in five of its citizens has a migration background.

Now, more than ever, Germany needs a strong, immigrant-led sector. It is these organizations that play a critical role both in countering right-wing rhetoric and in facilitating the integration of new immigrant and refugee communities. It is these organizations that have the cultural competency to reach out to newcomers, including the new refugee populations, and can help them to navigate the cultural and legal peculiarities of their new home. But it is also these organizations that have a powerful role to play in the public debate on national culture, diversity, immigration and asylum. No asylum reform, no integration law, no major media event like the attacks on New Years, should pass without the active involvement and  immediate response of immigrant-led groups, speaking for themselves and for their communities.

There is plenty of reason to make fun of the Amis in this circus season of an election. But as Germans, and Europeans more broadly, struggle to respond to the tensions between their own growing right-wing, xenophobic parties and new refugee and immigrant populations, there is also a great deal to learn from the US immigrant rights movement.