One of María Rodriguez’s first hires at the Florida Immigrant Coalition was a youth organizer who trained and nurtured a group of terrified young immigrants. As they grew bolder and learned to take public action, these young people undertook a 1,500-mile march to Washington, DC, to ask PresidentObama to stop the deportations. They walked through Klan country and past hostile sheriffs. They may not have stopped deportations, but their quest introduced the nation to a generation of young people whose parents had come to this country in search of a better life. They changed the narrative around who immigrants in this country are and what they deserve. This narrative change helped secure the passage of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans). We sat down with María to talk about the narratives that criminalize immigrants, why activists should take on issues like trade to address the root causes of immigration, and how she’s been working to change the public narrative to offer dignity to the most essential — but most undervalued — workers in our economy. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

 

Jonathan Heller: How do you see neoliberal, financialized capitalism intersecting with your work on immigration and immigrant rights? Is it a root cause of the problems you’re seeing?

María Rodriguez: Absolutely. Extractivist economies are displacing people as a result of inequality and environmental degradation. While migration is a natural and historical phenomenon that has happened since the beginning of time, these predatory economies create distorted patterns of migration (as Tanya Dawkins says), in which people are forced to migrate to survive. This comes with deep personal and social costs.

JH: What are some of the narratives neoliberalism propagates? Do those narratives themselves cause harm and/or make it harder to make progress on immigration reform?

MR: A couple decades ago, when Jeb Bush was governor of Florida, there were World Trade Organization fights against structural adjustment programs. I had just moved from Washington, D.C., and was still connected to those fights. It struck me that Bush was pushing the same neoliberal policies in Florida itself: privatization of public schools through vouchers, attempting to block-grant Medicaid, cutting taxes a la Norquist, “drowning government in a bathtub” (in a state that has no income tax!). Bush abolished the State Department of Labor, for example. So while the globalization fight with the WTO was happening, we were engaged in similar fights on our peninsula.

The narratives they use are lies. There is no better moment than a global pandemic to underline the interdependence of our health, our lives, and our economy. Politicians promoted globalization and free trade but criminalized the movement of people. People don’t understand the consequences of the voracious appetite of capital globally. There's a race to the bottom as jobs move from Iowa to Mexico to China, harming people and the planet.

In the immigrant rights movement, we have focused doggedly on what we thought would be a short-term legislative agenda of legalization, partly because it has a direct and immediate impact on people’s lives. Tactically, in order to swing votes, we’ve made the intentional or unintentional choice of grabbing onto familiar narratives that mimic manifest destiny. For example, “People love America as the land of opportunity.” But that’s not the actual context for the vast majority of immigrants. Yes, people want opportunities, but they’ll go anywhere for survival. During industrialization, people moved from the country to the cities and then headed west. Globalization this century has also led to displacement, with people moving north.

Strategically, we want to affirm our shared values and common ground. But those purported values are more aspirational than actual. Let’s not be revisionist about our history. Marleine Bastien, our past board chair, says, “We are here because you were there.” It’s hard to name extractivist colonialism in a twenty-second soundbite. But our families know. It’s their experience.

Judith Barish: What are the narratives you’re using to intervene around immigration? And, specifically, I’m curious how you talk about open borders?

MR: You just brought a little shiver up my spine, Judith. If the Wall Street Journal can talk about open borders, why can't we? The contradictions of free trade, yet criminalized people. But we don’t — really we can’t — for a variety of reasons. I believe there's a role for a breakout sector within the immigrant rights movement to talk about it, to expand the debate, but the time, place, and conditions are not ripe for that, at least not in Florida. I may be wrong, but I fear fueling the polarization we are living.

Any communicator will tell you that narratives are built as a bridge, finding the commonality of values within the difference of experiences. Many of our groups use workers’ rights, the value of families, or racial justice as core frames. The Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC), as a coalition, places itself within various constellations in a long lineage of intersectional freedom fighters.

To be honest, we have yet to run intentional narrative campaigns, but our campaigns have certainly impacted narratives. For example, our first hire was a youth organizer, an early investment in movement-building. This was before “Dreamers” were a thing. We radicalized immigrant youth through a process of escalation. They protested at their college, then in front of ICE, and then at the detention center. And then they decided to walk from Florida to Washington, D.C., to get Obama to stop deportations. Despite declaring they were “undocumented, unapologetic, and unafraid” (and, later, undocu-queer), they were terrified. And so were we.

The Trail of Dreams was a 1,500 mile walk through Klan country and past racist sheriffs. Because it was youth-led, everybody understood the walk as being for the DREAM Act, which was not the initial intention. Nevertheless, in what seemed like a very short time, we went from no one knowing what a Dreamer was to [Washington Post reporter] Jose Antonio Vargas coming out as undocumented and the Dreamers appearing on the cover of Time magazine.

