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Buiza: The Power and Agency of Immigrants

[Note from California 100: In August and September 2022, California 100 Commissioners helped convene diverse groups of leaders and practitioners from across the state, to take a deeper look at “big, bold ideas” for the state’s long-term future. Part of the deeper look involved consideration of drastically different scenarios for the state, which can be found in the Mega Scenarios report we published in collaboration with Institute for the Future (IFTF). 

Each Commissioner was then invited to write a reflection piece, on what they found to be some of the more salient points and dynamics from the stakeholder listening exercise. As you read the reflections from Commissioner Cynthia Buiza below, we encourage you to use the Mega Scenarios document as a reference point].

 

October 25, 2022

I am thrilled to be part of CA100 because I believe that long term thinking is critical to how we maintain a balance between short-term gains and long-term, big challenges.  

Many of us believe that future, or long-term thinking, is a luxury few can afford. 

This is particularly true in the immigration space where, because of the constantly evolving complexity of the issue and the lack of political will to fix our outdated immigration system, we seem perpetually stuck in crisis response mode. 

California, like the rest of the United States, faces a complex interplay of future immigration drivers, resulting from large-scale changes in our political economy, technology, demographics, media, culture and climate. As a long- time immigrant rights advocate, I believe that how we respond to these drivers, as well as the scenarios that California 100 has been working on and testing, will have a huge impact on how we manage the future of migration and maintain a vision for immigrant inclusion that, if not a utopian, is at least one that is solutions-oriented.

 

As we engaged in this scenario building process on immigration, a few novel ideas and promising possibilities have emerged, rooted in the idea of a resilient state infrastructure that fully recognizes immigrants’ roles and contributions. These include:

  1. the creation of a permanent institution/department within state government solely dedicated to immigrant inclusion, complemented by regional branches in every county; 
  2. greater political participation by immigrants, including allowing non-citizens to vote and run in local elections and be eligible to serve on public boards and commissions; and
  3. a “California residency” status allowing immigrants, regardless of their federal immigration status, access to the safety net, education and economic opportunity, and building on what California has created for immigrants over the years, bringing us closer to the shared ideals that we have for our state.

 

As we engaged various stakeholders and leaders in the immigrant rights movement, especially around diverse scenarios encompassing two or three decades, a few areas and unifying factors emerged but also skepticism about the methodology, perspectives and frameworks used. 

Where the stakeholders seemed most aligned was on the centrality of immigrant actors and directly-affected communities in powering the state’s immigrant rights movement. There was broad agreement that successful movement building in the state will continue to be a powerful driver in crafting successful policies in the future – a future rooted in the power and agency of people (i.e., social movements) in creating new systems that work for everyone. 

I was struck by a comment from a few of the stakeholders who felt that there was a “bleakness” to some of the scenarios, especially that of “Protecting One’s Own.” One participant noted: 

The picture that we saw at the end seemed so futuristic but missing the human factor. How does it capture connection? Belonging? I am a bit all over the place in my emotions about the scenarios. For example, the health innovation space came out of necessity based on the survival mechanisms of our communities. In terms of climate-related issues, necessity still bears out invention, relying on community wisdom. The power of the collective living through these times to address common challenges.

This is important feedback because of where the humanity and dignity of immigrants sits in our country’s political discourse. Unlike other issue areas, immigration, as I noted earlier, is one of the most intractable social problems America faces. Given the political games that Washington, D.C. has played at the expense of immigrant lives, this feedback resonates and needs to be part of the consideration in immigration policymaking. Even in planning scenarios, we must not forget how to tell the human story of migration and immigrant inclusion. 

There was also robust conversation about California being bold in redefining citizenship and mutual aid, shifting from resources and planning that are about excluding non-citizens, and towards investing in infrastructure, social and economic, critical to unlocking productivity and innovation. This is especially critical for a state economy greatly influenced by, and driven by, immigrants. All these track well with the “Together in the Struggle” scenario in which California continues its affirmative journey of inclusion, working on incremental but inclusive policies, and building on the robust infrastructure that it has created in the last 25 years to protect immigrant populations.

Skepticism and even concern seemed to rise out of the “California Goes It Alone” scenario. Some noted that California should instead create a compact with other states in which we forge greater regional economic solidarity – perhaps even with other countries. Given California’s economy and its outsized role in creating progressive policy models, the state can be in a very strong position to develop and promote bilateral or multilateral relationships and agreements with like-minded states interested in harnessing and boosting immigrant contributions for the common good. In the last few years, Western states like Nevada, Oregon and Washington have adopted immigrant-friendly public policies like that of California. This may create an opening for a more regional approach to immigration reform. 

There are no easy answers to the complex migration challenges we face domestically and globally. The multi-faceted nature and causes of modern mass migration require a response that is elastic, strategic and forward looking while remaining rooted in research and reality. This makes the work of Califonria 100 even more urgent. 

I am grateful for this opportunity to engage in bold, visionary thinking while anchoring those visions on clear policy goals that are actionable. These actionable goals will provide critical guidance for leaders, policy makers and other stakeholders engaged in the immigration issue, hopefully for the next 100 years and beyond.