The refugees are welcome here

July 30, 2014

Activists report on a series of immigrant rights protests organized to counter the racist message of anti-immigrant groups and mainstream political leaders.

THE DEMOCRATIC Party establishment's response to the recent arrival of thousands of young refugees from Central America has created a hostile climate that opened the door for a reinvigorated anti-immigrant movement to go on the offensive.

Putting herself out in front of the issue very quickly, Hillary Clinton, the favorite to be the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, called for their deportation, stating the unaccompanied minors "should be sent back." Wagging her finger at imaginary Central America parents, she said, "We have to send a clear message: Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn't mean the child gets to stay."

For its part, the Obama administration has also taken a hard line. According to USA Today, "The administration's plan includes more detention centers, immigration judges and attorneys on the southern border to speed up deportation times."

The toxic result of this approach was seen in the highly publicized Murrieta, Calif., stunt where local police and a few dozen anti-immigrant activists blocked buses containing Central American refugees seeking temporary shelter in the small town.

Texans for immigrant rights rally in McAllen
Texans for immigrant rights rally in McAllen (Human Rights Coalition of South Texas)

In such a hostile environment, anti-immigrant groups are re-activating across the Southwest. For this reason, anti-racist and pro-immigrant activists are also mobilizing to confront the hate groups and counter their message. In recent days, activists have organized counterprotests in Texas and California.

In McAllen, Texas, more than 150 people from all around the Rio Grande Valley and different parts of Texas convened in front of the U.S. Homeland Security and Border Patrol Center for a vigil and rally in support of the Central American refugees on July 19.

The vigil, organized by the Human Rights Coalition of South Texas, was kicked off by a blessing from Del Rio, a local indigenous group, and was followed by prayers from leaders and members of several different communities of faith including the Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Unitarian church, as well as a local mosque.

The blessings and quick sermons all carried the same theme: the refugees coming in through our border need to be treated with compassion and be sheltered, instead of deported as fast as possible. Some also offered words of sympathy to immigrants who have lost their lives on their journey north.

The anti-immigration rally that was supposed to occur in the same area could only muster four people, who stayed for about an hour. Their exit was met with chants and songs by the attendees, many of whom stayed out for over four hours in over 100 degree heat to show their support.

The vigil and rally had been preceded by a protest the day before outside City Hall in Mission, Texas. Mission is part of the 28th District represented by Democrat Henry Cuellar, who is currently sponsoring a bill known as the "HUMANE Act." Despite its name, it's a bipartisan effort with Texas' Republican Sen. John Cornyn to expedite the deportation process of Central American refugees.

While Cuellar and Cornyn were holding a press conference, some activists and organizers managed to get inside City Hall and pressed the legislators to explain how deportation could in any way be humane. As expected, Cornyn and Cuellar avoided the questions altogether. More demonstrations are being planned to protest the so-called HUMANE Act.

In Dallas, after Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins proposed housing for 2,000 of the unaccompanied Central American child refugees, anti-immigrant demonstrators gathered on July 19 to oppose the effort.

The group of around 75 people stood at three corners of a busy intersection. Some held signs calling for the deportation of all "illegals," while others attempted to conceal their racism by stating that the child refugees "deserve better." The demonstrators' hollow concerns for migrant children were overshadowed by their vitriolic calls for deportation.

The anti-immigrant demonstrators did not go unchallenged. Immigrant rights organizations from the North Texas region gathered across from the anti-immigrant demonstrators in a display of support for Judge Jenkins' decision to house refugee children in Dallas and to counter the racist and xenophobic messages.

On the same day, both groups of protesters traveled to the nearby city of Arlington to set up demonstrations on an overpass bridges with large banners visible by vehicles driving below. When the anti-immigrant protests occupied one bridge with their hateful signs, immigrant rights activist occupied a nearby bridge with signs calling for refuge.

The following morning, the same tactic was employed by the anti-immigrant demonstrators in Fort Worth, but knowing their plan in advance, over 50 people from pro-immigrant groups and religious organizations beat the right-wingers to the demonstration site at another overpass.

