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Harnessing the Power of the New American Majority

By Maria Echaveste, Benjamin Todd Jealous, and Kate Kendell

Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity.

— President Barack Obama, Second Inaugural Address, January 21, 2013

Source: AP/ LM Otero

Last November, Latinos, African Americans, women, the LGBT community, and youth came out to vote, returning President Barack Obama to the White House for a second term, and bringing concurrent big wins for women and the LGBT community. One writer compared the unprecedented voter turnout that led to the re-election of our country's first African American president to a “diverse tapestry that reflected a changing America.” It now is clear that a presidential candidate can no longer win without appealing to the broad and diverse population of this country.

What motivates particular groups to support President Obama varies, but there are some unifying, key themes—fairness, justice, and opportunity. One new priority that embodies these themes is the urgent need to create a common-sense and comprehensive immigration process, an issue that long has been left on the back burner. The President promised a strong push for a new immigration process, and in January unveiled his vision for what that looks like. Across the board, labor groups, faith leaders, moderate Republicans, leaders in the LGBT community, and others are now pushing hard for reforms that will provide a pathway to citizenship for the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants.

The question now is, can we ensure that this issue will remain a national priority until it is accomplished? Can we harness the powerful voter engagement and empowerment we saw on November 6 to usher in policy changes that can transform this nation? Can we work together to elevate human dignity and opportunity over stereotypes and prejudice? This moment represents a real possibility for us all—as well as a test of our commitment to the principles of full justice and equality.

Today, we face a unique opportunity to build consensus and to build a movement, one in which immigrants can work with African American and LGBT communities, organized labor, and progressives to flex the muscle of a powerful new majority.

We believe that the push for immigration reform requires leaders from this new American majority to work together at both the national and state levels to turn electoral victories into policy shifts. The three of us, together with our many allies in social justice, state here our full commitment to doing all we can to educate, engage, and empower our communities to make comprehensive immigration reform a clear and urgent priority. We take to heart the charge that our own journey toward equality in our own organizations will not be complete until we put the muscle of our communities behind this fight and stand side by side with our brothers and sisters who live in shadows.

Immigration is often painted as primarily a Latino issue, but in reality it is a complex matter that connects and affects all of us. The current approach relies heavily on punitive measures, costs us billions, creates an underclass, and is an enormous drag on our economy and our humanity.

For people of color and LGBT communities in particular, ours is a shared story of struggle. Black immigrants comprise about eight percent of the foreign-born population in the U.S. and number about three million. Despite attaining more education and degrees than any other immigrant group in the U.S., Black immigrants earn lower wages and, in 2011, suffered from the highest unemployment rate of any immigrant group.

Our current immigration system also has a detrimental impact on LGBT communities, tearing apart families and exposing hundreds of thousands of undocumented LGBT immigrants to severe discrimination in virtually every aspect of life, from education to employment. Moreover, current laws deny same-sex bi-national couples the ability to protect their relationships and stay together in this country.

Ensuring a fair, humane, and comprehensive immigration process and a path to citizenship for immigrants has both social and economic benefits. Research shows that immigration reform would add $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years to the U.S. gross domestic product and $4.5 billion in new tax revenue over the next three.

Most of us want to live in a country where we do not make policy decisions based on scapegoating, where we do not force people and families to live in the shadows, and where we end the arrest and detention of individuals who have committed no crime and are swept up based only on their undocumented status.

A majority of Americans are united in their support for a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, according to several polls. Meanwhile, an NAACP poll shows that 80 percent of African Americans back comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, with more than 50 percent of respondents saying they “strongly favor” such a plan. A new Field Poll shows that 9 out of 10 of California's voters support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

As the President said in his inaugural speech, from “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall,” the American story has been about the inexorable push for fairness, justice, and opportunity. It is up to us—the new American majority—to make real the promise that this moment holds to propel us forward in our collective journey. We can start by working together to win a just and comprehensive immigration process. We also can continue calling for and expanding civic engagement, empowerment, and alliance building among all communities. In doing so, we can weave together a movement that can be a powerful and unifying force, yielding results for years to come.

Maria Echaveste is a senior fellow at Center for American Progress. Benjamin Todd Jealous is the 17th president and CEO of the NAACP. Kate Kendell is the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

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