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FDL Welcomes Frank Sharry Of America's Voice

by David Neiwert

You know that after 17 years running the National Immigration Forum -- certainly the leading and longest-lasting progressive voice for immigration reform -- and dedicating his career to that cause, Frank Sharry would not simply pack his bags for any old political venture.

Sharry, who stepped down as the NIF's executive director earlier this year, did so because he had in mind a bridge-building venture that would try to provide a voice for the majority of Americans who want a sensible, humane solution to the nation's dysfunctional immigration policies. That venture -- just now getting off the ground (their website is still in its formative stages) -- is called "America's Voice." Their mission statement:

America’s Voice is the newly-founded communications and rapid-response arm of a reinvigorated campaign to advance immigration reform. Its goal is to build the public support and political power necessary to enact broad immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million immigrants working and living in the U.S. without proper legal status.

America’s Voice is part of a four-pronged strategy to be mounted by immigrant advocates beginning in 2008. Overall, the campaign will combine:

  • an unprecedented voter mobilization campaign targeting immigrant voters;
  • enhanced policy advocacy and research;
  • grassroots mobilization;
  • a campaign-style communications and rapid-response war room.

Its goal is to build the public support and political power necessary to enact broad immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million immigrants working and living in the U.S. without proper legal status.

I had a long phone conversation with Sharry earlier this week about how he hopes to transform these ideas into reality, and how they were forged in the crucible of the ugly right-wing framing of the immigration debate.

Tell me a little bit about how America's Voice came about.

Well, following the defeat of the Senate immigration bill a number of immigrant advocates were engaged in trying to figure out what went wrong and what we needed to do, and clearly one of the areas where we failed was in framing and driving the debate in the media. So we decided that we really needed something like a communications war room that would provide some leadership and extra capacity to do just that. That's the idea. Now we've got to actually stand it up and make it work.

In all those 17 years, can you recall nativist sentiment being at the zenith it is now?

No. I think the anti-immigrant movement has been successful at building their activist core and essentially taking over the Republican Party. Which is pretty remarkable.

So you have, in 2000, Pat Buchanan and the anti-immigrant crowd took over the Reform Party, and he got less than 1 percent of the vote. Just seven years later, all but a handful of Republicans are in favor of repressive policies that would have been unthinkable then. There's always been a hard core of immigration hawks in the Republican Party to be sure, but the fact that so many Republican voters, as evidenced by the exit polling in the primaries, want to deport 12 million people, and the fact that most of their standard-bearers are in favor of mass deportation, and you see the spread of state and local initiatives -- so no, in my 25-year career of working on this stuff, I've never seen it as bad as it is now. And how can we forget the radio and cable talkers who spew their venom every day and night?

When you say the Republican Party has been taken over by the anti-immigration faction, how does that affect someone like John McCain, who I understand is someone you've had some dealings with previously?

Well, I just have to say, when McCain and Kennedy teamed up in 2005, back in the days when we were optimistic that comprehensive immigration reform would be enacted in Bush's second term, McCain really was a champion. He spent a lot of political capital on this issue. I've been in the back room with him many times when, you know, it was a question of whether he was going to stay strong or back off, and he always stayed strong. But that changed.

That changed, following the defeat of the Senate immigration bill and the fact that he was losing altitude in his presidential run, he shifted positions, and said border security first. I suspect that he's being deliberately vague so that he doesn't paint himself into a corner. He's not saying, attrition through enforcement. He's saying border security first.

But he's definitely catering to the nativists in that.

To me, what it speaks to -- I suspect that, in his heart, given what he's done and what I've seen up close, is that he would like to enact comprehensive immigration reform if president. But the fact is that he doesn't think he can get elected president by saying that. And it's because he's afraid of losing Republican base voters who are in the thrall of the anti-immigrant movement.

The problem with McCain is that he's got an R next to his name. And he's the head of a party that is I think in the throes of a historic political blunder and a kind of spasm of anti-immigrant sentiment that, in 20 years, the party elders will look back on, as many party elders already are commenting, 'Oh my God. What did we do? What were we thinking?' And the fact is that they're not thinking.

They're caught up in the revival of the Southern Strategy that has worked for them so well. And so they're all salivating about the Jeremiah Wright stuff. Oh, great! We can use a racially charged to obscure the fact that our policies are so out of touch with ordinary Americans.

