Inauguration Day this year will also mark a renewed push for immigration reform. On January 21, as President Obama is sworn into his second term, activists in Chicago will march for an end to deportations.
Organizers say they hope to pressure Obama, who as of last July had deported a record 1.4 million people, to follow through on promises for comprehensive reform. On Sunday, White House officials this week told the New York Times that immigration would be an early priority in his second term.
The demonstrations are also an attempt to broaden what some say has been a myopic focus on the DREAM Act and young immigrants, to the exclusion of older undocumented people.
“The DREAM Act was introduced awhile ago and I really feel like that was just to throw a stick in the line of ants. It kind of made the young people forget about the older generation,” Miguel Valdez, a youth organizer with Chicago-based Centro Sin Fronteras, argues. Centro Sin Fronteras is part of the coalition planning a mass march in downtown Chicago on January 21.
The DREAM Act, first introduced in 2001, would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented young people, but there are a host of “ifs” involved. To be DREAM-eligible, a person must have entered the U.S. as a minor, have lived in the country for five years and meet a set of educational or military requirements. Twelve states currently have some form of a DREAM Act on the books.
In December the Huffington Post reported that United We Dream, a national organization dedicated to immigration reform, settled on a new platform during its three-day national conference. In the wake of Obama’s deferred action announcement — a victory for the movement, albeit an ambiguous one—the group is launching a push for comprehensive reform, and rejecting a piecemeal approach that aids the young or the educated but divides the broader movement.
In Chicago, a community responds
In August 2011, the Obama administration pledged that prosecutorial discretion would be used to halt the removal of detainees without criminal records. But this and other immigration policy shifts have lacked the teeth of federal law, and often resulted in little change for undocumented people on the ground. A recent workplace raid in Chicago is just one in a slew of cases that suggests the administration has not made good on its immigration promises, but also points the way forward for community-based responses.
On November 29, thirty-four undocumented men were detained during a workplace raid at the Chicago Pallet Service, Inc., in Elk Grove Village, Ill. The following Friday, all 34 detainees were back in their Chicagoland residences.
They didn’t evade deportation by chance — a coalition of Chicago organizations were ready with a unique community response that organizers say has yielded promising results.
After the undocumented immigrants were detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcemen (ICE) agents, their families set a contingency plan into motion. They contacted organizers with Our Lady of Guadalupe Anglican Catholic Mission and Lincoln United Methodist Church, based in the mostly-Latino neighborhoods of Little Village and Pilsen, respectively.
By the morning of November 30, a small mob of supporters were inside ICE’s Chicago field office, demanding information on the identities of the detainees.
“It was a joint effort in getting our congregations put together, mobilizing all our volunteers, mobilizing our soldiers,” says Giovany Gomez of Centro Sin Fronteras, an affiliate of Lincoln United.
The initial action forced ICE to permit a visit with the one detainee agents claimed was still on premise — the other 33, they said, had been moved to another facility. Little Village resident Magali Renteria was among the supporters allowed in to the detention center. Once she sat down with the remaining detainee, Renteria says she uncovered information that shifted the focus of the campaign away from discovering the whereabouts of the 33 missing men. “He told me there were other detainees with him,” she recalls. Despite what ICE agents told the activists, none of the men had been moved, Renteria says.
The revelation led supporters to continue their community vigil outside of ICE’s downtown field offices. After a negotiation team (including well-known immigration activists José Landaverde of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Centro Sin Fronteras founder Emma Lozano) emerged from ICE on the afternoon of December 3, families that could afford the $2,000 bond were allowed to pay up. Since arresting ICE agents often have the power to decide the fate of their detainees, organizers believe that cases that are not challenged generally end in deportation, while those who put up a fight have far better odds.
According to Gomez, detainees who did not have the bond funds were held an additional 48 hours before being released on I‑bonds, or personal recognizance bonds without a fee. Negotiators originally hoped to secure I‑bonds for all the men, contending that they were all eligible as they are active members of their communities and as a result, were likely to make required appearances in court and did not pose a danger to society. Two men — one of whom was reportedly only 15 — were held on $6,000 and $10,000 bonds for resisting arrest and assaulting ICE agents. Organizers say one of the men slipped and knocked into the agents and that the event has been misconstrued by ICE officials.
The Anglican Mission and the Church prioritize a community — rather than a legal — response to deportation.
Gomez says the organizations will not appeal to their lawyers until they’ve exhausted community alternatives. Aside from often being cost-prohibitive, it’s often unnecessary. Organizers say that when the community response makes enough of a spectacle, detainees without criminal records are often released after a few days.
But solidarity is not conditional — Gomez notes that detainees with criminal backgrounds receive the same show of support. Detainees with criminal records are referred to a legal team, which Gomez says includes some of the best immigration lawyers in the city.
According to Rozalinda Borcila of Chicago’s Moratorium on Deportations Campaign, both churches are well-known in undocumented and activist circles for facilitating a rapid-fire community response to detention. That’s how the families knew to appeal to them for help, she says — they have already cultivated a support network for the undocumented.
“The Mission focused their action on the recent raids and on helping to respond to all the detained as a group instead of letting the families suffer through the experience individually,” Borcila adds.
And the network the two religious organizations foster is constantly growing thanks to the trust the Mission and Lincoln Methodist enjoy amongst undocumented Chicagoans and their allies. The day after the raids, a family member met up with organizers by accident when he arrived at ICE looking for his relative. He later joined the December 3 demonstration. Another man arrived at the rally seeking support — his relative was one of four people detained by ICE in Chicago the day before.
The rapid-fire community response ended in a victory for the detainees. As of December 7, all 34 men detained during the Chicago Pallet raid had been released from ICE custody. According to Yesenia Guerrero of Centro Sin Fronteras, a handful are still facing removal proceedings.
The success has also energized the organizing leading up to January 21’s march. “A lot of people don’t realize how much weight they actually pull. One person can influence so many people,” Valdez says.