Once the anti-immigrant demonstrators put their banners and signs on display, it was clear just how violent and racist many of these people are. One held a sign over his head that read "2,000 plague rats coming to a school near you." Another got aggressive, getting into people's faces while waving his American flag.

Their intimidation tactics failed as protesters chanted, "We don't need your racist fear, immigrants are welcome here," among other powerful anti-racist and pro-immigrant chants.

It is expected that more of these demonstrations and confrontations will be happening in the coming weeks when the refugee children arrive in Dallas and religious organizations continue their relief efforts. Catholic Charities Fort Worth, a service based network in Fort Worth, Texas, has started a donation drive to collect basic essentials for the children that will likely be housed in Dallas. Similarly, community leaders and organizations in neighboring cities are helping organize additional donation-drives.

It is important to build on the networks that have been formed and strengthened over the years of in the fight for immigrant rights, in order to confront and stand against the racist anti-immigrant groups seeking to grow and spread their message of hate by targeting immigrants and refugees.

In the rural San Diego County town of Ramona, Calif., Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio came to speak on July 26. The event was sponsored by local Tea Party groups, whose right-wing political campaigns have floundered and base of support have shrunk over the last few years. They are seeking a revival by hitching their wagon to the anti-immigrant bandwagon.

Notorious for immigrant-bashing and terrorizing Latinos in his district, Joe Arpaio is one of the nationally recognized leaders of the anti-immigrant movement. Like the others, he has faded from the spotlight as his policies have become more challenged in his home state of Arizona. For instance, because of his vigilante and racist tactics, he has faced numerous lawsuits and civil rights investigations over the last few years, as well as mass protest. Nevertheless, he too has re-emerged from his hole to join the newly revived anti-immigrant chorus.

On short notice, about 35 activists mobilized to confront Arpaio when they learned that he would be speaking in Ramona, a rural town northeast of San Diego. Though vastly outnumbered by about 400 hundred anti-immigrant racists who mobilized from throughout Southern California to hear Arpaio, the activists were a determined and disruptive presence at the event. The activists emphasized that if Arpaio was unopposed, neo-vigilante racism would be emboldened.

The protesters came from Ramona, San Diego and elsewhere, and set up a protest picket right next to the entrance to the theater. The group chanted, "Brothers, sisters, have no fear, immigrants are welcome here" and "Racist, bigot, KKK--Sheriff Joe go away" at the group of largely white, older Tea Party and Minutemen adherents.

Used to being coddled by the media and tolerated within the mainstream, the protest startled and infuriated the group. Arpaio himself broke off a TV interview to talk to the demonstrators in an apparent stunt for the cameras, but was chanted down by protesters, at which point Arpaio scurried inside the venue.

Arpaio's racist fans physically attacked or shoved activists at least four separate times while police were present. The shameful inaction of the dozen San Diego County sheriff's deputies was met by chants of "Who do you serve? Who do you protect?" and "The cops and Klan go hand in hand." Local media at the event captured and broadcast some of this.

In his speech, Arpaio had to denounce the protesters, as their presence clearly changed the nature and mood of the event. He then exhorted his audience to follow the example of the racist thugs in Murrieta who succeeded in blocking Homeland Security buses--again, with police complicity, revealing the true nature of the event.

In an environment where the both mainstream parties are poised to crack down on immigrants and refugees, and with the tacit support of police, local government and an uncritical media, Arpaio's speech would have otherwise generated more excitement and confidence for the anti-immigrant right in Southern California.

Instead, a relatively small group of pro-immigrant activists significantly affected the outcome. All of the media reports included the protesters and their points of view, changing the narrative. This will help more people gain the confidence to stand up to the bigots the next time they try to rally around their hateful cause.

Justin Akers Chacón, Bo Elder, Erika Galindo, Mario Ovalle and Avery Wear contributed to this article.

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