Web Only / Features » March 2, 2017
Interviews for Resistance: “It Is Just Open Season Now” on Undocumented Immigrants
A longtime organizer talks about the brutal intersection of being black and undocumented.
"I really feel like the soul of this country is being tested right now and that the American experiment is being tested and we shall see what the results are. If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t know which side is going to win, but I sure know that I am going to fight and I certainly hope that other folks are going to keep fighting because this is too important."
Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. Since election night 2016, the streets of the United States have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this series, we'll be talking with experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fighting for a long time. They'll be sharing their insights on what works, what doesn't, what has changed and what is still the same.
Aly Wane: My name is Aly Wane. I am an undocumented organizer out of Syracuse, New York. I was originally born in Senegal and I work with a range of groups, including the Syracuse Peace Council, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, the Undocumented and Black Network and Black Lives Matter Syracuse, amongst others.
Sarah Jaffe: Everybody is posting this story on Facebook of Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] taking somebody out of the hospital who had a brain tumor and most people are posting this with “That is not normal,” “I can’t believe this is our new normal.” Your response was, “I see ICE is getting back to its old tactics.” Can you talk a little bit about what “normal” has been for immigrants?
Aly: I think those of us who have been undocumented organizers for years are struggling with two energies right now. On the one hand, we are so excited to see so many new folks come into organizing spaces, realize what ICE and Border Patrol, with the cooperation of police, have been doing for so many years and really want to fight that. However, so much of this stuff was happening under both Obama and President Bush Jr. and we were not getting the same responses.
The thing that was confusing about President Obama was that his rhetoric on immigration was really great. I literally remember times when I would listen to a speech on immigration by President Obama and feel like, “Well, shouldn’t he then not ramp up the level of enforcement?” But, when it came to practice, some of these raids that we are seeing happening [now], those things were routine under Obama until maybe the last two years of the administration when they started to really start to ease up on so-called “low priority” individuals. But that took a lot of time and a lot of organizing. You mentioned this case about someone being taken by ICE or Border Patrol recently and that is shocking to a lot of folks, but I can think of numerous instances when that happened here locally here in the Syracuse area, for example. ICE and Border Patrol have not respected hospitals for years.
It might be a shocking thing for folks who are not aware that this has been happening, but this used to be routine and the only difference is that now [Donald] Trump has really allowed these organizations to run wild at this point. Their rhetoric is that they self-restrained under Obama, despite the fact that Obama deported 2.5 million undocumented folks, more than any other president. But, they still have been wanting to do more and now Trump is basically authorizing them to go after all of the 11 million undocumented immigrants because the definition of criminal alien has been so expanded that now pretty much anyone who is undocumented can be considered a criminal alien. It is just open season now.
Sarah: Talk about the Democrats' role, specifically, in building and/or enabling the system that is now being handed over to President Trump.
Aly: Democrats have kind of been terrible on this issue for a long time. As an undocumented organizer, I have always felt that there are the interests of the Republican Party, there are the interests of the Democratic Party and then there are the interests of the undocumented community. There has been attention within the movement for years around migrants’ rights, with some folks collaborating a lot more with the Democratic Party, as far as the many compromises in terms of legislation. Those of us who have been at the grassroots for a long time have actually been the Cassandras, saying, “This is very worrying if you allow for the criminalization of some of our folks. If we feed the narrative of ‘the good immigrant vs the criminal alien,’ eventually, someone is going to rise to power who is going to criminalize us all.”
The reality is that in order to get “compromises” going, the Democratic Party has really ramped up levels of enforcement for many, many years. I will give you one specific example. Chuck Schumer right now is painting himself as this champion of immigrants and saying “How could this possibly happen?” Well, Chuck Schumer, as part of the Gang of Eight, voted for a border wall that would be so militarized that John McCain actually said that it would put the Berlin Wall to shame. That was the Senate compromise. That was the “liberal” version of immigration reform.
