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Reflections on the End of a Campaign

Apr. 17, 2024

Last month, the Defund Hate campaign sunsetted, ending after almost six years of advocacy. Our organization joined the campaign at the end of 2019, and I became its representative in 2021. Earlier this month, I attended the campaign’s last convening, where we reflected on Defund Hate’s successes and struggles, and brainstormed how we might all move forward. 

Defund Hate always took a pragmatic approach. The campaign focused on the normally arcane, and frankly boring appropriations process because Defund Hate’s founders realized that therein lay a potential avenue to mitigate the harms of the Trump Administration. After all, though Congress rarely passes regular legislation, they will usually fund the federal government, even if it means compromise. The omnibus bills that result are hundreds of pages and a lot of policy – in vehicles called “riders” – gets embedded with the money; some of it without much notice. By getting people invested in, skilled at navigating, and loudly advocating for demands within the appropriations process, Defund Hate opened up new ground in the fight for immigrants’ rights. And it worked! The campaign succeeded in preventing DHS from receiving $15 billion in funding that would have directly fueled the deportation machine. 

But the window that Defund Hate opened has closed. Reflecting the same deeply practical ethos that led to the campaign’s founding, Defund Hate leadership realized that what we were doing wasn’t working anymore and decided to shift our energies elsewhere. I applaud the campaign’s honesty and bravery in admitting that we need to try something new, and the end came as a relief after months of meeting roadblocks in congressional advocacy for DHS budget cuts. A corollary perhaps to the old adage that doing the same thing and expecting new results is the definition of insanity is that doing the same thing and knowing it will not get you results will make you insane. Defund Hate spared its members this fate by acknowledging its moment had passed.

The moment we are in, however, is one of reckoning for the immigrants’ rights movement, and the sunsetting of Defund Hate should ring a clear alarm bell. It’s no secret that we are facing a backlash, largely the result of unrelenting racist and fear-mongering messaging coming from the ethno-nationalist right wing, which has succeeded in moving what used to be the fringes of conservatism to the center. The Biden Administration has swung so far to the right on immigration as to be unrecognizable when compared with the promises Biden made on the campaign trail and the initial steps the Administration took following inauguration in early 2021. Now both the Administration and large swaths of former allies appear to have taken the if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em approach with respect to Trump’s dehumanizing vilification of immigrants and draconian policies. It is perhaps not surprising that Defund Hate cannot make headway in this political climate, but it is still sobering.

The end of Defund Hate marks not only the end of a particular political era, but also, perhaps, the end of a procedural one. It is hard to convey to people not steeped in federal advocacy just how dysfunctional the legislative branch has become. No more “I’m just a bill on Capitol Hill” – in fact, Congress has passed almost all of the major pieces of legislation under now three presidential administrations through a process known as budget reconciliation, the Senate’s one exception to the filibuster’s requirement of a supermajority. Ezra Klein used a metaphor to describe federal policy-making that I think of often and that spoke to the Southern Californian in me: when the freeway jams up, people find alternate routes on the surface streets. Similarly, when Congress jams up, people pursue other means of getting things done, whether it be through the courts, through the executive branch, through state and local lawmaking, or by shoving everything into the appropriations process. Between obstructionist tactics, split control of the chambers, and caucus chaos, Congress is as jammed up as the 405 at rush hour. Appropriations was one of the last available, functioning off ramps to effect any policy change through legislation, especially for issues as controversial as immigration (though the We Are Home campaign’s broad legalization attempt of 2021-22 was stymied by the Senate parliamentarian). Now, the opportunities for Congressional agreement are so few and far between that the past few budget bills have been rammed through without much opportunity for advocacy, even from campaigns as large and well-organized as Defund Hate.  

There is already a chorus of warning cries about the dangers that Trump poses to democracy. But Congress’s inability to function is also a threat; if people become frustrated enough with its inaction, authoritarianism’s appeal grows. When that authoritarian is Trump, who has made Hitlerian comments about immigrants “poisoning the blood” of the country, and stated his intent to violently rip apart immigrant families and communities, we have a duty to be ruthlessly effective in fighting back. We must be as pragmatic and as creative as Defund Hate was. At the final convening, all of my colleagues were clear-eyed about the dire state of politics, about the darkness of this moment, and equally clear-eyed that we must not give up. If the window, the off ramp that Defund Hate opened up back in 2019 is gone, we have no option but to break open a new one.