Citizen Action in the
Americas, No. 10

June 2004

Latino Immigrant Leaders
Push for Immigration Reform

Americas Program,
Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC)

By Oscar Chacón, Aidé Rodríguez, Amy Shannon

On February 10, a group of Latino immigrant community leaders described a new vision for comprehensive immigration policy reform to a large National Press Club audience. In a historic gathering, more than 30 community leaders stood together to emphasize the consensus nature of the proposal. By nightfall, the image of Latino immigrants from Mexico, Central America, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic speaking out on immigration reform was broadcast into the homes of Spanish-speaking TV watchers throughout the hemisphere. As one of the participants commented: “Seeing that footage made me want to shout for joy. For the first time, we were the ones at the front of the room, not sitting in the shadows while others talked, but out in front, with our own ideas.”

Background on Immigrant-Led, Community-Based Organizations

Confronted by the structural lack of economic opportunity in their countries of origin, immigrants from throughout Mexico and Central America continue to arrive in the United States in record numbers. Recent census data suggests that about 50% of the total U.S. Latino population was born outside the United States. Over the past decade, as this percentage has risen, many new organizations have formed within immigrant communities. These organizations have diverse expressions. Some of them provide legal and educational services to newly arrived immigrant communities, others have a more civic or cultural bent, others work to protect immigrants’ rights, and still others emerged in the wake of natural disasters in their countries of origin to funnel charitable donations to the affected region. This rich tapestry of community-based organizations has a profound impact on integrating immigrants into local community life. However, on a national level, organized immigrant voices are still largely absent from policy debates.

Immigration patterns reflect the paradox of current global models of economic integration that simultaneously diminish opportunities for sustainable livelihoods in developing countries while perpetuating a need for cheap labor in developed countries. As they work to build their communities here in the United States, Latino immigrants continue to care about and support communities in their countries of origin. This cross-border emphasis on local community development–both in the U.S. and in the country of origin–gives Latino immigrant leaders a uniquely transnational perspective on policy issues such as immigration, trade, and economic development.

On January 7, President Bush announced the proposal known as “Just and Secure Immigration Reform for Temporary Migrant Workers.” Although the announcement helped spur a national debate on immigration, it fell short of addressing the larger policy issues surrounding immigration reform. In his speech to the nation, the president acknowledged that the current system has failed and requires profound reform. But his proposal for a temporary worker program offered a partial solution at best. Rather than confronting the underlying challenges of bringing undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and managing immigration flows, the president’s proposal focused only on mechanisms for integrating temporary immigrant workers into the U.S. work force.

Latino Immigrants Emerge on the National Scene

Following President Bush’s announcement, many local immigrant-led organizations began a grassroots organizing effort to convene a “Latino and Caribbean Immigrant Community Summit” in Washington, D.C. The event aimed to analyze the significance of the announcement made by President Bush, to define a common immigration policy agenda, and to begin to articulate a national advocacy plan. On February 9-10, 60 immigrant leaders from 12 different U.S. metropolitan areas who represented more than 100,000 immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Belize, Colombia and the Dominican Republic, gathered in Washington, D.C. This unprecedented event was organized by a group of volunteers from community-based groups around the country. The convergence was all the more remarkable because it took place with very little outside funding. Most of the participating organizations dipped into already-stretched budgets or into their members´ own pockets to pay travel and lodging expenses for the meeting.

Many immigrant community organizations, for example, Mexican hometown associations and garifuna groups from Central America, draw their strength from a strong sense of local or ethnic identity. These organizations typically tackle a wide range of issues affecting their respective communities. While absentee voting galvanizes interest in some Mexican immigrant associations, access to Temporary Protected Status is of particular concern for Central American immigrants.

However, immigrant communities also share common experiences that can serve as building blocks for a common policy agenda. Since the post-Cold War period, most immigrants from Latin America have come in search of economic opportunity. They confront the same obsolete and inefficient immigration system. Regardless of their geographic origin, most immigrant communities share frustrations with long delays in the immigration process, barriers to exercising political power, family separation, and abuse of newer immigrants in the work place. They also share a strong concern over the impact of global economic and trade policies in their communities “back home.”

For the February Summit, a multi-national organizing team worked hard to structure the event to call attention to areas of convergence, while recognizing the specific concerns of particular immigrant communities and celebrating their direct activities.

Key National Policy Challenges for Latino Immigrant Communities

Immigration reform must respond to settled immigrants and deal with future flows. Any sensible immigration reform must provide a remedy for the millions of undocumented workers already in the United States and recognize that economic and political conditions will continue to produce migration. It is estimated that one-third of undocumented Mexican and Central American workers have lived in the United States for ten years or longer. By offering a temporary worker card, the proposal announced by President Bush responds in a limited way to the need to regulate new flows of immigrants, but it fails to provide a path to permanent residency or citizenship for long-term immigrants. It also does not include adequate provisions to ensure that temporary workers can benefit from U.S. labor rights and protection. The plan to issue 3-year temporary work visas does not recognize the needs of immigrants who have already put down roots in this country, and it could jeopardize their ability to remain with their families in the United States after the period of the visa expires.