It seems to me the Wright thing touches on one of the underlying, core reasons for the traction that this anti-immigrant sentiment has gotten such traction, which is that the GOP really has become the party most invested in defending white privilege. And unfortunately, that is something that does seem to resonate across broad swaths of the electorate.

It was remarkable. As Cecilia Munoz [of the National Council of La Raza] often says, we thought we were in a policy debate. Up until the end of June. And in fact we were in a cultural war.

And no less an authority on racism than Trent Lott was overheard on the Senate Floor as Republicans were lining up to vote no on this bill, having indicated to the White House earlier they were leaning towards voting for it, and he went up and said, 'This is about racism.' He was overheard talking to some fellow Republicans. And you know, if Trent Lott says it's about racism, I'm guessing he knows something about it.

You can't much more cynical than that.

Look, the Republican Party, for 25 years, has feasted on issues like this. You know -- crime, welfare, affirmative action, gay marriage. Illegal immigration fits squarely in that tradition of racially charged, culturally charged wedge issues. And they are, in the absence of evidence, they still seem convinced that this is a winning strategy. It's remarkable.

It's like Mike Lux said: It's in their DNA. They have to.

But what we've seen actually in terms of electoral results is that even though it does well with the base, it does very poorly with the broader electorate.

That's what's remarkable. See, from my point of view, that's why I'm confident that we are gonna mount a comeback and we will be successful. And the reason is that Republicans listen to talk radio and think that it's mainstream America. And swing voters, even the so-called "Reagan Democrats" -- and believe you me, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out where they're at on this issue because they could prove decisive -- they want a solution. They want government to solve problems.

Their anger is not directed so much at undocumented immigrants, who they understand have risked their lives to feed their families. Their ire is directed at leaders who are a bunch of hot air and don't deliver solutions to pressing problems.

So the Republicans are committing a mistake of historic proportions, and the Democrats are divided over whether to hide behind their desks or to play offense. And so the Democrats could blow this if they continue to spout a Republican Lite line. They actually are going to have to unite in favor of a solution, stick their chins out, stick their necks out, and win the argument. And if they don't, we won't have reform, and I suspect it will hurt Democrats not only with Latino immigrant voters but with swing voters as well.

So tell me about what happened to last year's immigration bill, kind of by way of explaining what your strategy's going to be this time around.

Well, we had a theory of winning. [Laughs]

Should I insert "low mordant chuckle" at this part of the transcript?

Yeah [laughs]. Even now, the theory of winning makes some sense. We lost, so we own that. But the idea was that you had a conservative Republican president for whom one of the only issues that he actually had some progressive leanings was with immigration. And you had a Republican Party that was genuinely divided. Most favored enforcement without any relief for immigrants; but you know, look, in 2006, the Senate passed a version of comprehensive immigration reform with 23 Republican Senate votes. So the idea that you could get enough Republican votes to pass reform with a Republican president supporting it, that was part of the theory.

But the other part of it was it couldn't pass without a majority of Democrats. That was always for us the ace in the hole. So with Ted Kennedy and the Democrats and the Hispanic Caucus, led by Luis Guitterez, leading the battle, we wouldn't end up with legislation that was so bad that we couldn't live with it.

But what happened is that the White House got involved. And they decided to engineer it so that they pushed McCain aside -- who seemed willing, by the way, to be pushed aside. McCain and Kennedy were down to one remaining issue to unveil McCain-Kennedy 2.0, and it would have been a bill that would have excited progressives for the most part. But McCain backed off, in part because he was losing altitude in Iowa, in part because the White House said, 'John, no offense, but we need this to be blessed by not only the president but by immigration hawks.'

So they introduced Jon Kyl [Republican senator from Arizona]. Jon Kyl negotiated a much harder bargain, they basically said, we'll give you legalization, but we want cuts in family, we want a temporary-worker program, and a point system on future legal immigration. And when it was unveiled, the grand bargain was just bad enough to piss off just about every constituency.

Yeah, the classic making-sausage tale.

Yes, the sausage in the back room was basically very unappetizing. We all were pissed off about the temporary worker program. We were pissed off about, though there was some family-backlog reduction, there were cuts in family. The high-tech people were pissed off about the points system, because they weren't getting to sponsor the kind of high-skilled workers that they wanted. And even the Chamber of Commerce and those types were pissed off that the temporary worker program didn't set aside what they wanted, which was permanent workers. And the left went nuts on just about all of it.

