Interviews for Resistance: Protests Show Immigrants’ Economic Power Cannot Be Ignored

Sarah Jaffe

Across the country last week, immigrants went on strike to demonstrate what the country would be like if Donald Trump actually followed through on his promised deportations. (Sue Ruggles)

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. 

Across the coun­try last week, immi­grants went on strike to demon­strate what the coun­try would be like if Don­ald Trump actu­al­ly fol­lowed through on his promised depor­ta­tions. The Day With­out Immi­grants” actions kicked off in Wis­con­sin on Mon­day, Feb­ru­ary 13, where Voces de la Fron­tera and part­ner orga­ni­za­tions held a Day With­out Lati­nos, Immi­grants and Refugees” to protest Mil­wau­kee Sher­iff David Clarke’s plans to col­lab­o­rate with the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to deport peo­ple. Ger­man Sanchez was one of the work­ers who went on strike that day. I also spoke with Chris­tine Neu­mann-Ortiz, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Voces de la Fron­tera, for some back­ground on the day’s actions. Their inter­views have been edit­ed for length and clarity.

Ger­man Sanchez: I’m a farm­work­er and also I am a vol­un­teer and mem­ber from some orga­ni­za­tions, like Voces de la Fron­tera Mil­wau­kee, Unit­ed for a Bet­ter Future from Fox Cities and Esther in Wisconsin.

Sarah Jaffe: Tell us about the big Day With­out an Immi­grant” last Monday.

Ger­man: It was a big, big day, for all immi­grants in the state. We orga­nized our com­mu­ni­ty to be ready to go against this 287(g), the pro­gram that Sher­iff Clarke wants to run in Mil­wau­kee. It was impor­tant to edu­cate our com­mu­ni­ty and the rest of the state that this issue is not just for Mil­wau­kee, it can be brought up in the rest of the state so that’s why it was so impor­tant for the peo­ple to sup­port and help our peo­ple in Milwaukee.

Every­thing was clean, no arrests, so we had a big, big day to show the state and the coun­try that in Wis­con­sin we are orga­nized and ready to fight if we have to.

Sarah: Tell us about 287(g). What would it do?

Ger­man: 287(g) is the Secure Com­mu­ni­ties. It is the same pro­gram that Sher­iff Joe Arpaio used in Ari­zona, that’s why the peo­ple are so con­cerned about it, because every­body knows the his­to­ry about Arpaio.

Sarah: Obvi­ous­ly this was a local issue but can you talk about how things have changed with Don­ald Trump as president?

Ger­man: A lot of things changed. Like I say as a farm­work­er, before that — the work is the same, the same hard work, but right now we got this motor out there for exec­u­tive orders and polit­i­cal issues so some things are true, some things are false, some TV chan­nels use dif­fer­ent infor­ma­tion and it’s not clear for the com­mu­ni­ty, so right now, it was real­ly hard, and I’m not talk­ing about the job, I’m talk­ing about emo­tions you can feel, you can smell.

Sarah: Tell me about last Mon­day’s action. How long did that take to come together?

Ger­man: Maybe eight or nine days. The thing that I do, I use social media to edu­cate my com­mu­ni­ty on what’s wrong, we spread out the mes­sage, we try to be as clear as we can so they under­stand the con­se­quences, and of course for them to under­stand our options also.

Sarah: Talk a bit more about the orga­niz­ing you do on the farms.

Ger­man: It’s hard. Of course I have to do my work too. Let’s say in my lunch break I make emails or text mes­sage, when I’m done [with] my day I make a video. A lot of peo­ple don’t know how the Capi­tol in Madi­son works, a lot of peo­ple don’t know how the law works, even some Amer­i­can peo­ple don’t know. The point is I edu­cate myself, I talk to some lawyers, I talk to some per­son about Assem­bly Bill 450, what does it mean, SB533. All those things that I’m learn­ing about it I send out, of course, in Span­ish for my com­mu­ni­ty, so they under­stand the lev­els a law moves on in the Capi­tol, what our options to do against those bills as immi­grants are. This is the hard part, to edu­cate peo­ple and under­stand those bills. I do videos maybe twice a day to talk about that and of course I text mes­sage back, I answer emails, a lot of ques­tions, a lot of con­cerns. Of course a lot of peo­ple are con­cerned about the con­se­quences if they don’t go to work.

But with those anti-immi­grant bills mov­ing, it’s easy. You can miss one day of work, but if those bills move you can lose everything.