Inadequate, outdated laws and inefficient institutions exacerbate problems. Current U.S. immigration laws and institutions fail to respond to the reality of immigration today. The system of quotas and preferences has led to waits of a decade or longer for family visas. Processing times for approved, legal, permanent residency cards have increased from 14 months in 2001 to 33 months in 2003. Cases pending for more than six months have increased by 89 percent since 2000–from 1.8 million to 3.4 million. The annual quota for temporary work visas was reached in the first two months of this year, and there is no provision to increase it.

Public perception links immigration and security. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, some policy-makers and anti-immigrant organizations have taken advantage of the opportunity to cloak xenophobic sentiment in the guise of a security agenda. The militarization of the southern U.S. border has been under way for several years, but this process has intensified since 9/11, making it more dangerous for undocumented workers determined to cross, and forcing them into desolate areas or exposing them to the extortion of traffickers. It is worth noting, however, that some immigrant rights groups have made rhetorical use of the new security agenda to press for immigration reform that would legalize and register the presence of immigrant workers in the country.

Root causes of migration are ignored. Failed economic policies that eliminate livelihood options have displaced millions of immigrants from their countries of origin. The number of undocumented Mexicans in the United States has more than doubled, to over 5 million, since the signing of NAFTA in 1994. The proposed Central American Free Trade Agreement, due to be signed this year, brings more of the same recipe to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua–countries with even less developed economies and more vulnerable agricultural sectors than Mexico. The U.S. government must recognize that trade agreements are not sufficient and may even be counterproductive to creating conditions that allow people dignified livelihoods without migrating. Governments and civil society must develop plans for regional integration that explicitly address poverty alleviation and recognize the complex cultural, social, and economic interlinkages among communities in the hemisphere.

Ground Gained in the Summit

In the intense two-day meeting, Latino immigrant leaders heard from policy experts and held discussions on a variety of immigration related topics and legislative proposals. On February 10th the coalition produced a joint declaration outlining minimum demands for concrete and comprehensive immigration reform.

The group of organizations that met in Washington, D.C. hopes to seize the opportunity to expand this new advocacy movement. Participants returned home with a renewed commitment to educate, organize, and mobilize their communities toward the long-term goal of comprehensive immigration reform.

The organizing continues: Latino immigrant leaders met for a second summit, May 2-4 in Washington D.C., in a meeting that nearly doubled the size of the first. The group met with Bush Administration officials to ask about immigration reform and called on political parties to back up their promises with immediate concrete actions.

The upcoming U.S. national elections lend urgency to this process. A prevalent myth is that immigrants are not worth targeting for civic empowerment, because they cannot vote. In fact, naturalized U.S. citizens represented 36 percent of the total Latino voting population in the 2000 census, with the trend toward increasing numbers of immigrant voters. In general, naturalized citizens vote in much higher percentages than U.S.-born members of the same ethnic group. However, it is also true that eligible Latino voters cast ballots in relatively lower percentages than other ethnic groups. Newspapers touted Latino voter participation in the recent California recall election as the “best yet”, when barely 18 percent of registered Latino voters actually made it to the polls.

Latino immigrant leaders realize that, if they are to be taken seriously, they must not only ensure that their members and constituencies register to vote, but they also must mobilize the immigrant vote in November. By holding a series of local forums where they can share the goals of the summit declaration, these leaders aim to bridge the information gap between national policy initiatives and local immigrant constituencies, and to help local organizations strategize and plan activities to promote civic participation. During March and April, immigrant groups met in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and Oakland. These meetings identified local fundraising strategies, and helped to design a national campaign that links local organizations in a national effort. The postcard campaign, aimed at the Bush Administration and the Kerry campaign, asks elected officials, “żQué Pasa? (What’s happening?) on immigration reform.” The campaign was launched at the second Washington summit in May.

The Washington summits provided a seminal opportunity for a broad group of Latino and Caribbean immigrant community leaders to discuss national public policy affecting their communities. It also offered an unprecedented opportunity for Latino immigrant activists and community leaders from different cities and regions to meet each other. In some cases, the national meetings brought together participants who lived and worked in the same city but had never met previously. Aside from the commitment made by these leaders to continue collaborating at a local level, participants agreed to reach out to other local actors, including religious and church-based networks, local businesses and chambers of commerce, state and municipal government officials, unions and labor-based sectors, and other civil society organizations.

A key challenge for this emerging Latino immigrant advocacy initiative will be to obtain financial resources for the local and nationally coordinated activities proposed in February. Immigrant-led organizations receive a much smaller slice of donor funding than their numbers would suggest. Both private and public donors seem reluctant to support immigrant organizations for national policy advocacy. Several participants have already designed innovative community fundraising efforts and have moved forward with integrated informational and resource-development campaigns on such hot-button issues as driver’s licenses for immigrants and undocumented workers’ rights. However, before the current initiative can develop into a fully realized national constituency-based movement, long-term financial support must be secured for several critical coordination and dissemination activities, and for education and follow-up in local member organizations.