There is a hypocrisy in being shocked about Trump proposing a border wall when the compromise by Republicans and Democrats included this ramp-up of ICE and CBP [Border Patrol] and a border wall that was deeply, deeply militarized. I think that is one of the things that we need to pay attention to, especially as we organize somewhat with the Democratic Party is we need to remember that many of these folks have not necessarily been on our side and have compromised our humanity left and right. I will give you another specific example. When President Obama was trying to figure out whether or not he was going to push for DACA: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which are basically three-year work permits, this was around the time that the Central American refugee “crisis” was happening. By then, I was already a jaded organizer and I remember predicting what the Obama administration along with Democrats like Hillary Clinton would do is that they would speed up the deportation of many of these refugees, many of them were unaccompanied minors, kids, in order to position themselves as being tough on the border. So, sacrifice these kids to deportation so that they could give themselves some political leverage to push for something like DACA.
I hated to be right, but it was clear that that was going to happen, that some of our lives, some of our humanities were going to be sacrificed at the political altar. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party has seen so many of us who are undocumented as bargaining chips rather than as full human beings who are fighting for our rights. I have a lot more faith in grassroots organizing, including undocumented organizers, than I have in the Democratic Party actually standing up for people like myself and the people that I care for.
Sarah: I want to talk about the intersection with the Black Lives Matter movement, as we were talking about one of the things in common is that people come late to realizing the daily militarized reality of a lot of people’s lives. The image in most people’s head of an undocumented person in the country is probably still Latino. Obviously, that is not the sole experience.
Aly: As folks who are undocumented and black, we live at that brutal intersection. We are criminalized by ICE and Border Patrols and we are black folks, and therefore, we are criminalized by the system as a whole, which is actually why I think we can provide a lens and an analysis that the broader immigration rights system does not take into account. We are very clear that fighting the immigration system is part of fighting against the prison industrial complex. One of my friends who is now the executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration is Opal Tometi, who is one of the three women who co-founded Black Lives Matter. A lot of folks don’t know that her parents were undocumented as she was growing up. A lot of folks don’t know that she started organizing doing work at the border. We are very clear and intentional about making the connection here.
I remember at one of the early Black Alliance for Just Immigration conferences I spoke with Umi Selah, who used to go by Phil Agnew. We were having very intentional conversations around how the prison companies that made a mint out of the incarceration of poor black and brown U.S. citizens under the rubric of the so-called War on Drugs are the very same prison corporations that as soon as the War on Terror kick-started saw immigrants as the new cash cow and that we couldn’t afford not to organize in concert.
This is why I think, in many ways, the immigration conversation is a racial justice conversation. Like you mentioned, when folks still think about undocumented folks, they still think about Latinos. Which has actually been this, I don’t want to say “privilege” that I have had, but I have had U.S. citizen Latino friends stopped by Border Patrol and ICE and I have been able to get away with it because I don’t look Latino. Of course, I am black, and therefore I am always getting stopped by cops anyway. But, I think that it would be a lie to have an analysis of the immigration system that doesn’t speak very directly about the influence of race in this country.
I will give you another quick example which is that, I don’t find it to be a coincidence that Arizona, which is the state that really was the laboratory for some of the worst anti-immigrant pieces of legislation to come out, it also the state where the state legislature was the most adamant about questioning the citizenship of Barack Obama. I think there is a connection there. What does it say that you can become the first black president, and still, there is a whole swath of people that are still asking basic questions about whether or not you truly are American? What that means is that citizenship is still very much connected to the idea of whiteness. Of course, the thing that makes it even more painful is that we have had the first black president who has now deported more undocumented folks than any other president. That says something about what power does to you within the system.
Sarah: Related to all of this is this question of this “criminal vs. good immigrant” narrative. One of the things that we have seen even in the last couple of weeks is a real resurgence of this, “But, we are good immigrants. We are not criminals,” at the same time Donald Trump is positing a list of crimes created by immigrants on his website. How do you challenge the narrative of this Trump “crimes committed by immigrants” narrative without falling into this “most immigrants aren’t criminals, and we are the good ones” language?
Aly: The problem is a lot of the more mainstream immigration reform organizations have been using this narrative for a long time. Those of us who have been rejecting this narrative, we don’t have the political access, precisely because we have rejected that narrative. For me, when I fight for my status, the way that I see it is that I am fighting for the rights that I am already owed as a human being. I am not seeing it as a favor that the system confers on me. I think that in a time of fear and in a time of economic desperation, that is unfortunately when people turn to immigrants as scapegoats. That is when all the old narratives come back around.
