Guest Columnist/NAM

What has happened in Congress shows that the immigrant rights movement is in for a long and tough struggle. What’s happening outside Congress shows that the movement is seriously preparing for it.

Earlier last month, House Republican leaders passed, once again, provisions taken directly from HR 4437. Call this “Sensenbrenner-lite.”

Recently, however, most of these provisions were derailed in the Senate. Leaders in both parties didn’t want to add controversial measures to unrelated bills and kept their support for S 2611, the Senate’s bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform proposal.

Unable to gain traction from the war in Iraq and other domestic policy positions in the mid-term campaigns, some Republican leaders are hell-bent on waging a war on immigrants instead.

Whether this strategy will pay off for the Republicans will be demonstrated this November, when anti-immigrant candidates use the immigration issue to try to bully and fear-monger their way into keeping control of Congress.

But the national news stories in Washington, D.C. on the immigration debate often overshadow the important grassroots organizing happening in immigrant communities across the nation.

The unprecedented scale of the marches and rallies this spring launched a new, broad-based movement calling for the respect and dignity of immigrants. These actions bolstered the preference of the majority of Americans for a comprehensive approach to immigration reform instead of enforcement-only legislation. In Congress, the Senate passed a compromise bill that would reunite families, preserve the rights of immigrant workers and create a pathway to legal citizenship.

Now, more immigrants are taking civic participation seriously. The number of legal permanent residents who are becoming naturalized citizens has grown dramatically.

The 441,759 individuals naturalized in the first eight months of 2006 represent an increase of 18 percent over the same period last year.

The number of naturalizations in May 2006 is up 42 percent when compared to May 2005.

In Phoenix, Az., where local law enforcement officials are actively arresting, detaining and in some cases deporting undocumented immigrants, more than 1,700 legal immigrants have applied for citizenship after a series of naturalization fairs organized by the Arizona Coalition for Migrant Rights.

The phenomenon is being repeated in many other communities across the nation.

Voting has also become a major focus of immigrant rights organizations. Immigrant communities are developing the infrastructure and acquiring the experience necessary for effective long-term voter registration programs.

The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which began voter registration drives a few years ago, has registered more than 15,000 immigrants. This is only the beginning.

Looking ahead to 2008, registrations will continue to rise as more immigrant communities gain experience and more financial resources for getting voters to the polls.

Make no mistake, the immigrant rights movement is being built to last by creating a culture of civic participation that’s now emerging within immigrant communities. The voices of immigrants will be heard for elections to come.

Deepak Bhargava is executive director of the D.C.-based Center for Community Change, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, low-income advocacy group.

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