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.

Sarah Jaffe

Aly Wane is an undocumented organizer out of Syracuse, New York. (Photo courtesy of Aly Wane)

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. 

"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."

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.
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