Who will be the Obama administration’s two-millionth deportee? The question haunts neighborhoods, schools and workplaces from Phoenix to Philadelphia.
And as the Obama administration continues its en masse removal of undocumented immigrants, that unlucky distinction could go to any of the roughly 11 million undocumented people who call the U.S. home — a carwash worker nabbed for a broken taillight; a field laborer who has overstayed her work visa; or a youth donning a cap and gown, deliberately crossing the path of the border patrol in a show of civil disobedience.
Deportations are expected to reach the 2 million mark in early April, and activists are campaigning fiercely at the gates of detention centers, border checkpoints and congressional offices to show the White House they will not let the Obama administration’s reach that milestone without a fight.
Last month in Alabama, immigrant rights advocates organized one such action by forming a human chain outside the Etowah County Detention Center, chanting “not one more” — the rallying cry of a wave of anti-deportation actions that have swept the nation over the past year, gaining political currency as a social media campaign, a slogan at street demonstrations, and more recently, a political salvo in Washington, where more conciliatory policy demands from inside the Beltway have sputtered.
One protester at the Etowah rally, Gwendolyn Ferreti Manjarrez, declared, “I am tired of living with the fear that my family or any family can be torn apart at the seams for living our everyday life.”
Such pleas reflect exhaustion and exasperation with Washington, which has maintained an immigration-reform gridlock since the Senate reform bill all but died in Congress last year.
Faced with deafening silence in Congress and constant waffling in the White House, a growing number of advocates have joined the chorus calling for a moratorium on deportations. Even prominent centrist Latino organizations like the National Council of La Raza — NCLR lobbied hard for “compromise” legislation last year — have condemned Obama as “deporter in chief.”
Demands for a moratorium on deportations are not unprecedented: Advocates are proposing an extension of the White House’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — a temporary executive reprieve for undocumented young people issued in 2012 — to undocumented adults. Supports say their proposal would allow families to stay together in the run-up to future reform. The undocumented community and its allies argue that if Obama could exercise his discretion on enforcement for a sympathetic category of undocumented immigrants — primarily youth pursuing a college education — he could do the same for their undocumented parents and neighbors.
In January, the Arizona-based group Dream Action Coalition, an advocacy group for the Dream Act legislation on which DACA was modeled, blasted Obama for punishing families for Congress’ failure to pass reform. Presenting the reform movement as a multigenerational struggle, the group stated in an “Open Letter to the Immigrant Rights Movement”: “We can’t wait while we see our families being taken into detention centers for months and even years while our children are being traumatized. … Let’s together hold President Obama accountable for every deported parent.”
Obama has acknowledged the crisis and in recent weeks signaled he planned to ease deportations, but stopped short of fully halting detentions and removals. The president instead ordered the Department of Justice to review deportation policy “to see how it can conduct enforcement more humanely within the confines of the law.” Following a mid-March meeting with pro-immigrant advocates, he reportedly vowed to take executive action by summer if the Republican House members continued to stonewall on reform. Still, amid stiff Republican opposition, Obama promised to soften his approach without indicating whether he would order a full-on DACA-like deferral of deportations.
Even Senators Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer, two leading Democrats who crafted the failed compromise bill, now endorse a deportation freeze as a stopgap measure. Schumer has also threatened to use a parliamentary maneuver known as a “discharge petition” to force a vote on a reform bill on the House floor, similar to the Senate proposal. But due to widespread House GOP opposition, this tactical measure would likely fail under Republican opposition.
But while Congress dithers, grassroots activists say the current enforcement regime doesn’t need to be made more “humane” — it needs to end, full stop.
“We need to make sure that there is affirmative action,” says Erika Andiola, an Arizona-based undocumented activist with the Not One More campaign. Andiola’s advocacy is a matter of survival: She has campaigned publicly to defend her mother from deportation, and for the past few years, she has watched her state roll out some of the harshest anti-immigrant policies in the country. Indeed, the fight against deportations has foregrounded the struggles of besieged communities that have seen coworkers and family members swept up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) over the past six years.
Grassroots activists are staking out a place at the negotiating table by establishing their own “blue ribbon commission” to draft a progressive set of policy recommendations, informed by their legal experiences fighting congressional lethargy and the federal enforcement dragnet. Andiola notes that she and fellow activists began calling for a deportation freeze months ago, long before many mainstream groups. “We don’t want people to negotiate for us,” she adds. “We want to be able to be the ones putting the cards on the table, since we’re the ones that have our families in detention and many times our families have been in deportation proceedings.”
Far from Washington, direct actions are escalating. A wave of hunger strikes has begun to spread, both inside and outside of detention centers. In early March, hundreds of immigrants at a Tacoma, Washington detention center began refusing meals and menial jobs assigned to detainees.