I get this all the time, people ask: 'Where was the progressive community on immigration reform?' I say, well Christ, they were handed a pile of manure.

Yeah, I know a lot of folks, myself included, opposed it mostly because of the temporary-worker program. Mostly I just said that if this legislation dies, it won't be a tragedy, because it's not that good.

Yeah. And you know, we supported it, even though it was very difficult to do so, and it was painful. Believe me. We did so for a couple of reasons. One, the legalization provisions were pretty damned good. Two, we knew if it passed the Senate, it would have to get better in the House in order to attract the kind of support from Democrats that would be needed to get it across the finish line. And three, we knew that if it didn't pass, that given how the pendulum swings on this issue, the vacuum would be filled by anti-immigrant measures. And it gives me no pleasure to say we were right on that third prediction. Down the stretch, we kept saying, 'It's destined to get better if it passes, and it's destined to get worse on the ground for immigrants if it doesn't.' And unfortunately, that's what's happened.

One of my inside-the-Beltway type friends, Wade Henderson, kept saying, 'Look, everything can be fixed. But we need legalization.'

But we lost. And now, why did we lose? Obviously, the divisions on the left were a problem. But that's not why we lost. There was a right-wing revolt.

What happened was that the Republican Party and the anti-immigrant movement joined forces, became one and the same. And Republican senators who had promised the White House they were gonna vote for the bill. The whole deal with the right-leaning, grand-bargain bill was that the Senate Republicans would produce 25 to 30 votes. The White House theory of winning was, 'Give us a right-leaning bill in the Senate, we'll get people like Jon Kyl and Trent Lott and Mitch McConnell and others who in the past have been opposed to this stuff, we'll get them to vote for it.' And that would send a signal to House Republicans that it's safe to vote for. That was their theory of winning.

But they thought Bush would have more sway than he did. They thought Senate Republicans would be good to their word, and they weren't. Everyone knew that the anti-immigrant crowd would go wild, but no one thought it would be as big and as strong and as vocal with the talk radio and the talk TV joining forces, looking to give Bush a black eye as well as to stand up to those brown people who, you know, how dare they want to become citizens of the United States.

It's actually become a handy way for congressional Republicans to distance themselves from Bush politically now, because he's proven so unpopular.

That's right. So we had been pursuing a bipartisan approach to comprehensive immigration reform on the theory that it couldn't pass unless it was progressive enough for a sound majority of Democrats. But it also had to be centrist enough to attract enough Republicans to get it done. And that legalization was not the only issue -- with families, workers rights, all the other important issues related to immigration. But at the end of the day, even a right-leaning version was not enough to hold Republicans.

In the self-criticism afterwards that many of us have engaged in, it's not like, 'Oh, let's just put Humpty-Dumpty back together again, and go at it.' No -- it's that comprehensive immigration reform, as we've known it, is now dead. And we need a new strategy and a new approach, and a lot more power.

So for us, trying to learn the right lessons, the main ones have been: One, we counted on business and Republican support in a way that they didn't deliver. Two, the divisions among progressive forces needed to be closed -- we needed to close ranks within the progressive constituencies and forces in order to have real enthusiasm for immigration reform and make it the defining issue that many of us see that it is. Three, we need to get on the right side of the economic anxieties of American workers and the concerns of local communities, and we seem to be on the wrong side.

And four, and probably most importantly, is that this is fundamentally a political war that needs to be won with raw political power. And that when the combination of immigrant voters, particularly Latino immigrant voters, is felt and recognized and registered, combined with the desire of swing voters for a solution, that that will enable Democrats to not fear illegal immigration as a wedge issue but use it themselves eventually as a wedge issue against a shrinking Republican Party.

It's gonna take time, it's gonna require us to be very special at voter mobilization, not only this cycle, but probably the next cycle and maybe another one. It's gonna require Democrats to have the confidence to get on offense. And it's gonna require, in the end, enough Republicans realizing that this issue is backfiring for them to sue for peace.

And of course, a progressive approach to immigration reform requires changes in the policy approach.

The hardest thing to overcome, I think, is the nativist sentiment that's floating about out there, particularly in the media. I wonder how you hope to deal with that.

