Fighting for Francisco

November 13, 2014

Ryan de Laureal reports on the campaign for Portland organizer Francisco Aguirre.

A LARGE crowd of supporters burst into cheering and applause as Francisco Aguirre was released from federal custody outside a Portland, Ore., courtroom on the night of November 7. Between hugs, pictures and smiles, Francisco, a labor organizer and immigrant rights activist originally from El Salvador, was urged to speak.

Though he was now free, he wanted to remind everybody of the work that still remained to be done for the countless undocumented immigrants who remain in federal custody:

When I was inside, I met so many brothers...They're just picked up in the street, at their home, ICE showing up with no warrant...Now they are in the process of getting deported back to their countries, leaving their kids. And the message for you is that we have to fight for them, too. "Don't forget us," they say, "because we are here!"

The next day, hundreds of people packed the halls of Portland's Augustana Lutheran Church, where Francisco had been living in sanctuary from federal immigration authorities for nearly two months to celebrate Francisco's important victory.

Francisco Aguirre speaks out
Francisco Aguirre speaks out

Francisco's ordeal is emblematic of the kind of struggles that immigrants face daily in the United States, and his experiences mirror many people who cross the border seeking new lives for themselves and their families. Though he still faces a federal trial for his illegal entry into the U.S., his release, and the broad amount of attention and support his case has drawn, shows the importance of solidarity and the power of community action in the fight for immigration justice.

ON SEPTEMBER 19, a few weeks after Francisco was pulled over by highway patrol and charged with DUI, 12 agents from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) came knocking at the door of his home in Portland.

After first refusing to state the reason for their visit, they eventually claimed that it had to do with Francisco's small computer repair business. Suspicious, Francisco asked the agents for paperwork to prove their claim. Once he realized they were from ICE and had come to detain him, he asked them to provide a warrant. They didn't have one.

Fearing deportation, Francisco sought sanctuary from police and immigration authorities in Portland's Augustana Lutheran Church, remaining there for weeks under 24-hour watch from local activists and community members who volunteered to ensure his protection.

Francisco was arrested on November 6 on federal government orders while attending a court hearing for his DUI. A crowd of nearly 80 supporters rallied outside the building in the pouring rain as Francisco entered and was arrested inside. The next day, scores packed a federal courtroom to watch as Judge Janice Stewart issued an order for Francisco's release, pending a trial.

This is the second time the 35 year old has encountered trouble with the authorities since he first came to the U.S. from El Salvador in 1995. Francisco was arrested in 1998 on drug-related charges, nearly all of which were eventually dropped, and was deported after being detained for three months. Francisco contests the validity of the charges. At the time, he spoke little English and had a poor understanding of the U.S. justice system.

Francisco came back to the U.S. soon after, and his November 6 arrest was on felony charges for re-entering the country illegally. ICE has used his 14-year-old drug charge and recent DUI to label Francisco a "criminal alien" and "a public safety threat and priority for removal."

People who get rounded up by ICE are taken to jails such as the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., where they await deportation. The individuals who end up in these facilities are often racially profiled by authorities. In many cases, they are taken without warrants or official court orders, as nearly happened to Francisco in September.

Francisco's case has drawn considerable support from the Portland community, with hundreds of people rallying on his behalf on numerous occasions, and his story has received news coverage at the local and national levels. Francisco has received support from Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, who has spoken in favor of broader immigration reform, expressing the desire that Francisco be allowed to live in peace "until his case can reach a humane conclusion."

Though Francisco has been released from custody, the charges against him mean he still faces possible prison time or deportation in the future. He is under orders not to leave Oregon or change his residence until his case has been resolved.

Francisco has lived in Portland for over a decade. He is married, and his two daughters, ages three and four, are U.S. citizens. His deportation would mean that his family would be forced to emigrate to El Salvador in order to be with him. He has few family members left in the small Central American country, having been orphaned at the age of six during the U.S.-sponsored civil war. He fears his deportation to a country plagued by corruption and gang violence could put the lives of his family and himself at risk.

FRANCISCO IS a coordinator at the VOZ Workers Rights Education Project, a non-profit that helps organize immigrants and day laborers around work-related issues. For the past 20 years, he has fought for the rights of undocumented migrant workers and helped with the creation of similar workers centers across the country.