Sarah: What are some lessons that oth­er peo­ple can take from the work you’ve been doing under Scott Walker?

Ger­man: This is the thing. Obvi­ous­ly the politi­cians they do their job. So if you do not agree with some­thing you have to orga­nize, you have to show what­ev­er is in your hands to ask for a change and make a dif­fer­ence. A lot of peo­ple are not able to be real­ly part of pol­i­tics but that does­n’t mean that I’m not able to edu­cate myself on polit­i­cal issues, of course I can. I live in Wis­con­sin, I live here for the last 10 years, I love this state, I love my neigh­bors, I love what I’m doing on the farm. The 10 years I have been here, I’m work­ing on the same farm, that should tell you something.

Sarah: Final­ly, peo­ple are now plan­ning for a nation­wide Day With­out an Immi­grant” [on] May 1. Can you tell us about the orga­niz­ing you are doing going forward?

Ger­man: Actu­al­ly we talked about that last Mon­day in Mil­wau­kee. We had a meet­ing that night in Mil­wau­kee, and I had some meet­ings with some peo­ple here in the Fox Val­ley, in Green Bay. Def­i­nite­ly we have to show our pow­er in the econ­o­my, again, we are unable to make a dif­fer­ence in politi­cians’ deals but we live here, we make mon­ey here and we spend mon­ey here. So we are going to spread out the mes­sage for the com­mu­ni­ty and be ready in the best way pos­si­ble. We are not going to go out and make nois­es for noth­ing. No, we’ve got ideas, we’ve got the logistics.

Last year it was the same as this year, no prob­lems, no issues, every­body goes back home safe. Last year, the Capi­tol was clean after we leave. Last Mon­day in Mil­wau­kee, the cour­t­house, it was clean when we leave. That is the mes­sage that we try to send around to the coun­try and the state. We’re hard work­ers, we’re fam­i­ly-ori­ent­ed too, we share a lot of the same val­ues as Amer­i­cans. This is our big chal­lenge, let the peo­ple know that we are part of the community.

Sarah: Any­thing else that you want peo­ple to know?

Ger­man: Just know that every time you drink milk, if it comes from Wis­con­sin, any peo­ple work­ing on those farms where that milk comes from, they’re work­ing hap­py and they love what they do but that does­n’t mean they are not orga­niz­ing. That does­n’t mean we are not real­ly con­cerned about what’s wrong with the coun­try. We are con­cerned about it! And we take care of our fam­i­lies as best as we can and we appre­ci­ate our neigh­bors and we’ll keep work­ing on it.

Chris­tine Neu­mann-Ortiz: Hel­lo, my name is Chris­tine Neu­mann-Ortiz, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Voces De La Frontera.

Sarah: Voces de la Fron­tera had a mas­sive Day With­out an Immi­grant” last week. Can you tell us a lit­tle bit about it?

Chris­tine: We had on Mon­day, Feb­ru­ary 13th, a Day With­out Lati­nos, Immi­grants and Refugees.” It was a statewide event where we called a com­mu­ni­ty-wide gen­er­al strike that involved work stop­page, small busi­ness clo­sures, con­sumer day of boy­cott, and mass protest and mobi­liza­tion that con­vened in Mil­wau­kee. The rea­son for that was to demon­strate our deep oppo­si­tion to the 287(g) pro­gram. Sher­iff Clarke from Mil­wau­kee Coun­ty had declared that he wants to enter into this pro­gram, a key piece of Trump’s exec­u­tive order on immi­gra­tion set­ting up a mass depor­ta­tion pro­gram and legal­iz­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion in the Unit­ed States. This pro­gram would allow local law enforce­ment to become immi­gra­tion agents. They would be able to pro­file some­one with­out any basis of hav­ing com­mit­ted any­thing, and stop and inter­ro­gate them and put them in depor­ta­tion pro­ceed­ings. It’s a pro­gram that can be quick­ly lift­ed up and Trump’s plan is to get 70 dif­fer­ent local enti­ties to buy into that pro­gram in his first year. It is a pro­gram that was high­ly dis­cred­it­ed, famous­ly by Sher­iff Arpaio in Mari­co­pa Coun­ty. It has been found to vio­late people’s con­sti­tu­tion­al rights and civ­il rights. It also was a mass protest against the exec­u­tive order on the whole, real­ly using our col­lec­tive eco­nom­ic pow­er to demon­strate the pos­i­tive eco­nom­ic con­tri­bu­tions immi­grants make to our economy.