We are seeing a lot of messaging in coming out of the mainstream organizations around, “Undocumented immigrants pay taxes. Undocumented immigrants work this much in terms of the economy.” You are seeing this language around how immigrants are only worthy because of the economic labor that they are providing as opposed to being people who deserve to have human rights. That is part of the broader narrative, the broader conversation that needs to happen.
As an undocumented organizer, for many, many years I have been trying to make the argument that poor U.S. citizens have a lot more in common with undocumented workers than they think in terms of ways in which this neoliberal economic system has hurt all of us. You didn’t get this huge influx of Mexican immigrants in the 1990s without NAFTA being passed. That is the much more complicated thing to lay out and that is the conversation that most folks in the Democratic Party are not willing to have and that they are not willing to acknowledge that because they are so embedded in the system. It has to do with radicalizing undocumented organizers and radicalizing allies, as well. Right now, one of the fears in a lot of these sanctuary efforts is that most of the folks who want to engage in the sanctuary efforts are folks who want to come in and say, “We are only here to protect folks with no criminal records.”
I think that most folks who are coming into these organizing spaces are very new, are very green, and, in their mind, they are coming into these spaces to protect undocumented workers “without criminal records.” Not understanding how widely expanded the definition of “criminal alien” has been, which is why it is so important to have these sanctuary efforts include clauses around protecting everyone, including folks who are considered felons. That is very, very important, because, frankly, it is ridiculously easy to become a “felon” under immigration law. That includes not just undocumented folks, but legal permanent residents, as well.
That is one of the things that I am worried about a lot of these sanctuary efforts is, I wonder if they are actually going to be able to protect individuals, because it is so easy to find an excuse to deport pretty much anyone. It is heartbreaking to see, but I think that the level of viciousness of deportations that we are seeing might slowly start educating folks about this system. We are dealing with deep ideologies around these different systems. I think that most folks think of the criminal justice system and the immigration system as being inherently just and don’t understand that these systems are systems of criminalization. That is a lot of the educational work that we are going to have to do over the next couple of years. I hope that our allies step up to the plate and really educate themselves on these issues, but I don’t know what the outcome is going to be.
Sarah: And, of course, the idea of a sanctuary city doesn’t protect you when ICE just comes in by themselves and does a raid or stops people on the street corner or walks into a domestic violence shelter.
Aly: Yes, sanctuary efforts have to include physical housing, frankly. Not just housing in faith communities, but housing in individual homes of folks who are willing to harbor an undocumented person if worst comes to worst, because that is where we are at. All of these sanctuary efforts, like you mentioned, are nice, but if ICE and CBP do show up, they are just going to pick people up. Sanctuary has to do with more than just legislation.
Sort of a pet peeve/frustration of mine is a lot of folks come out and say, “Yes, we are a sanctuary city. We are a sanctuary community.” But, without enough solid clauses in those pieces of legislation to stop actual CBP and ICE from deporting individuals… I think, sadly, we are at a place where for any Democrat to declare that they are still going to be a leader in the sanctuary city, center, or place, that is seen as “political courage” in this era, which is a depressingly low standard. We need more than just a couple of pronouncements. We are going to need solid, solid allies who are going to be willing to challenge the federal government.
Sarah: Another thing that has been happening is these cut-and-paste Facebook posts that say something like “ICE is doing a raid at this place!” without any documentation. What should people do in that moment if they hear that there is a raid? What can people who aren’t at risk of deportation do to help people in that moment?
Aly: What they need to do is double and triple check their sources, do the work. I have definitely been impacted by some of this kind of copy-pasting of these things. First of all, folks need to understand, those of us who are undocumented are already in enough of a panic. We are already struggling to keep our heads together. There was a report here in upstate New York about potential raids in Geneva and me and another local friend spent 24 hours figuring out whether or not it was happening and after the 24 hours we found out this was a fake report. We wasted 24 hours of organizing on a fake report.
People need to understand that if you do want to be allies, if you do want to help, the best thing is to make sure that the source is absolutely accurate. That might require reaching out to local activists, local organizers, doing your own work. Not simply sharing on Facebook, because that makes our work as organizers harder, because we aren’t as effective in our responses because we are going in five or six different directions and right now is a very, very tense time in the community. I definitely hear the desire to tell people, to warn people, to keep people safe; but, the way that you keep people safe is not by simply sharing hearsay. If you do find out about something and it could be a real thing, do as much work as possible to make sure that it is something actually happening before you post it, because if it is not real then it creates unnecessary panic. It hobbles the efforts of organizers on the ground.