That action did lead to narrative change. It captured the imagination of the public and revealed the contradictions of those young people in what they called “golden cages” of second-class citizenship. Obama eventually signed DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and then DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans). Much of this happened through the process of organizing, rather than a deliberate narrative strategy.

A key moment, which now seems obvious, was when we realized the problem with a phrase we uttered as often as three times per week: “We’re a nation of immigrants.” Several years back, as part of a cohort of the Move to End Violence, I was privileged to be in deep political and personal conversations with native and African-American sisters about anti-Blackness. We came to acknowledge then something we know now: that the foundational pillars of this country are the theft of native lands and the institution of slavery. With that as our legacy, if we say, “we are a nation of immigrants,” we are making native lives invisible and diminishing the brutality of slavery. So we don’t say that anymore, and we’re intentional about helping others not to repeat it.

JB: You went through a process of thinking about the dominant narrative and transformational narratives with the Grassroots Policy Project (GPP). Tell us about that.

MR: In a process facilitated by GPP, we worked with six other organizations in Florida — in an alignment coalition, now called Florida For All — to analyze and articulate the hegemonic narrative and what our counter vision would be.

Our “fight or flight,” urgent, or reactive mode impacts our ability to deepen our thinking and orient around a more long-term plan. The process with GPP gave us the time to review the right’s trajectory and understand how they were intentional about advancing narratives of individualism, free market, and anti-government. And to explore our own current and collective ideology.

This orientation and the current xenophobic peak also impacted FLIC’s organizational strategic planning towards a more Gramscian approach, paying more attention to consciousness and culture. Our path has been natural — we can’t change policy without changing politics, but we can’t change politics without shifting culture. It’s not just communications talking points and “pressers” of the moment. It’s inspired, radical imagination, and vision, which are at the heart of discovering your own and our shared collective power — a liberation of sorts.

JH: How has the pandemic impacted your work?

MR: Agriculture is an important economic driver in Florida. And immigrants are a key workforce. Some time ago, an ally grower said, “Americans have to decide whether they want American produce picked by foreign hands, or foreign produce picked by foreign hands. That's a national security issue. We need comprehensive labor reform.” That was a paradigm-shifting statement. It wasn’t our frame, but I have repeated it to elevate the value of local economies and local food.

The pandemic has brought forward a similar statement: farm workers are “essential” workers. People are eating and we are surviving because many are still working during the pandemic. There's no better word than that: essential. And yet they’re excluded from healthcare, from the COVID stimulus support, etcetera. We have people who are essential, but they can’t even get a driver’s license to go to work — a blatant contradiction.

The xenophobes want our labor, but not our humanity. That is the dehumanizing exploitation of racialized capitalism.

Florida Governor [Ron] DeSantis has continued with the Trump playbook of demonizing and scapegoating Latinos and farmworkers and blaming us for the COVID spike (instead of his own incompetence). We’ve had to double the defense, not just of mutual aid but also in advocating for the decarceration of detention centers, compliance with Title VI language access, access to testing and healthcare, federal advocacy for inclusion of all taxpayers in relief, etc.

FLIC’s hotline, established in response to the Trump regime and useful during hurricanes, is receiving triple the usual amount of calls during the pandemic. We’ve created material in ten languages. We created a website to help people vote. We’ve convened both large and intimate membership meetings, press conferences, focus groups, and other trainings, all with interpretation in various languages. We launched an “Essential Yet Excluded” relief and organizing fund, and we’ve raised over $250,000, primarily for farmworkers. But that is just a fraction of what is needed.

JH: What would your campaigns look like if one of your goals was to advance the narrative that the social surplus — the abundance we have — rightfully belongs to all of us and should be shared by everyone?

MR: I love that idea, the thoughts and the feelings it evokes. “Abundance we have” — it’s a counterpoint to the fear and scarcity of the limbic brain, which is at the heart of any phobia, including xenophobia (or fear of running out of toilet paper in a pandemic).

First, we’d go deep on the concept that there is enough for everyone. And then, that everyone deserves, but not just because they produce or pay taxes or consume, but because they exist. We’d highlight our interdependence and intertwined fates. Cooperative and shared governance would have to be fundamental. Leadership that is reflective of the population would be key to democracy.

But we know that white supremacy, hyper-nationalism or individualism, and the myth of meritocracy falsely deem only some as deserving or entitled or worthy. Historically, we’d have to come to terms with the theft of lands and slave labor that underlies it all.

From a rights perspective, we maintain that we have the right to migrate, but as Oscar Chacon from Alianza Americas says, we also have the right not to have to migrate. We’d like the immigrant rights movement to work on trade issues and environmental issues — the root causes of migration. The implication of social surplus is that we all have enough. And that would make migration an option and not a necessity of survival. Whether you’re ripped away from your homeland or deported back, it is state violence and a function of a globalized economic system that sees us as disposable or deportable, based on the needs of capital. If we had true democracy, our basic needs would all be met.