We had done sim­i­lar actions in the past. The first Day With­out Lati­nos and Immi­grants,” if peo­ple recall, was in 2006. Mil­wau­kee in that case was the third city to go out in a mass wave of mass protests and mass gen­er­al strikes and busi­ness clo­sures. That was the first one that real­ly burst the mod­ern immi­grants’ rights move­ment. At the time, the protests were direct­ed against a pend­ing bill by Con­gress­man [Jim] Sensen­bren­ner from Wis­con­sin. It was quick­ly mov­ing through Con­gress and was going to be signed by Pres­i­dent Bush — it would have turned an immi­grant being undoc­u­ment­ed into an aggra­vat­ed felony and any­one who knew some­one who didn’t turn them in would also face crim­i­nal charges. That first action real­ly defeat­ed that and brought us back to a dis­cus­sion on immi­gra­tion reform.

That was the first one, this last one was real­ly our sixth gen­er­al strike. It is some­thing that we don’t call all the time. There is great sac­ri­fice that goes with this, great finan­cial sac­ri­fice. The poten­tial threat of retal­i­a­tion. You have moms who have chil­dren who depend on their pay­check who par­tic­i­pate in these actions. This will be the sixth time that we have used it and it has been an impor­tant tool of the immi­grant rights move­ment to defend itself at a very crit­i­cal junc­ture. What was unique about this year, we only orga­nized it 10 days out from the time that Clarke declared that he was going to bring this in, because it is a pro­gram that can be set up so quick­ly. We did that through dif­fer­ent chap­ters, through online orga­niz­ing, through flyers.

The most crit­i­cal step on any of these occa­sions has been that we actu­al­ly bring that pro­pos­al, that call to action to our own mem­ber­ship and, in some cas­es, to a much broad­er com­mu­ni­ty­wide pres­ence so that peo­ple can inform us — it is like a tem­per­a­ture check. It is like, Do we believe the threat is high enough that it would war­rant such a strong action?” It has only been on that basis that we move forward.

We know that on Feb­ru­ary 16th, through a very spon­ta­neous online call to action we saw that strat­e­gy roll out in oth­er cities. I would say that immi­grant work­ers have an inher­ent under­stand­ing of what their pow­er is as part of the work­force and small immi­grant busi­ness own­ers know how much they con­tribute to tax­es and in job cre­ation and peo­ple. The way they are being char­ac­ter­ized is dis­crim­i­na­to­ry and it actu­al­ly is a lie. Immi­grants con­tribute more and should be treat­ed with respect and be thanked for their con­tri­bu­tions. We should be mak­ing life eas­i­er for them. There is that inher­ent under­stand­ing and when peo­ple act in a very col­lec­tive way, we have seen that it actu­al­ly can make an impact through demon­strat­ing the force of our col­lec­tive eco­nom­ic power.

Sarah: I want to actu­al­ly go back to the Sensen­bren­ner bill because, of course, as you said, Sensen­bren­ner is from Wis­con­sin. That prob­a­bly made it kind of personal.

Chris­tine: I would say there have been four exam­ples where we have used the Day With­out Lati­nos and Immi­grants.” It has been six times, but I would say four times where you could real­ly see the weight of it had a direct impact. Obvi­ous­ly, in 2006, as part of that whole nation­al wave of strikes and mass protests, the Sensen­bren­ner bill was defeat­ed. Sensen­bren­ner was demot­ed. Only now recent­ly in the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has he got­ten pro­mot­ed again. He is now on the Immi­gra­tion Sub-Committee.

Obvi­ous­ly, that was a huge vic­to­ry not just for immi­grants so much, but for democ­ra­cy itself. Undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers have legal rights, for exam­ple. If some­one tries to cheat you out of your wages, under nation­al labor law, it doesn’t mat­ter if an employ­er tries to use immi­gra­tion sta­tus against you as a way to not pay you, because obvi­ous­ly that incen­tivizes hir­ing more undoc­u­ment­ed peo­ple and tak­ing advan­tage of them. That is where the law is very strong. Labor attor­neys, that law would have said if they don’t turn some­body in [they would face charges]. It was real­ly a dra­con­ian bill, very Trump-like, that threat­ened our democ­ra­cy itself.