Francisco's activism began soon after he arrived in the U.S. Initially, life was very difficult. "It was hard because I didn't know anybody," he said. "I have no parents at all. So when I got here I just ended up on the street, you know. I was homeless. I used to sleep under the bridge, go to the corner, and look for work."

Almost immediately, seeing the situations that undocumented workers faced every day, Francisco realized there was a problem. At the time, there were few organizations involved with helping day laborers. Francisco began convincing other undocumented workers of the need to organize, eventually helping to build centers for day laborers across the country.

Centers such as VOZ offer work placement, education, support and other services for migrant laborers. In Portland, VOZ received a city grant to open the Martin Luther King Jr. Workers Center, which came to fruition in 2008.

To date, VOZ has helped organize workers in order to reclaim over $300,000 in unpaid wages. They help empower immigrant workers around principles of organizing and leadership, providing educational workshops informing them of their legal rights, as well as community classes in English, music and art.

Ultimately, Francisco does not believe that day laborer centers such as VOZ are a final solution to the problems that undocumented workers face, and that communities must continue to organize around the issue of immigration reform.

ON OCTOBER 22, Francisco had an appointment at Portland's U.S. Customs and Immigration office to obtain fingerprints for his visa process. The appointment was cancelled at the last minute by authorities with no explanation. Still, over 100 people, including local activists and news reporters, came to rally in the freezing rain outside the office, presenting a letter to officials demanding an explanation, and that Francisco be allowed to continue with his visa process unimpeded.

During his time in asylum, support rallies had been held across the country, coordinated by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. A rally at Augustana had drawn hundreds of people in solidarity, including members of the local city council.

Churches have been offering sanctuary to people facing oppression and intimidation for centuries. It has become a tradition for authorities to respect those who seek asylum, and ICE agents usually refrain from entering and arresting people in such "sensitive" situations. Today, many churches across the country count themselves as places of sanctuary.

Augustana began offering sanctuary to immigrants and others shortly after the church opened in the mid-1990s--it is currently one of several churches in Portland that does so. Pastor Mark Knutson has stood by Francisco, and believes that the faith community should take an active role in struggles for social justice.

In September, after receiving asylum at Augustana, Francisco's story had been picked up by The Oregonian and later the Associated Press, making the rounds of several national news organizations. A media narrative began to emerge which focused heavily on ICE's allegations that Francisco was a "criminal alien."

These initial stories put a great deal of emphasis on Francisco's two police encounters, while glossing over or leaving out completely details about his past and his activism, which have an important bearing on his situation.

An October 1 commentary in right-wing news site Breitbart gives a libelous portrayal of Francisco that fits with the ICE narrative. The story cites Francisco's "multiple and ongoing run-ins with the law," referring to him as a "criminal alien" and attempting to discredit his personality and his community activism.

The language used in this story implies that Francisco has engaged in criminal acts beyond his two disconnected legal encounters. In fact, no evidence has ever existed to support the allegation that Francisco has engaged in any criminal activity in the past fourteen years. Likewise, no evidence exists implying that the 1998 encounter was anything but an isolated incident.

FRANCISCO'S CURRENT ordeal with ICE is just the tip of a much larger and more complex iceberg. When asked what originally prompted him to come to the U.S., Francisco responded frankly: his life was in danger.

"Many Salvadorans are getting killed when they go back to El Salvador," Francisco said. "Once they [ex-military soldiers and officers] know you are in the country, they just hunt you, because a lot of them are part of the gangs now."

In the 1980s, when Francisco was a child, El Salvador was in the midst of a civil war between an oppressive U.S.-backed military government and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN, a coalition of progressive groups, activists, and left-wing political parties named after historical Salvadoran peasant leader Farabundo Martí.

The decade-long war saw the massacre of entire villages by the Salvadoran Army and a connected network of death squads, as well as state violence against El Salvador's Catholic clergy and foreign humanitarian workers.

The Salvadoran government received continuous financial and military support from the Carter and Reagan administrations, and many of the members of the army and the death squads, such as death-squad leader and right-wing ARENA party founder Roberto D'Aubuisson (nicknamed "Blowtorch Bob" for his favored method of torture), had received military training from the U.S.

The conflict received poor and misleading coverage from mainstream U.S. media at the time, which often relegated its atrocities to back-page stories and failed to report on the increasing amount of evidence linking the majority of the violence to the U.S.-backed Salvadoran regime. Eventually, the truth regarding state oppression and the role of the U.S. would be uncovered and vindicated by the work of human rights groups, journalists and an independent UN "truth" commission.

