No one will be deported today

April 30, 2010

CHICAGO--Ever since Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed anti-immigrant SB 1070 into law, immigrant rights activists have felt Jim Crow-like chill down our spines.

SB 1070 enables local law enforcement to engage in racial profiling of anyone suspected to be undocumented. It also enables racist extremists to sue state agencies for not harassing undocumented immigrants or for offering them social services, and it further prevents any municipality from changing its local ordinances to avoid enforcing the law.

With economic hard times hitting everyone but Wall Street and wars abroad in full throttle, American tax-paying citizens are being pressured to scapegoat tax-paying undocumented immigrants for the rising unemployment and lack of social services. Or are they?

The answer rang loud and clear on the morning of April 27, following an all-night vigil outside the Broadview Federal Detention Center, located 20 minutes west of Chicago. In an act of solidarity with Arizona residents and the detainees shackled inside the detention center, 24 members of the clergy, labor and community leaders, and immigrant rights activists blocked Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) vans filled with deportees headed to Chicago O'Hare International Airport.

Immigrant rights protesters outside of the Broadview Federal Detention Center
Immigrant rights protesters outside of the Broadview Federal Detention Center (Yana Kunichoff)

They were accompanied by about 150 protesters chanting in solidarity. The action was organized by advocates for undocumented immigrants, including the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL), Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), Service Employees International Union, Latino Organization of the Southwest and the Justice Mission.

The Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America has regularly organized vigils at the Broadview detention center, and has sought support for an action like the one that happened Tuesday. According to their press release, the group is calling "for President Barack Obama to issue an executive order ending deportations of undocumented immigrants and raids."

The ingredients to building this action were simple: discussion, organization, struggle and solidarity.

ON THE eve of the rally, inside a cramped minivan filled with blankets, tents and people, I carpooled my way to Broadview via the notoriously congested Eisenhower Expressway. On our way there, we discussed upcoming logistics for the May Day march, along with a more general discussion of civil disobedience.

Looking out the window, we spotted drivers that we recognized from other meetings and events, and several cars with radical slogans plastered to their rear. Even in the cramped five-lane highway, a sense of solidarity and community was palpable.

The Broadview detention center is hidden by an industrial park typical to the landscape of suburban Chicago. If you were to pass by it, you'd unlikely guess that innocent workers were detained and processed daily behind the small brick building surrounded by high, steel fences topped with razor wire.

In the street in front of the entrance, a small gas-powered generator was set up that lit up a bulb hanging from a tree and a sound system loud enough to be heard inside the facility. Around 8 p.m., the crowd had reached about 200 multi-ethnic, inter-generational protesters.

Testimonies by young immigrants, allies, workers and religious leaders expressed the mood--one of a revived movement to defend civil rights against racist laws like the draconian HR 4437 of 2006, which brought hundreds of thousands into the streets.

According to an ICIRR press release:

[T]his action takes place in solidarity with immigrants in Arizona as a response to the passage of SB 1070, one of the harshest anti-immigrant bills in history. This is the direct consequence of the failure by the Obama administration to work for immigration reform and instead deporting almost 400,000 people during their first year in office...This policy of continuous enforcement without a path to legalization has called into question Obama's commitment to immigrant communities.

This was followed by performances of music, dance and poetry. As the night grew dark, a small group gathered in the street, and everyone chanted old and new slogans. Hugo Esparza, a theology student and community organizer for the IYJL, said, "I thought that the community participation was amazing; to be there all night and be involved like they were."

However, he said, referring to the community's response to SB 1070, "I'm worried about a Jim Sensenbrenner or Pete Wilson effect. [These laws] mobilized people in defense of immigrant rights and brought numbers to the streets, however, we couldn't get political rights."

Esparza added, "We need to maintain our commitments and take more militant actions to push politicians to keep their promises."

As the temperature dropped, people started setting up tents and brewing coffee. Throughout the vigil, solidarity was forged by the simple acts of sharing blankets, food, tent space and lawn chairs. Activists formed a dance circle, sharing the rhythms of cumbia, salsa, ska, hip-hop and even Michael Jackson's "Thriller." A village-like atmosphere formed outside the detention center to remind the government that immigrants are being unjustly detained, and this is no longer acceptable.

THE DANCING was interrupted around 2:30 a.m. by shining headlights in the distance. As the lights became brighter, the music stopped and the crowd grew silent as they saw a white van drive past them and park across the street from the camp.

Jose Herrera, an organizer with the Justice Mission and a member of IYJL, stepped up to the mic and explained, "Inside that van are our brothers and sisters." Pointing to the end of the street, he said, "More trucks will come and line up behind this one all along here...the people inside will make their way inside the building and tomorrow morning will be driven to the airport to be deported."

A sense of fear and anger brewed within the crowd, and a picket was soon formed, chanting loudly so the detainees inside the van could hear. As the vans kept coming, the crowd chanted louder and louder. At about 4 a.m., the vans made their way inside the compound and the people inside their tents.

At about 5:30 a.m., activities resumed with coffee and a picket to welcome the rising sun. It wasn't until 6 a.m. that the processed detainees were loaded into vans that were parked inside the compound. The gates opened as people chanted "Shame on you ICE!" and the van came out in reverse, heading toward the north end of the block.

At that moment, 24 people formed two rows and forced the van to stop. After a 15-minute standoff, the van was forced to return to the detention center, and the crowd exploded in chants of "No deportations today!" The street was blocked for about one hour and a half before the police arrested the demonstrators--just enough time to stop the deportations that day.

Miguel Gutierrez, one of the participants in the civil disobedience, raised his fist in the air as he was led away by the police. "At that moment, I turned and saw a bunch of people also raising their fists," he said. "We did it, we stopped the deportations that day because we came together, this is people power and it's beautiful and empowering for everyone."

When people come together, they can do amazing things. This movement will need to make more amazing things happen if equal civil rights are to be won for everyone, which means that masses of people will have to come together and act as one.

So as a response to raids, deportation and now SB 1070, people should hit the streets on May 1 to chant in solidarity, "When immigrant rights are under attack...What do we do? Stand up fight back!"

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