Don’t blow it now

MARC COOPER is a contributing editor to the Nation magazine, a columnist for L.A. Weekly and a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg School's Institute for Justice and Journalism. He blogs at

COUNT ME AMONG those -- like Cardinal Roger Mahony and various labor and immigrant advocates -- who oppose the planned May 1 “Day Without Immigrants” walkout and economic boycott.

Don’t get me wrong. I haven’t signed up with the Minutemen or joined the Archie Bunker Fan Club. I oppose the boycott precisely because I’m also among those who were encouraged, even elated, when half a million people poured into the streets of downtown Los Angeles last month clamoring for the rights of immigrants.

The millions of workers in the nation’s underground economy who pick our crops, cut our lawns, pluck our chickens and slaughter our hogs have gotten a bum deal. We make them run a perilous gantlet at a rough-and-tumble Mexican border. If they survive their desert trek and elude the fences, heat sensors, sodium lights, infrared cameras, aerial drones and Border Patrol agents deployed to block them, we then allow them -- unmolested -- to carry out our nation’s most thankless work for its lowest wages. We let them take care of our children and clean our toilets but won’t grant them as much as a driver’s license, let alone any formal legal standing.


The explosion of demonstrations across the country gave shape and voice to a pent-up anger at our blatantly hypocritical immigration policies -- and recast the national debate almost overnight. The Senate’s obscure, barely reported policy machinations on comprehensive immigration reform were suddenly thrust onto the front page.

And although some pundits had darkly predicted a nativist backlash against Mexican flags and the shadowy “reconquista” conspiracy, instead we were blessed with the minor political miracle of Democrats and Republicans elbowing each other out in the race to back sensible immigration reform. There seemed to be a national awakening that all those “illegals” out in the streets with their white T-shirts and patriotic flags really were an integral part of our society deserving some better level of recognition.

The massive, positive demonstrations of March and April have fueled an exciting and unexpected forward momentum in what had been a stymied, decade-long push to bring our immigration policy in sync with our market realities.

With the Senate back in session and struggling to agree on liberalized bipartisan reform, with President Bush finally (but still not forcefully enough) bringing some of his clout to bear, with public opinion polls showing new majorities in favor of much of what immigrant advocates have been lobbying for, I can’t think of a worse time to stage a confrontational boycott like that planned for May 1.

There is a definite time and place for this sort of tactic, and it isn’t here or now. Boycotts are powerful and volatile weapons used as a last resort to bust open dams of dogged resistance. You don’t use them when the political tide is even vaguely flowing in your direction.

Within burgeoning social movements there are always differences of opinion as to what’s the best way to proceed at any given moment. The more successful leaders of the great civil rights movement, for example, could sense when to push, when to pull and when to gracefully glide with the momentum. As a result, they made history while some of their more untethered rivals only made a lot of noise. Likewise today.


It’s no accident that those pushing hardest for the May 1 boycott, many of them marginal protest groups such as ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), have never shown much concern for real-world results, preferring to act out their ideological impulses.

That’s why the larger institutional players in the pro-immigrant movement prefer an after-school (and after-work) rally over an intentionally punitive boycott and walkout. They argue that such an escalation could alienate lawmakers and the public just when political sentiment is shifting more toward immigrants. The positive message of demanding inclusion in the United States would be replaced by a more negative and divisive signal.

The emerging leaders of the immigrant movement have so far shown outstanding political wisdom and maturity. They have built imaginative and broad coalitions. Their rallies have been exquisitely peaceful and well-ordered. Their message has been crystal clear.

They have masterfully linked the action in the streets to the negotiations in the suites of power. They have chosen effective, long-term strategy over the immediate emotional satisfaction of symbolic gestures. That’s why they are right to now oppose the boycott.