It's a huge problem. On the one hand, I do think it will matter hugely if progressive forces -- if labor, and immigrant advocates, and Latinos, and African Americans, -- if we close ranks, and Democrats get on offense, that's going to matter hugely. I guess what I'm getting at, to answer your question more briefly, is that the way to deal with the right-wing echo chamber is to marginalize them through a combination of political power and winning the argument over who has the better solution.

We increasingly are and will take them on. There's an anti-hate approach that's part of the strategy. But from my point of view, the real key is to have the netroots take this on as an issue. I think we pretty much have the upper hand in the mainstream print press. And I think eventually we want to make cartoon figures out of TV talkers like who are cartoon characters.

There's no easy fix. We have to put some things in place. We should be saying, right after the election, 'Oh my God. When Latino immigrant voters turned out in record numbers, and swung Florida and three or four Southwestern states for the Democrats, Republicans now would have an electoral map in which they only seem to be able to win in the South and parts of the Rocky Mountain West. And the Southern Strategy, as expressed through using illegal immigration as a wedge, so didn't work that the Republican Party is going to go through a painful rebranding, reorganizing, rethinking process, in which they actually have to become more competitive.

That could be the narrative coming out of the election. And I think quite frankly that it's likely to be. And I think if Obama is the likely nominee, they are gonna throw everything they can at him in what I hope will be the last gasp of the Southern Strategy. But it'll be a big test for America. Big test.

We're already seeing it. The thing that has struck me about the whole Jeremiah Wright matter is the way the media have turned a blind eye to the really racially charged way this is being played, the obvious dog-whistle aspects.

And the media thinks that America is still stuck at the America of, like, 1973.

Look, this is why I'm so excited about this election cycle. I talk to Democrats every day who are just so nervous. Because we're so good at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Especially on these kind of cultural issues that we seem to have blind spots on.

But to me, I think the country is emerging from the Republican hegemony by wedge issue. I mean, just look at Broder's column on Sunday, about being down in Mississippi -- there's a race down there, a special election for the seat vacated by the guy who replaced Trent Lott, and now it's down to a two-person race. But the Democrat almost won. And this is a district that went for Bush for 77 percent. And the Republican was running on illegal immigration and the Democrat was running on Iraq, gas prices, and, you know, getting things done. It's in the heart of Republican Mississippi, and the Southern Strategy ain't working. That's pretty remarkable.

Another reason for my optimism on this is that -- look, we do have some vulnerability with swing voters. But as the debate gets clarified, that will change -- and now that we're not talking about a complex piece of legislation, the debate is getting clarified. Do you want to drive 12 million people out of the country? Or do you want to get them on the right side of the law and on a path to citizenship?

It's expulsion vs. citizenship is the issue. And as that becomes clearer, and it becomes clearer that the Republican Party's position is to drive 12 million people out of the country -- I suspect we will win the argument with swing voters, that Democrats have a better approach.

But that assumes that Democrats will be strong enough to actually be for something. And the good news is that either nominee will be. Either nominee -- Barack gets this issue. I've been in some meetings with him and he so gets this issue. Really gets it. And she [Hillary Clinton] does too. They actually talk about -- they call it comprehensive immigration reform, but what they're really talking about is get tough on employers, and legalize people, and it works together.

And that's the kind of counterintuitive insight that most Americans don't get: 'So, we solve the problem by legalizing immigrants?' Yes, is the answer. Because if you don't -- the crackdown on employers won't work unless you do legalize immigrants. So all the discussion -- temporary workers and family, all that stuff, very important issues, have to be part of a discussion.

But the heart of the political and policy debate is: 12 million people -- citizens, or deportees? And the polling is very, very clear. Even if they think mass deportation is a good idea, they think it's impractical. And strong majorities want folks here to get on the right side of the law and become citizens.

People don't understand it. We have a big job ahead of us. There's a lot of mixed feelings and a lot of grievances, like they don't want them using social services, blah blah. But people, at the end of the day, just want immigrants to get legal. And that's where my confidence comes from.

The issues aren't clear enough, we haven't done a good enough job of making the issue clear -- that it's between mass deportation and earned citizenship. And I think the moral, the practical and the political dimensions are going to work in our direction.

About The Author

David Neiwert is the managing editor of Firedoglake. He's a freelance journalist based in Seattle and the author/editor of the blog Orcinus. Frank Sharry is the Executive Director of America's Voice . This interview was originally published on the

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.