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US migrant rights movement takes up new battle cry

Nearly one year on since Donald Trump’s election,
the immigrant rights movement in the US seeks new strategies to combat an
increasing level of enforcement.

By: /
27 October, 2017
People participate in a protest in defence of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program or DACA in New York, NY, U.S., September 9, 2017. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith
By: Leanne Tory-Murphy

Global journalism fellow, Munk School of Global Affairs

One early morning in July, Enrique and his son were on their way to work picking apples on a New York state farm. Not far from home, they were pulled over by immigration authorities and detained. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents had been staking out their apartment building for two weeks seeking a particular individual for whom officials had an arrest warrant. Unable to find him, two Guatemalan farmworkers were picked up instead.

By May, 100 days after Donald Trump’s inauguration, immigration-related arrests in the United States had increased almost 40 percent over the same period the previous year. The aggressive enforcement of immigration laws throughout this year, in addition to the pervasive fear and real material consequences it generated for undocumented communities, has also forced those who work for the protection of immigrants to re-evaluate their work moving forward. Each of the three distinct sectors of the immigrant rights movement — legal service providers, policy advocates and immigrant rights’ organizers — has had to develop new strategies to respond to this political moment.  

The limits of the law

During his second term, Barack Obama’s immigration enforcement approach was one of ‘prosecutorial discretion,’ meaning that an undocumented persons’ ties to the US, including citizen family members and other factors, would be taken into consideration when determining whether to put people through removal proceedings. In a major policy shift, Trump has quickly authorized a broad and indiscriminate application of immigration law, targeting not only people with prior criminal records, but anyone who is in the country without authorization — an estimated 11 million people.

Legal advocates from New York to New Mexico say they are seeing a huge uptick in arrests, largely what are called “collateral arrests”— the warrantless arrests of individuals who happen to be in the proximity of the person that agents are seeking, often family members, co-workers or neighbours, like Enrique and his son.  While the Trump administration has largely publicized arrests of former gang members or people who have been convicted of violent crimes, in reality those cases make up a very small percentage of the overall arrests.

Allegra Love, a lawyer and the founder of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, says the increase in arrests has changed how the organization advises people to interact with law enforcement. Love says that they are telling the immigrant community, “Do not engage. Do not answer the door. Do not answer any questions. Keep your mouth shut.” She reminds community members that they do not need to assist immigration authorities in their own warrantless arrests.

Following the revocation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in early September, there are now fewer legal remedies to protect people as well as a higher need for protection, which has caused an overwhelming caseload for legal providers, even when, in many cases, very little can be done. “We have a really limited toolbox right now because a lot of what the Trump administration is doing is not illegal,” Love says, “They are doing it under really broad discretionary powers.” She says that while legal service providers have their hands tied in some ways, they can help provide hard data for policy reform and connect affected community members with organizing efforts.  Because Trump’s approach is largely legal, “a lot of the advocacy is going to have to be extralegal,” Love says, meaning that there is a need for organizing and advocacy so that laws and policies change. 

Taking a local approach

Policy-makers and advocates have also had to shift gears in this political climate. While immigration policy is determined at the federal level, states, counties and cities are able to adopt policies that can protect or harm undocumented people. In New York state, long considered progressive when it comes to immigrant rights, advocacy groups have pulled back from their national work and are instead focusing their efforts on the state and local level.

The New York Immigration Coalition, which has a membership of about 200 organizations throughout the state, is working for policies that would make life for immigrants easier and potentially help keep them out of the hands of immigration enforcement. To this end they are pushing state legislators to allow undocumented drivers to obtain drivers’ licenses, expand healthcare access and obtain more funding for legal services and “know your rights” trainings for immigrants.

The coalition is also working on a local level to limit collaboration between local police and federal immigration enforcement.  This is a strategy that has been employed throughout the country and has become especially important in historically conservative states like Arizona and Texas, where state-level policy benefitting immigrants is not politically possible.  In fact, both states have passed “show me your papers” laws which explicitly permit the collaboration of local police with immigration enforcement and allow immigration agents to enter churches, schools and other institutions.

Even so-called “sanctuary cities,” which have passed local ordinances stating they will not collaborate with federal enforcement, are having difficulty upholding their commitment in the face of an administration that seeks to target them. In late September, immigration authorities rolled out “Operation Safe City,” a series of raids targeting Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, New York and Philadelphia, amounting in the arrest of almost 500 people.

Reshaping the political narrative

Expanding the sense of what is politically possible in the face of extreme xenophobia from the political establishment is the work that organizers are now taking up. 

For Gabriela Quintanilla, the director of Adelante Student Voices, a program for undocumented youth in rural New York, the focus of the immigrant rights movement remains broadly on protecting people but is shifting tactics. “The time to have a conversation, sit down and negotiate [with government],” as many groups did under Obama, “is over,” she says.  “These are peoples’ lives.” She says the movement will become more confrontational, engaging in civil disobedience if necessary, to protect people.

Other activists agree. Maria Fernanda Cabello is one of 24 full-time organizers working nationally for an organization called Movimiento Cosecha. Inspired by farmworker movement and the grape boycotts of the sixties, Movimiento Cosecha, literally “Harvest Movement,” advocates for nonviolent but disruptive actions with the goal of attaining “permanent protection, dignity and respect for all immigrants living in this country.” Their approach has arisen in response to frustration with democratic politicians who have stalled on immigration reform year after year and are outnumbered by Republican legislators who are outwardly hostile to their interests. As Cabello says, “it is the politicians’ job to write legislation and it is our job to demand.” In that spirit, they have sought to “polarize” the conversation and force members of the American public to consider whether they, “really want millions of people deported from this country.”

Movimiento Cosecha organizes “high sacrifice and highly disruptive” actions like sit-ins and arrests in high visibility locations like Trump Tower or at ICE offices to “elevate the pain and sacrifice of the undocumented community,” Cabello says. “We are trying to shift the narrative from ‘do we want immigrants?’ to ‘do we need immigrants?’ Because we believe this country is sustained by our purchases and by our work.”

Their success in shifting the narrative was apparent recently with the repeal of DACA. Cabello says that instead of seeing immigrant rights groups return to solely defending the rights of the ‘deserving’ — those who are young, college-educated or have served in military — she saw the movement broaden the conversation to talking again about how to protect all of the undocumented community.

Although it is unclear right now where that conversation will lead, what is clear is that many immigrant rights activists are now more interested in taking a more militant approach instead of political compromise.

After 45 days in detention back in the summer, Enrique now continues to pick apples as he awaits his immigration hearing while his son remains locked up due to a prior immigration-related arrest.  He says he isn’t going anywhere and that regarding his case he will “see what happens.”

In the meantime, as ICE continues to fan across the country, the future of the more than 11 million undocumented people living in the United States remains uncertain. “[T]hey are getting a lot of people,” says Enrique.  “I don’t know why. We came to this country to work, not to do anything bad.”

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