While the war may be over, El Salvador, like many of the countries in Latin America that experienced similar U.S.-sponsored wars, has emerged from the conflict as a country plagued by profound instability and gang violence, with widespread corruption among authorities and police forces.

ONE SUNDAY in 1995, three years after the peace deal had been officially signed and fighting was supposed to have stopped, Salvadoran police began looking for Francisco. With the help of a few security guards, he took refuge in a factory and posed as a worker. But he soon realized that his life was in danger and that he could not stay in El Salvador.

While a peace deal had been officially signed in 1992, Francisco says that the situation remained dangerous for years thereafter, with many soldiers and former death squad members continuing to threaten and intimidate people, and many of them becoming members of a new wave of violent criminal gangs.

Coming to the U.S. was not part of Francisco's original plan. "I jumped to Guatemala and then my plan was to stay in Mexico," he said, "but in Mexico, I was getting molested by the authorities all the time. So I decided to just keep going, and I crossed the border and got here [the U.S.]."

Forced to leave his country on short notice after threats of violence, Francisco's history is one that is shared by many of the undocumented immigrants who continue to enter the U.S. today. In the past year, over 60,000 refugees, most of them children from Central America, were caught crossing the Texas border fleeing the violence that has torn their countries apart.

These migrants face murder and harassment from gang-linked human traffickers on their journey north, and are often lured by promises that they will be welcomed with asylum once in the U.S. Some are abandoned by the gangs en-route after being extorted to pay large fees. Many do not make it to the border alive.

Inaction by the U.S. government on the issue of immigration reform has meant that many, including activists and churches such as Augustana that count themselves as places of sanctuary, have taken the fights for justice and reform into their own hands.

With the Republican sweep in the November midterm elections, it is unlikely that congressional progress on the immigration issue will occur while President Obama remains in office.

Initially vowing that he would act on his own authority to provide justice for immigrants, Obama has postponed the issue, and it remains unclear whether he will act independently, as promised, in the face of threats from Republicans such as House Majority Leader John Boehner.

While it has been acknowledged for years that immigration reform is an important issue, it continues to be officially delayed as neither party has mustered the initiative to act. There have been some 2 million deportations during Obama's time in office alone, and as many as 1,000 people continue to be deported daily. Like Francisco, these deported individuals often leave behind families in the U.S., including children who are U.S. citizens.

Cases such as Francisco's are proof that direct action can help immigrants and their families in the here and now. Those who support immigration justice cannot wait for Obama or other Democrats to act on the issue. Immediate direct action and strong community support is necessary to force progress and debate on an issue that affects millions of families and continues to present a humanitarian crisis.

Unlike Francisco, most of the immigrants who face deportation are not fortunate enough to have strong community support or to have their stories covered in the mainstream media.

Once in the country, immigrants are often accused of taking jobs that might otherwise be offered to U.S. citizens, despite the fact that thousands of jobs have been exported from the Global South as a direct result of free trade agreements such as NAFTA and CAFTA, which receive bipartisan support in the U.S. government and have been a high priority for both Democratic and Republican presidents and congressmen.

Ironically, public outcry over these "outsourced" jobs continues to be invoked by politicians of both parties as they attempt to stoke support for their candidacies. Despite this, the newly elected Republican Congress has placed a new free trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) at the top of its new years' agenda.

Meanwhile many large industries within the U.S., primarily agriculture, are dependent on, and continue to profit from, the cheap and easily exploited labor of the undocumented immigrants who cross America's borders.

Ultimately, U.S. policies have helped to engender conditions of violence, instability and corruption south of the border; the very things which refugees from Latin America are attempting to escape. Deportation and criminalization merely exacerbate an already dire humanitarian crisis without addressing the history and the material conditions that have given rise to the problem of undocumented immigration in the first place.

Though the obstacles to reform may still seem intimidating, cases like Francisco's have shown that communities and activists have the power to take real, immediate action to help immigrants and their families. Those who enjoy the benefits of citizenship must stand up in solidarity with those who do not--only then can we smash all artificial walls and borders, monuments to the racism, exploitation and oppression that divide and damage us all.

Jaime Partridge and Chris Zimmerly-Beck contributed to this article.

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