The immigrant worker movement faces the age-old problem of social movements: whether change should be pursued from the inside or outside. Shaped by dominant cultural norms, the current legal framework generally disadvantages immigrant workers. They suffer from workplace exploitation, anti-immigrant hostility, and exclusion. By examining the interplay between law and culture, this Article offers a unique perspective on how immigrant workers have the power to change law through cultural narratives.

Change pursued from the inside by immigrant workers, community advocates, and public interest attorneys has more immediately provided positive results for immigrant workers. They have done so by mainstreaming immigrant workers with cultural narratives that emphasize their identity as workers who contribute to society and as victims of criminal employers. Such mainstreaming, however, is potentially fraught with well-known perils, which can include the creation of stereotypes and classes of outsiders while obscuring the need for fundamental change. On the other hand, while a transformative or even more radical narrative of universal rights and global citizenship might provide for a more normative ideal, it can be excessively utopian or antagonistic. Presented with this dilemma, the immigrant worker movement must determine how to best advance its agenda.

I suggest that the use of “strategic mainstreaming” – mainstream cultural narratives that are owned, shaped, and cleverly deployed by immigrant workers – can best promote the legal rights of immigrant workers and their inclusion into society. This approach corresponds to a vision of advocacy that respects the voice of subordinated individuals and communities, which maximizes empowerment and solidarity while minimizing the damage created by aligning with dominant elites. At the same time, it offers a way that immigrant workers can achieve success, often through the use of multifaceted advocacy with local mainstream institutions. Over time, the hope is that strategic mainstreaming will not only create increased familiarity with immigrants as societal members but also increase their political power.