Chicago Sun Times: Local community organizer takes over National Partnership for New Americans

Joshua Hoyt, one of this city’s most relentless and successful community organizers for more than three decades, is going national.

Hoyt, who has left his mark in many arenas but most notably as a leader of the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights, is taking over the National Partnership for New Americans, comprised of 20 similar immigration groups.

In his new role, Hoyt, 58, will remain at the forefront of the campaign for immigration reform in Congress, and once past that, hopes to help a newly embraced immigrant community become full partners in American society and its economy.

Good for Josh, although I’m not happy about losing him from the local scene. The jury will be out for a while on what it means to all those in Chicago who have benefited from his work.

That includes the undocumented immigrants who will soon be receiving the state’s new temporary drivers licenses and those DREAM students allowed to remain in the country under a directive from President Barack Obama as well as tens of thousands of working poor adults previously added to the state’s health insurance program.

Hoyt has been a tactical leader in all those fights and more during stints at ICIRR, United Power for Action and Justice, Organization of the Northeast, Citizens Utility Board and United Neighborhood Organization (that’s UNO, back when it was a rabble-rousing community group instead of a cog in the political power structure).

In the process, he’s gained a certain status among activists.

“I’d definitely say he’s an iconic figure in the movement,” says Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations, who counts Hoyt as a mentor.

By “movement,” Rehab was referring to the broader social justice movement, not just immigration.

Hoyt has accomplished so much by combining shrewd political know-how with a principled sense of right and wrong — and always taking sides with the poor and vulnerable.

I’ve known Hoyt at least since 1986, when he was working on the special election campaign of a then-unknown aldermanic candidate named Luis Gutierrez.

Political control of the city hung in the balance, as the seat would determine whether factions loyal or opposed to Mayor Harold Washington would hold a majority on the City Council. Most of the city’s best political operatives got involved on one side or the other as a result.

As you know, Washington-ally Gutierrez would go on to win — and later become a leading proponent in Congress of immigration reform.

Hoyt, who is fluent in Spanish, was preaching the power of the immigrant vote, the Latino vote in particular, before it ever actually materialized, knowing that it eventually would.

Rather than just sit back and wait for it to happen, though, he used his political organizing skills learned from knocking heads with the old Democratic Machine to give it a jump-start. That included having his community groups help immigrants become citizens, register them to vote, educate them about which candidates were friends or enemies, and then turn out that vote.

He’s agnostic in his approach as far as political affiliation — “not constrained ideologically” is how Gutierrez puts it.

Both Republicans and Democrats have felt his lash, although Republican candidates have probably felt it more often for their tendency to demonize undocumented immigrants.

Nobody did more to put Republican Jim Oberweis in his place when he tried to scapegoat immigrants in his 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate.

But Hoyt made things tough as well on Rahm Emanuel during his 2011 mayoral campaign for past immigration slights, and didn’t let up until the mayor started making good on his pledge to make Chicago the most immigrant-friendly city in the nation.

Hoyt likes to tell politicians on the wrong side of his issues that they can choose from Door A or Door B. Pick Door A and they get a cup of hot chocolate and a pat on the head. Pick Door B and they get punched in the nose and kicked in the knee.

Invariably, he says, they feel compelled to go with Door B.

“Then you have to be able to hurt them,” says Hoyt, who never hesitated to launch the immigrant coalition against its foes, no matter how powerful. I’ve seen a sea change in Illinois as a result.

Hoyt was relentless when it came to keeping the heat on U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, who ended up voting in favor of the immigration reform bill that cleared the Senate before stalling in the House.

“He evolved,” Hoyt says of Kirk.

A current target is Congressman Peter Roskam.

“He’s a work in progress,” Hoyt said. “He’s going to change. He’s going to evolve.”

Hoyt is now evolving again, too. But even as he branches out, the choices he offers will remain the same: Door A or Door B.