I almost see it as a strategy of the Trump administration. They are throwing so much at us all at once that if we are panicking and we are uncoordinated and we are unfocused, we might not be able to respond as effectively. I think if we are going to be able to mount a serious resistance to this administration, we are going to need to be very, very focused, very intentional, very deliberate in our response. We cannot feed the panic and the fear. We can be fearful. I am afraid all of the time, but at the same time, we can’t organize out of fear. We have to organize smartly, effectively in a way that is sustainable so that we don’t burn out within the first two months of this administration. We need to be able to mount a resistance effort that is going to last for as long as this is continuing.
For those of us who have been doing this work for a long time, we also need to find that balance. I have been in a lot of organizing spaces these past couple of days or months, ever since Trump was elected, when some really new person takes up a lot of space and just sort of dumps whatever is happening emotionally and says all sorts of problematic things and sort of sucks in the energy, there is a piece of me that simply wants to tell that person, “You are wasting our time. We don’t have the time to do therapy right now.”
However, at the same time, I also want to keep these folks in and connected and help them grow as organizers, because, frankly, I was the same way. The first year that I did organizing on immigration I was terrible. That was because I was organizing out of sheer trauma. Whenever someone would say something terrible about an “illegal” or something like that, I would go right back at them and scream and call them names and everything. It would feel real good, but it would not help the organizing, it would not bring in more folks.
Part of my survival mechanism has been mental health counseling so that I have a space where I can download all of that stuff, but in an organizing space, it can’t simply be about me, because if it is simply about me, then I am not going to organize effectively. I guess those of us who have been organizing for a while are going to need to find that balance between not having these spaces devolve into simply therapy spaces, but at the same time, being patient enough to remember, “Well, you used to be the same way, as well.” I think it is going to be a challenge to a lot of us, but that is the work.
Sarah: We talk a lot about self-care, but there is also the question of “How do we take care of each other?” Then, when we are thinking about what being a sanctuary city, a sanctuary town looks like, these are still questions of care.
Aly: The way I see self-care is, maybe it is because of the African in me, but there is an old proverb from Kenya that I really love. It says, “I am only well if you are well.” The idea is that your health is connected to the health of the community. I do think it is important for all of us to take care of ourselves, to take some time off as a part of the work. I am very much influenced by folks like Audre Lorde, for example, who thinks of healing as a political right. Healing Justice. That we are not just here to burn out constantly. As someone who has burned out three times in the past, I have learned to respect the limitations of my body and spirit. I have learned that when I am close to burnout, I am not effective.
I don’t so much think of self-care as an individual right as, number one, a political right, but number two, something that is an energy that is communal. Like, I take care of myself, but I also make sure that you are taken care of. There is a circle that happens. I am not only simply healthy because I am feeling good about myself. I am healthier when you are doing better and vice versa. That is the way that I see this sort of self-care conversation. We are going to need to develop those muscles over the next however long, because this is brutal and it is not going to stop anytime soon.
Just fight. It is okay to feel a little bit overwhelmed, but do your part. We have all these memes around “What would you have done in this fascist time?” or whatever. I don’t mean to exaggerate, but I really feel like we are close to one of those times. This is the time when people need to step up, because we don’t have the luxury of political paralysis. I am not saying burn out, I am not saying, “Do everything all of the time,” but I am saying, “Do something.” I really feel like the soul of this country is being tested right now and that the American experiment is being tested and we shall see what the results are. If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t know which side is going to win, but I sure know that I am going to fight and I certainly hope that other folks are going to keep fighting because this is too important.
Sarah: How can people keep up with you and the organizations that you work with?
Aly: All of the groups that I mention, I believe, have websites. One is the Syracuse Peace Council. The other is the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. Another one is the Undocumented and Black Network. I am pretty much constantly on Facebook. If folks need to reach out to me, they can reach out to me on that platform.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast. Not to be reprinted without permission.
Sarah Jaffe is a former staff writer at In These Times and author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kelley called “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.