Additionally, our debate is too often narrowly defined within national borders. Again, if the economy and markets are globalized, what implications does that have for the social surplus — our “shared” wealth, which is mostly defined by nations?  

JB: A feature of contemporary global financialized capital is borders don't exist for money or corporations or elites. They exist for work, for labor.

MR: That’s right. Are we just disposable labor? Mass incarceration or mass deportation, depending on the labor needs, because we are Black and brown. I hate to say it so bluntly.

JH: Keep playing out this campaign against forced immigration that you’re describing. Who becomes part of that alliance?

MR: We need to create unity across diverse, non-antagonistic sectors. That includes building a broad united front with those most directly impacted by the systems we seek to change. I bristle at the idea of only speaking to the choir and the “woker than woke.” But it's also important to be clear about who you're building common cause with. Some are tactical allies, and others are strategic partners. Context matters.

FLIC has had deliberate efforts to center race since 2005. We knew that before building alliances with centrists, we needed to consolidate the Black/brown alliance, including joining forces with labor. That has been a constant practice and challenge.

Let me share an example around leveraging alliances. We’d go to non-immigrant Black churches and speak about immigration reform, and folks were polite and supportive. But when we spoke about our fight against the Corrections Corporation of America (now Core Civic) and private prisons, we’d get super-enthusiastic responses, “Speak sister. Say it. Amen!” Perhaps these show the difference between transactional solidarity versus common cause. For that campaign, we had to go against the DNC chairwoman of the time, and we received whistleblower mail from a CCA employee, revealing evidence of internal corruption. The lead organizer put an alarm system on her house, spooked by the awareness of the millions of dollars at stake. The narrative of the campaign varied. We critiqued the prison industrial complex for socializing the cost of criminalization while privatizing the profit. Around that time, we joined the prison divestment movement and started using the now popular invest/divest frame and the triangle frame — get our people out of prison, get our money (private and public) out of prison, and get prison money out of politics. 

Those concerned with democracy and grassroots feminist economy are also key to the alliance. We need to develop non-patriarchal models of governance. We are comfortable being in opposition as a protest and resistance movement, but we have much less practice at being propositional and having governing power. Many of our organizations aren't even governed by their members. We have to practice governance at home, churches, schools, unions, etcetera. FLIC started experimenting — we’re in the infantile stages — with participatory budgeting for our organizations: how should we spend the money we raise through grassroots fundraising? Governance over our money is an important piece of democracy that gets overlooked because we're only thinking about the ballot. If we think about the county or city budget as our money, then we're able to start looking at the social surplus and seeing what we can do with it. Taxation is obviously a key piece of it but we have to mature our vision around governance over our shared wealth.

JH: How can organizers center narrative change as the strategy?

MR: In the Dreamer movement, we used Marshall Ganz’s “Story of Self, Story of Us, Story of Now.” The narrative is testimonial. There’s nothing more powerful than testimonial: it’s human nature. We want chisme, and we want human connection.

In addition, communications is part of what we are contesting. Words shape our concept of reality. We're starting to experiment with using “the bigger we,” which is something that the Othering and Belonging Institute is moving. We're working with them on focus groups that are “bridging versus breaking,” with Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Pan Americans, Jamaicans, and Haitians. We’re listening to how they feel about the moment and how they feel about each other. And then we are going to put that into practice. It’s a persuasive, story-based engagement of people. We’ll see what that narrative does and whether it moves people. This deep listening may help guide us around the narratives and specific messages.

We’re also thinking about using the concept of a feminist economy to build unity, which goes back to the social surplus idea. By looking at reproductive labor as well as productive labor, we make invisible work visible. It’s a tool to help women recognize that we have been devalued in the home, in the workplace, and in social arenas. We are essential, but we are excluded. We’re essential, but we’re exploited. We’re essential but we’re unemployed. In Spanish we talk about the doble jornada, the two shifts.

Our challenge and our opportunity is to bring race, gender, and class together — to build an understanding of we as women, we as Black women, we as brown women, we as working women, we as displaced immigrant women, we as women displaced by gentrification.

JH: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

MR: We seize those movement moments, like the intense days we are experiencing now, as real catalytic and awakening opportunities — opportunities to redefine narrative. Don’t we wish we could create these moments at will! But whether Paolo Freire or Marshall Ganz or healing bruja, there are methods to create those aha moments when you recognize an experience not as an individual problem but as a social system. Sharing stories, we find the courage to be protagonists to the unfolding history, not just band-aiding symptoms but changing systems.

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