The sec­ond one where I would say we also had a big impact was lat­er on in 2011. It was in the con­text of the Act 10 when there was the very spon­ta­neous upswell of rank and file union mem­bers against the repeal of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights for pub­lic employ­ees. There was the sit-in at the Capi­tol. Part of that whole attack on work­ers was direct­ed at immi­grants, too. That includ­ed a repeal of tuition equi­ty and a bill that was intro­duced that would have been a copy­cat bill of the Show me your papers” bill in Arizona.

We joined with labor union allies on May 1st, which ever since 2006 has now become a tra­di­tion with mass protests. At that point, we had also made that deep com­mit­ment to con­tin­ue to use the gen­er­al strike. I think that con­text and the threat of things even esca­lat­ing fur­ther were help­ful in defeat­ing the Ari­zona copy­cat bill. Last year in the state Capi­tol, there was a Day With­out Lati­nos and Immi­grants” orga­nized in 11 days with tens of thou­sands of peo­ple through­out the state con­verg­ing at the state Capi­tol. Because of that, we were able to suc­cess­ful­ly defeat an anti-sanc­tu­ary city bill, which would have been very sim­i­lar to 287(g). It would have turned local law enforce­ment into an arm of ICE [Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment]. That was defeat­ed because of eco­nom­ic pres­sure, includ­ing a sec­tor that is very much a part of the Repub­li­can Par­ty base, which is the dairy indus­try and agri­cul­ture. Because of the lead­er­ship on the part of immi­grant work­ers and their fam­i­lies and sup­port­ers, it cre­at­ed the polit­i­cal pres­sure to defeat that bill from being signed into law.

We real­ize that now it is going to have to be more sus­tained and pro­longed, but the strat­e­gy to go deep­er and to use our col­lec­tive eco­nom­ic pow­er through boy­cotts, through strikes, is crit­i­cal under the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to defeat the immi­gra­tion exec­u­tive order and to push back against this broad­er anti-civ­il rights, anti-work­er agenda.

Sarah: One of the con­ver­sa­tions that hap­pens a lot around pol­i­tics in this coun­try is this urban/​rural split. But a lot of the immi­grant work­ers in this coun­try are work­ing on farms, they are work­ing in rur­al com­mu­ni­ties that are oth­er­wise real­ly white. Talk about orga­niz­ing in rur­al parts of Wis­con­sin and how you can break down the divi­sions in those communities.

Chris­tine: We were able to, real­ly through social media and radio and then, just through local con­nec­tions we have made as we have built chap­ters out of last year’s Day With­out Lati­nos,” we inten­tion­al­ly built chap­ters in the dif­fer­ent cities. We were able to use that as a foun­da­tion to quick­ly respond to the cur­rent threat. There has been a lot of self-orga­niz­ing, actu­al­ly, going on in numer­ous dif­fer­ent work­places, includ­ing the dairy farms.

One thing that has been very help­ful for us is that we had also estab­lished a rela­tion­ship at a dif­fer­ent lev­el with dif­fer­ent employ­er asso­ci­a­tions. We have been engag­ing the Dairy Busi­ness Asso­ci­a­tion over the years on dif­fer­ent ini­tia­tives like try­ing to secure driver’s licens­es in Wis­con­sin, which is some­thing that is very impor­tant in rur­al areas when there is even less pub­lic trans­porta­tion and dri­ving is a neces­si­ty. Or, more recent­ly, around com­mu­ni­cat­ing with DBA to coor­di­nate com­mu­ni­ca­tion with farm­ers. Fig­ur­ing out ways that the farm­ers could sup­port their work­force in advo­cat­ing against these bad bills, because for the dairy indus­try, which is a very key indus­try for Wis­con­sin, if you elim­i­nate the immi­grant work­force, that whole indus­try col­laps­es and with it, a whole domi­no effect, a whole series of jobs that would also drop. But in farms where it is not like a fac­to­ry where you can just stop the work, but you would actu­al­ly kill the cows. Peo­ple were able to coor­di­nate mak­ing sure there is a skele­ton crew avail­able. Farm­ers, in turn, were an impor­tant voice with­in the Repub­li­can Par­ty to call for the defeat of these bad bills.

