CHICAGO – On April 23, shortly after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer ® signed into law one of the most stringent bills against undocumented immigrants in American history, 24 religious and community leaders sat down in front of a van containing immigrants being deported to their home countries as it exited a detention center in the Chicago suburb of Broadview. Chanting, “Illinois is not Arizona,” the group condemned SB 1070 and demanded a moratorium on raids and deportations.
Sitting in the street a few feet from the idling van was Father Brendan Curran from Pilsen, a Mexican-American neighborhood in Chicago. He estimates that half his congregation is undocumented, including the father of a high schooler with leukemia. “He risks being deported at the most important moment of his daughter’s life,” Curran said before his arrest. “There are thousands more like them. Families are being torn apart. We must stop these deportations.”
The action was an escalation for the movement nationally, as civil disobedience has not been a widely used tactic by immigrant rights advocates in the past.
Tania Unzueta, a 26-year-old undocumented student who moved to Chicago from Mexico City with her parents at the age of 10, snapped photos of the arrestees as they were detained.
Six weeks earlier, Unzueta and other immigrant youth led a march in Chicago behind a banner that read “Undocumented and Unafraid” and then “came out” to the world as lacking legal status in the United States. She explains the difficulties of life without legal status. “You have to keep a huge part of your life secret because it’s ‘criminal.’ It’s very liberating to say, ‘I’m undocumented, I didn’t do anything wrong, and I shouldn’t be punished.’ “
Days after the Broadview arrests, on May 1, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Chicago was arrested with 34 others in front of the White House while hundreds of thousands rallied for comprehensive immigration reform around the country. Activists promised to continue ratcheting up the pressure on lawmakers until a satisfactory federal reform bill is passed.
Pushed by Arizona Republicans, SB 1070 allows police officers to inquire about a person’s citizenship if they have reasonable suspicion a person lacks proper status – a mandate, opponents say, for racial profiling. After the law’s signing, several states began considering similar bills.
The new law, which makes the failure to carry immigration documents a crime, has jump-started the immigration reform movement. With President Barack Obama castigating the state’s actions, saying the law could “undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans,” his administration has now set its sights on enacting immigration reform this year.
Following the law’s passage, activists called for a boycott of Arizona, causing several large organizations to pull their conventions out of the state. Protests of the bill have been widespread; condemnation of SB 1070 has been particularly strong in Chicago, the site of the 2006 immigrant rights marches that sparked massive organizing efforts throughout the country.
The country’s polarized mood is reminiscent of 2006, when Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) introduced a similarly tough anti-immigration bill in the House. Immigrants organized quickly and massively, flooding small towns and city streets around the country. The bill was defeated in the Senate, but the political will for comprehensive immigration reform was absent.
With a friendlier president in office and a Democratic majority in Congress, activists are hopeful for reform, but aren’t counting on Democrats to deliver it without a fight. Many protesters saved their harshest words for the Democratic politicians they helped elect. “Legalization or no reelection” was a recurring chant in Broadview and at Chicago’s May Day march.
Jenny Dale, coordinator for the Chicago New Sanctuary Coalition and an organizer of the Broadview action, said Democrats are nervous about upcoming elections. “And they should be,” says Dale. “Activists are saying, ‘The stalling needs to stop. We put you into power. Now you need to deliver.’ “
Immigration reform legislation of some sort is inevitable. Whether lawmakers follow Arizona’s lead or heed increasingly loud demands from the streets remains to be seen.
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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Micah Uetricht is an editor at Jacobin magazine. He is a contributing editor and former associate editor at In These Times, and the author of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity and coauthor of Bigger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism, and is currently at work on a book on New Leftists who took jobs in industries like steel and auto to organize on the shop floor.