Last week, Migrants Organise travelled to Phoenix, Arizona, to participate in America’s largest conference on immigration. “Justice For All: The National Immigrant Integration Conference 2017 (NIIC2017)” saw organisers, advocates, service providers, policymakers, funders and academics come together to build relationships and develop strategies to support immigrant and refugee populations.
Over 1,000 participants and speakers from across the world participated in the three-day, annual event, which a decade after its establishment, is now considered the defining organisation within America’s immigrant and refugee integration field. Leaders and advocates from the global immigrant and refugee rights movement attended talks, plenaries, meetings, and training and planning sessions, informed by the experiences of immigrant leaders in Arizona and America’s south-west, and by those from further afield.
Zrinka Bralo, CEO of Migrants Organise, and Akram Salhab, Advocacy and Campaigns Officer, between them chaired and facilitated two workshops at the conference. Sharing experiences from our work in the UK, they offered tactics and strategies for successful organising. They also worked with conference attendees to design new actions, develop work plans, and define individual organising commitments.
Heading up the conference’s plenary on Global Migration, Zrinka gave a powerful speech explaining how national-level policies around the world are increasingly focused on deterring migration, in a framework that fails to protect migrants’ rights and contributes to the rising tide of xenophobia and racism. Drawing on her own experiences of ethnic conflict in her home country of Bosnia, as well as her subsequent and ultimately successful battle with the UK’s asylum system, Zrinka said: “There is no such thing as an intellectual form of hate. It starts with fear, but always ends in violence. We must connect, grow our power, build common ground and make some good trouble – until we have justice for all.”
Chairing a workshop on the rise of nativism in the UK, Europe and beyond, Akram facilitated discussions with partners from the Transatlantic Migrant Democracy Dialogue on the rise of right-wing popularism and how to challenge it. Zrinka and Akram also outlined how Theresa May’s “hostile environment” policies are deliberately targeting migrants in Britain, creating a climate of fear with the explicit aim of making lives for migrants so untenable that they leave ‘voluntarily’ or choose not to enter the UK at all. They shared lessons learned from Migrants Organise initiatives within the British context and provided examples of how, despite the discouraging political climate, new partnerships can be formed. They also discussed the need to reclaim public opinion and develop fresh narratives about immigration.
Straddling the border with Mexico, and notorious for some of the most virulently anti-immigration legislation and leadership in the US, Arizona has a powerful and innovative organising history. As Petra Falcon, leader of Promise Arizona, an organisation that develops immigrant and Latino political power in the state, noted: “We have built a movement that is still growing and has birthed leadership envied by a nation.” The region’s efforts to protect and build power amongst immigrant communities, and its subsequent influence in building a nation-wide resistance movement in the States, therefore framed the conference discussions.
With the rise of Trump in the USA, and of the increasingly extreme right-wing politics of May’s post-Brexit Britain, there have been seismic shifts in policy and governance on key issues affecting vulnerable immigrant and refugee communities. In the face of such polarised and anti-immigration policy landscapes, the need to build alliances across sectors is more urgent than ever before. As such, Migrants Organise welcomed the opportunity to participate and contribute to key NIIC2017 sessions concentrating on forging connections between business, education, political and faith sectors; creating solidarity around the major policy shifts that are infringing upon civil liberties; learning lessons from efforts to stand up to nationalist and white supremacist movements; and exploring the new and growing opportunities for organising for change.
In addition to the opportunities for learning and transnational exchange, highlights from the event included speeches by US Congressman Luis Gutierrez, a nationally-recognised champion for immigrants who has played an instrumental role in advocating for immigration reform in the USA, and Dolores Huerta, one of the most important civil rights activists of the 20th century.