‘I’ve never seen that before’: Activists marvel as calls for immigrant rights enter the mainstream

‘I’ve never seen that before’: Activists marvel as calls for immigrant rights enter the mainstream


Originally published by The Washington Post

Anyone who has attended an immigration rally has heard these words: El pueblo unido jamás será vencido. The slogan migrated north from workers movements in Latin America and has taken root at protests in the United States.

It means, “The people united will never be defeated,” a refrain repeated in recent days in front of the White House, inside the Hart Senate Office Building, outside Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters and along Constitution Avenue as days of protests swept Washington in response to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on migrants crossing the border illegally.

But the Spanish version proved challenging for thousands of protesters new to the immigration fight.

“The people united will never be divided,” dozens of demonstrators chanted outside the ICE building.

“It’s ‘defeated,’ ” said organizer Alejandra Cruz, 30, waving her arms to draw the demonstrators’ attention. “It rhymes in Spanish — not English.”

Non-Hispanic allies who for years have opted out of immigrant protests, rallies and slogans have started to show up en masse. They’re carrying “abolish ICE” signs and are lining up to be arrested. They’re shutting down operations at ICE office buildings around the country. They’re chanting, “We love you, we see you,” as migrant women share their stories of being separated from their children at the southern border.

Immigrant rights advocates have noticed the shift but are uncertain of the widening movement’s staying power.

Some say the mainstreaming of issues such as the dissolution of ICE and immigration reform is a welcome change, an answer to years of pleas for help. Others worry that the wave of support is tied more closely to progressives’ dislike of Trump’s agenda than to any newfound embrace of immigration issues and may be temporary.

“On the one hand, I’m really happy we have more allies and we have more people getting fired up about this,” said Abel Nuñez, executive director of the Central American Resource Center. “On the other, I’m concerned that immigration has become the flavor of the month, and it’s already losing some steam. If it’s not your community, you can walk away from it. We can’t.”

Linda Sarsour, a Women’s March organizer and former executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, said her group sought out white women to participate in a June 28 sit-in at the Hart Building that ended with 575 arrests.

“It’s time for women with less at stake, less to lose, to put their bodies on the line for families who have everything to lose,” she said. “If more white folks did that when Japanese Americans were being rounded up and put in camps, we wouldn’t have had one of the worst chapters in American history.”

Moments before police cleared the Hart Building of protesters, several women noted that this would be their first arrest, saying they had been motivated by their outrage at seeing images of children taken from their parents.

The arrested protesters, including the actress Susan Sarandon and U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), were escorted from the Hart Building and charged with unlawfully demonstrating, a misdemeanor.

Immigrant advocates credit photographs and audio recordings that depicted children wailing for their parents with sparking a new willingness by people to take to the streets.

Non-Hispanic activists in cities including Detroit, New York and Philadelphia have blocked doors at ICE facilities and intercepted workers entering. Those disruptions are part of an effort dubbed “Occupy ICE.”

In Portland, protesters camped outside an ICE facility for days. On Wednesday, three protesters began a hunger strike, vowing to consume nothing but Ga­tor­ade until city officials expelled ICE from the city.

The vigor with which protesters have rallied to the cause of reuniting more than 2,500 children with their parents and ending family detentions has caused some advocates to think that this could be more than passing activism.

“I’ve been in this movement for 13 years, and we’ve been trying to engage allies for years. We’ve been saying, ‘Look, we need folks to come out. We need you to come out for us.’ But we really didn’t see it,” said Lucia Allain, an organizer with the grass-roots nonprofit Cosecha, which advocates for undocumented immigrants. “Now we’re seeing allies come out with their children, allies come out and put their bodies in front of ours, putting themselves at risk for arrest, and that’s huge. I’ve never seen that before.”

Trent Leon-Lierman, a regional organizer with CASA de Maryland, said that it is natural for the intensity of such movements to wane but that the past month was “a real turning point.”

“It may not continue to be people camping out in front of ICE detention centers, but the commitment and the sacrifices that so many people are making to be in this fight is building a consciousness around these issues that is not going to go away,” he said.

Others are less sure.

Nuñez said that while protesting is good for communicating public outrage, Americans interested in helping immigrant communities should do more than make clever signs and march on government buildings.

“If they’re really interested in sticking with this fight for the long term, they need to partner with organizations that have been doing this work. Only then can you understand the contextual history of what we’re going through today,” he said. “But when I start talking about this in this way — about policy changes and the history and all that wonky stuff, it’s not about kids at the border. It’s not about this emotional scene. And people start to disengage. But that’s what we need: a long-term plan.”

The recent wave of children and families arriving from Central America began in 2014, when hundreds of thousands began fleeing to the United States to escape violence, instability and gangs ravaging communities in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Migrants can seek asylum, but the Trump administration has said smugglers, gang members and other bad actors have exploited the country’s humanitarian laws to dishonestly enter the United States.

Deportations of undocumented immigrants were slightly higher under the Obama administration, although it prioritized gang members, violent felons and those considered national security risks.

Under Trump, undocumented immigrants targeted for removal include anyone with any “criminal offenses,” meaning even misdemeanors such as traffic violations. The recently declared zero-tolerance policy has broadened that framework to include anyone who illegally crosses the border into the United States.

Since late last month, families with children have been detained together, rather than being separated, although hundreds of previously separated families remain apart. The Trump administration on Friday requested more time from a federal judge who had set a deadline for the government to reunite families. Federal officials wrote in court filings that they were struggling to match children with their parents.

“This is not a new problem, but I feel like now people think, ‘Oh, Trump’s a bad guy, so of course he’s mistreating immigrants,’ but this happened when Obama was in office. This happened [under] George W. Bush. . . . We can go back and back,” Allain said. “The struggle is making sure these allies, who can go home and not worry about it in the way immigrant communities have to, don’t forget that.”


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