The Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition's quest for human rights
This holiday season — and the other 11 months of the year — an organization is educating community members to become human rights promoters.
The Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition does not provide a direct service, nor does it donate goods. It does, however, provide an important intangible by bringing hope to the immigrant community. It mobilizes people, connects them to resources and powerfully trains them to protect human rights.
The AIRC started as a network of organizations in 2006. During that time, the federal government introduced a controversial bill (HR 3437) that criminalized immigrants and anyone who helped them. Noticing a large gap in institutionalized support for immigrants, a number of local Austin organizations formed the coalition.
This year alone the coalition has collaboratively led a successful statewide campaign to defeat over 80 anti-immigrant bills in the legislative session.
Since 2006, the coalition has transitioned into a groundbreaking singular organization: one that is actually immigrant-led.
Esther Reyes, Executive Director of the AIRC since 2010, says that many immigrant rights organizations stop at the “know your rights level.” In other words, they educate immigrants to prevent abuse, but they do not go any further. So the AIRC’s work, according to Reyes, is to “really engage them in issue campaigns to make the city, the state and ultimately this country a better place for everybody.”
In this sense, the AIRC does not just protect the immigrant rights of some; it fights for the human rights of everyone.
The AIRC does this by doing much more than just educating. It networks with immigrant communities all across Austin and trains individuals with leadership potential from different parts of the city to become AIRC community organizers.
During the intensive training, they “talk about everything — from what the Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are, to the history of immigrants in this country and what unites all of our struggles,” Reyes says. She continues to explain that by using a human rights framework, the AIRC gives these fledgling leaders the tools to form 10-member committees in their communities.
Once the committees are formed, they usually meet once a week. The leaders, called human rights promoters, conduct the same leadership training with their committees, so that they can together, as a committee, prioritize the needs of their community. Once each committee has a list of needs, all the committees vote to decide what campaign the AIRC adopt.
This is an innovative organizational strategy. Unlike other advocacy organizations, the AIRC staff does not just ask immigrants to blindly follow initiatives. Rather, as Reyes says, the AIRC “really transforms lives.” These committees take charge of their own advocacy — not just for a one-time bill, but for the rest of their lives.
So far there are nine committees throughout the Austin area. Collectively, these committees decided that a 2012 goal for the AIRC will be to build an institutional relationship between the immigrant community and law enforcement.
A new federal initiative that seeks to criminalize immigrants may have unintended adverse affects; if immigrants are worried about being charged with a criminal action, they are likely going to avoid contact with local law enforcement, out of fear of discovery. And if citizens are afraid to reach out to authorities, it could have a serious impact on the reporting of crimes. As a result, as Reyes puts it, “we have an entire community of people who don’t trust the police.”
In 2012, the AIRC — nine committees comprised of 90 immigrants — will work to change that. Together, they are going to try building more trust between community members and law enforcement.
Reyes is proud that the AIRC, with its successful campaigning at the state level, has already directly kept Texas from becoming an Arizona or an Alabama. It has prevented Texas from becoming a state that has turned its back on human rights and criminalized immigrants to the point of dehumanization.
And Reyes continues that while it is hard to “imagine an organization that doesn’t provide a service, what we really offer is hope.” Hope for all working families, all students, all labor unions — to be treated fairly and equally, with dignity and respect, without racial, class or citizenship distinction.