Shortly afterward, detainees went on hunger strike at a Conroe, Texas facility, accusing the management company, GEO, of inhumane, overcrowded conditions. Exasperated by the ongoing legal limbo, they also demanded due process of law, including “true and transparent information” on how their cases were being reviewed and processed. (TruthOut later reported that some participants had allegedly been placed in isolation as punishment.) Grassroots pro-immigrant groups, including the National Day Labor Organizing Network and Puente Arizona, have joined faith, labor and community organizations in various cities to coordinate solidarity hunger strikes.
Some have escalated protests by confronting ICE directly at the border. Since last fall, dozens of undocumented activists with the Bring them Home campaign have staged several unauthorized border crossings, voluntarily entering federal custody to protest deportations and dramatize the often hidden violence of family separation.
Activists are also using the web to mobilize people: Not One More has led petitions for the release of individual detainees, while Presente.org’s Obama Legacy Project catalogues the administration’s record of mass incarcerations and enforcement crackdowns.
Beyond the harrowing deportation numbers, activists want to stop the enforcement programs that have enabled ICE to partner with local police to apprehend immigrants. Secure Communities or SCOMM, the flagship joint enforcement initiative, has been sharply criticized for giving police departments wide latitude to apprehend immigrants — often just for minor suspected infractions — fingerprint them, and share that information with Homeland Security, which then screens them through a central database to check their immigration status, and eventually funnel them into federal detention. In the impacted communities, ongoing federal crackdowns feed into an overarching climate of discrimination, fraught with racial profiling by police and xenophobic sentiment roiling in racially divided neighborhoods and workplaces.
Although ICE announced back in 2011 that the administration would prioritize the deportation of serious criminals, more than 30,000 immigrants still languish in detention on a given day (thanks in part to a “bed quota” that legally mandates that detention centers fill to a certain capacity).
According to national data, many detainees are being held for misdemeanors and other non-violent offenses, such as traffic violations or marijuana possession. An analysis of ICE data by Syracuse University researchers, shows that of the roughly 350,000 detention orders issued during fiscal year 2012 through early 2013, two-thirds involved no serious criminal convictions.
Reflecting growing frustration with draconian federal enforcement measures and the stagnation of federal reform efforts, some local lawmakers have acted affirmatively on their own to protect immigrants in the absence of legislative progress. In contrast to states that have ramped up their enforcement policies, San Francisco, California and Connecticut have passed legislation to block local police from cooperating with ICE enforcement, except in cases involving an immigrant with a serious prior conviction.
Growing resistance to the Obama administration’s deportation regime contrasts sharply with last year’s relatively cautious debate around “comprehensive immigration reform” legislation. The Democrats’ agenda centered on incremental legalization, with an emphasis on “desirable” immigrants — high-demand workers in agriculture and STEM fields, as well as childhood arrivals — and harsher border security and enforcement measures. (There was little discussion of the social implications of harsher enforcement tactics.) Some activists rejected the Senate bill outright, opening a sharp rift within the immigrant rights movement between the Beltway organizations that supported a compromise in order to achieve a “pathway to citizenship,” and more radical groups such as Puente Arizona and Families for Freedom, which have centered their advocacy around resistance to the draconian immigration enforcement.
But now it seems that within the reform movement, the divergence on the importance of citizenship has been eclipsed by the convergence on calling for administrative action on deportation. Not One More is planning a nationwide day of action on April 5 — roughly coinciding with the date when the two-millionth deportation is set to take place — with demonstrations planned in more than 40 cities
Migrant rights advocate Prerna Lal, who is formerly undocumented herself, says via email that she found the current political terrain for immigration reform “encouraging,” with the wave of direct actions opening space for “the disenfranchised and directly-impacted [to take] bold actions to declare themselves as ‘undocumented and unafraid’ leaders in their own communities.” In the broader push for congressional action, she added, “It is critical to remember that legislation such as Comprehensive Immigration Reform legislation or the DREAM Act is often merely a response to placate these actions.”
Until lawmakers go back to the table to hammer out a reform bill, the best advocates can hope for is a temporary reprieve from the White House. Any kind of deferred action, for adults or youth, is just that — a deferral. But it buys time for undocumented individuals to keep working to shift the political climate, away from the obsession with border security and toward a reform approach that reflects a broader culture shift as immigrant communities become more deeply woven into a transborder, globalized social landscape.
Maybe no one understands this vision for an evolving nation better than the more than 30,000 people languishing in detention each day. Oscar Quintero, a detainee at Etowah who protested from inside the detention center in solidarity with the rally outside, recorded a brief statement that was later broadcast online by Detention Watch Network:
This is basically a concentration camp for immigrants. This is what it is, a human warehouse. They treat us like chickens. They are treating us like cattle. The reality is that as Latinos, if we do nothing, if we don’t unite, and we don’t make others listen to us, these abuses will continue, and families will continue to be separated.
For a man separated from his community by concrete walls and a labyrinth of legal barriers, Quintero’s voice managed to carry over the hurdles of politics and resonate with his supporters outside. On the eve of the two-millionth deportation, his words undertook the border crossing that countless others remain as determined as ever to make.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.