Organizational Challenges

Lack of Resources: Immigrant organizations receive far less funding from public and private sources than their numbers would seem to warrant. Chronic under-funding makes it difficult for these community-focused groups to develop a consistent advocacy presence. Local organizations used their own resources to send participants to the summits but securing a consistent source of support to develop this national process remains a challenge.

Latino Immigrants Under-represented on the National Scene: Although there are established national institutions that represent Latino constituencies in the United States, these groups have not taken up the more complicated transnational agenda that is so important to immigrant communities. Defining a national presence remains a challenge for immigrant communities.

Coordination and Communication: Open dialogue and face-to-face meetings have created momentum and built trust among immigrant leaders in the summit process. But meetings are time-consuming and expensive. Immigrant groups will need to build their confidence and fluency with electronic communications such as email and conference calls for ongoing follow-up.

Local Global Linkages

The Latino and Caribbean immigrant summit has the potential to be a first step in constructing a bottom-up coalition of organized Latino immigrants. It is estimated that 77% of all undocumented workers in the United States come from Mexico and Central America, making the issue of immigration a regional problem. Through family remittances, which came to nearly 40 billion dollars last year, Central American and Mexican immigrants make substantial contributions to the economies of their countries of origin. The summits initially responded to potential changes in national U.S. immigration policy, but also brought together a powerful transnational community that continues to work to affect change across borders.

Immigrants are beginning to exercise their rights and leverage not only in the United States but in their countries of origin, where they are working to secure the right to vote as displaced citizens, to improve local infrastructure, and to invest in development projects. In the United States, Latino immigrants have already begun to pressure state and local officials to accept consular identification cards as a valid form of identification and to push for the right to have state-sanctioned driver’s license. On a regional scale, immigrants are becoming more involved in questioning current integration models, particularly trade agreements such as the recently negotiated Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States.

The response of the Mexican government to the Bush announcement shows that Mexican immigrants have already begun to play a role in Mexico on the immigration reform issue. The Fox administration at first embraced the Bush initiative as a positive move toward resolving the immigration problem. But after immigrants voiced serious concerns about the Bush proposal in the media on both sides of the border, the Fox administration downplayed its enthusiasm for the vision outlined by President Bush and reaffirmed its commitment to seek reforms that guarantee Mexicans a dignified migrant and immigrant experience. In this case, it is clear that immigrants have a distinct set of interests that may conflict both with the governments of their home countries and with the direction taken by U.S. policymakers. This dynamic reality opens the door for immigrants to forge their experiences into forward-looking policy proposals–with a transnational twist.

Selected Demands of Latino Immigration Leaders (excerpted from February 10 Declaration)

President Bush and members of Congress from both parties should work together to take concrete and immediate steps to advance legislative processes that can lead to the immigration reforms outlined in this declaration. The following points represent key elements of an immigration reform policy that is just, comprehensive, long-term, and visionary:

1. A gradual immigration adjustment program that would allow immigrants who live and work in the United States to obtain legal permanent residency and subsequent United States citizenship.

2. A reasonable program to manage future immigration flows. Any temporary-worker program must include precautions to avoid the unfortunate outcomes of the Bracero Guest Worker Program from 1942 to 1964.
3. An increase in the number of visas so that families will not be separated for years by long waiting lists. Family reunification must continue to be a pillar of immigration policy.
4. A limit of no more than six months for the processing and resolution of any immigration benefit application. Restoration of the rules in place prior to 1996 for processing requests for permanent residency and citizenship.
5. The creation of a national initiative to facilitate the fullest integration and participation of new immigrants into the political, economic, and social life of our nation.
6. Policies to support improved economic conditions and dignified work opportunities in countries with strong patterns of out-migration.

(Oscar Chacón is Director,  Aidé Rodríguez is Program Coordinator and Amy Shannon is the Associate Director of EnlacesAmericas <>. They are immigration analysts for the IRC Americas Program <>.)
Links open in new browser window.
Documents from both Summits and other background information are available at: .

Members of the Steering Committee

(Coalición de Organizaciones Guatemaltecas)
Federación de Clubes Michoacanos en Illinois
Organzación Negra Centroamericana
Salvadoran-American National Network

For data and reports concerning immigration policy issues:

American Immigration Law Foundation
Urban Institute
(a non partisan economic and social policy research organization)
Recommended Reading:

“Immigration Reform Key to Border Security,”
by Sean Garcia
“Mexican Hometown Associations,” by Xochitl Bada
“The Cost of Doing Nothing”
“An Unlikely Fit: Will the Undocumented Apply for a Temporary Status?”
To read about the immigration administrative backlogs go to:

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