We believe that there needs to be deep­er engage­ment and a strength­en­ing of net­works so that we can sus­tain sim­i­lar actions. Voces has always been there to sup­port peo­ple in the build-up and in the after­math of any cas­es of retal­i­a­tion, we have sent del­e­ga­tions to meet with employ­ers. We have giv­en peo­ple a chance to under­stand and take back peo­ple if there were any dis­missals or any kind of retal­i­a­tion to make good on that and to not go pub­lic. Oth­er­wise, we do believe there should be a pub­lic account­abil­i­ty of busi­ness­es that are not sup­port­ing their work­force. Espe­cial­ly when their work­force is so crit­i­cal to their well­be­ing. By and large, we have had a strong record of suc­cess and I do believe the orga­ni­za­tion­al sup­port for work­ers and their fam­i­lies should be some­thing that accom­pa­nies all of these calls to action. It is impor­tant that is a com­mit­ment that is made there, ide­al­ly, in any city, that there is that lev­el of sup­port for peo­ple to back peo­ple up.

Sarah: Obvi­ous­ly, depor­ta­tions and attacks on immi­grants are not a new prob­lem, but a lot of peo­ple are real­ly wak­ing up to the scale of this prob­lem now. How would you say that peo­ple who are not in dan­ger of being deport­ed can get involved and sup­port immi­grant work­ers in their communities?

Chris­tine: We have an online peti­tion direct­ed to Sher­iff Clarke that we are ask­ing peo­ple to sign that says we do not want Mil­wau­kee Coun­ty to become Mari­co­pa Coun­ty. We don’t want to nor­mal­ize these pol­i­tics. Sher­iff Clarke is some­one of equal tem­pera­ment to Trump or Arpaio. In the case of Clarke, despite being African-Amer­i­can, he has become a mouth­piece for white nation­al­ists, char­ac­ter­iz­ing African-Amer­i­cans as ISIS, call­ing them sub-human. In City of Mil­wau­kee, the major­i­ty of the res­i­dents are African-Amer­i­cans. He has char­ac­ter­ized, for many years, now all immi­grants as tar­gets for depor­ta­tion, which, again, flies in the face of immi­gra­tion law because to be undoc­u­ment­ed is a civ­il infrac­tion. He has become a nation­al fig­ure as part of these kinds of politics.

We ask for peo­ple at a nation­al lev­el to help make con­tri­bu­tions to Voces because one of our goals is to engage sim­i­lar mind­ed orga­ni­za­tions who want to go deep­er on eco­nom­ic strat­e­gy, using that as a way to fight back against the poli­cies that are being imple­ment­ed or that they are try­ing to imple­ment to the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. Last­ly, there are local coali­tions that can be formed in the build-up to May 1st. May 1st will be not just a nation­al protest, but anoth­er nation­al day of strike. There are already con­ver­sa­tions going on with larg­er net­works to see if the poten­tial of fold­ing in this action under a broad­er plat­form with dif­fer­ent groups, with cli­mate change, with women’s, immi­grant rights. That stuff is in process, but in terms of immi­grant rights, I know that is cer­tain­ly a day that has been set.

There are ways to sup­port immi­grant rights orga­niz­ing that is tied around pre­vent­ing local stuff from get­ting imple­ment­ed –“Does your local sher­iff want to imple­ment this 287(g) pro­gram or not?” Most Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Chiefs of Police are total­ly against it. They have already said so. But it is good to have the com­mu­ni­ty come out and say, We don’t want that in our com­mu­ni­ty. We want you to take a pub­lic stance and say, As a local law enforce­ment offi­cial, we do not want 287(g).’” The more peo­ple that stand up and say that, the more mar­gin­al those pol­i­tics become.

A lot of the resis­tance is local in nature, espe­cial­ly around immi­gra­tion work. I think in the build-up to May 1st in what­ev­er way peo­ple can con­tribute to help­ing at a local lev­el and just get more informed around the facts ver­sus the fic­tion around immi­gra­tion. It is always good to have many dif­fer­ent mes­sen­gers car­ry that mes­sage. We do need to hold our elect­ed offi­cials account­able to not being enablers to the kind of real­ly far-right pol­i­tics that are aggres­sive­ly being shoved down our throats. Hav­ing the voice of peo­ple who have the right to vote, who are com­fort­able going to town halls and pick­ing up the phone. That is some­thing that immi­grants are not as com­fort­able with. It actu­al­ly is a very impor­tant way to stand in sol­i­dar­i­ty with new­er immi­grants to the Unit­ed States.

Sarah: How can peo­ple keep up with you and your organization?

Chris­tine: We ask peo­ple to like our Face­book, which is Voces de la Fron­tera and our less­er known Voces de la Fron­tera Action, which is our [501]c4 arm, which allows us to have a voice in elec­tions and do more advo­ca­cy against bad laws. We have a web­site called www​.vdlf​.org. Peo­ple can click there and get updates through email.

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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