Two Reforms, One Day, One Broad Message: March 21st, 2010 and the Struggles for Immigration and Health Care Reform – Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz
University of Illinois-Chicago
On March 21st, 2010, I was one of more than two hundred thousand people who traveled to Washington D.C. to demand comprehensive immigration reform. According to one news report, this was the largest turnout for a political rally since the election of Barack Obama. Afterward, I heard one immigrant rights activist lament that the passage of the health care bill later the same day overshadowed media coverage of the immigrant rights march. There is certainly truth in his complaint. But there is also another, perhaps more productive, way to understand the relationship of simultaneous struggles for health care and immigration reform.
As I marched along D.C. streets that sunny afternoon in the company of fellow immigrant rights supporters, I passed many activists who––judging by their shirts and signs––were in Washington to advocate for health care reform. Far from appearing resentful that we would distract Congress from its task to pass the health bill, they cheered us as we walked by. Some actively participated in the immigrant rights march and subsequent rally. Several speeches at the rally by political leaders, labor organizers, and U.S. senators linked the two struggles explicitly, demanding that the administration comply with its promises to reform both broken systems. Whenever a speaker at the immigrant rights rally called for passage of the health care reform bill, cheers of support roared from the crowd. Several marchers carried signs that demanded health care reform on one side and immigration reform on the other.
This mass show of support for both of these reform struggles is not serendipitous; it is a reflection of broad similarities within the two movements.
In fact, these struggles have several broadly overlapping, if not identical, goals. Proponents of both reforms are concerned with ensuring the ability of individuals and families to meet their basic needs. Both movements are predicated on the idea that certain rights should be guaranteed to people regardless of their wealth or social status, and both demand an expansion of how the state perceives its responsibilities toward the workers and families that produce its wealth. Both movements also struggle to push back against a media-friendly right wing that has vocally targeted both the health care bill and undocumented immigrants.
These movements have, of course, meaningful differences as well, perhaps most plainly evidenced by a near-total refusal of health care reform proponents to demand that the bill provide coverage for undocumented immigrants. Yet I suspect that divergences between the movements are as likely to arise from political expediency as from deep ideological disagreement.
To my friends who are unhappy that coverage of the health care bill dominated the news on March 21st, I have tried to emphasize that the immigrant rights march in D.C. was only one skirmish in what promises to be a very long battle. Insofar as passage of the health care bill reenergizes the left and puts the rights of working people back on the political map, health care reform is very good news for those of us who advocate for immigrant rights. Moreover, as the health care bill represents a step toward political expansion of the rights of working men and women in the United States, it can also be perceived as a step toward comprehensive immigration reform.
Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz, PhD, is Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago and author of the forthcoming book, Labor and Legality: Life in a Mexican Immigrant Network (Oxford, 2010). As a cultural anthropologist who works with undocumented people in Chicago, her primary research interests concern the agency of undocumented workers as they respond to constraints of illegal status and illegalization/criminalization as mechanisms of persistent inequality in a “post-racial” United States.
Gomberg-Muñoz, Ruth. 2010. Two Reforms, One Day, One Broad Message: March 21st, 2010 and the Struggles for Immigration and Health Care Reform. AccessDenied: A Conversation on Un/authorized Im/migration and Health. Accessed (date) at