How activists are confronting ICE’s terror

April 24, 2017

Christopher Baum and Alan Maass report on initiatives by immigrant rights and social justice organizations to stand up to Trump and the deportation machinery.

FEAR IS flooding through communities around the country as the Trump administration escalates its war on immigrants. But so is anger--at politicians who are willing to tear families apart and immigrant authorities who victimize some of the most vulnerable people in society.

From the opening days of his presidency, Trump served notice that he would intensify the policies that have scapegoated and terrorized the undocumented under Republican and Democratic presidents alike.

There's been no let-up since. April brought news of the first deportation of a youth protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program implemented by Barack Obama. Juan Manuel Montes, a 23-year-old who has lived in the U.S. since age 9, was abducted in Calexico, California, and transported to Mexico, even though he has DACA status.

Trump's persecutor-in-chief, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, took the opportunity of a reporter's question to claim that young people protected by DACA aren't being targeted by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE)--but then issued a bald threat against all the undocumented: "Everybody in the country illegally is subject to being deported."

Protesters take to the streets to protest deportations in Minneapolis
Protesters take to the streets to protest deportations in Minneapolis (Fibonacci Blue | flickr)

Days later, Sessions' Justice Department issued a letter to Chicago threatening to revoke a $2.3 million federal grant if the city didn't abandon its promise to protect the undocumented as a "sanctuary" city. The statement included the sickening lie that undocumented immigrants are responsible for Chicago's "skyrocketing" murder rate.

BUT IN Chicago and other cities around the country, immigrant rights organizations and all those committed to social justice are working to develop ways to confront the Trump attack and defend people who come in its crosshairs.

There is profound fear as ICE goes to war--but also a determination to establish community defense networks, educate people about their rights, pressure local officials to stand by their sanctuary promises, and mobilize large numbers in support, solidarity, and protest.

In an interview with, Voces de la Frontera co-founder and Executive Director Christine Neumann-Ortiz outlined her organization's efforts in this direction in Wisconsin, giving an overview of the kinds of actions many communities are taking:

The general strategy centers on locally based organizing with a focus on sanctuary policies, whether in schools or in local government, and rapid-response, anti-deportation work.

We're doing a lot of training about what people need to have in place when a deportation happens, but not just for a situation like that. Temporary custody rights for minor children, the financial forms and power of attorney are all part of know-your-rights materials so that people don't sign away their rights.

We're setting up a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week hotline, and we've been asking folks to volunteer to be part of a local rapid response [network], so that if we get a call about something, we can send people out to verify that it's real and connect up with the families--so that we can lift up those cases and aggressively resist the kind of mass deportation program that Trump is trying to set up.

Another part of our organizing has been getting religious institutions to agree to provide physical sanctuary. That's something we've been engaging with churches on for many years.

The anti-Trump resistance needs to learn about the experiences of Voces and other organizations to better confront the ICE war on immigrants.

THE INTENSIFICATION of the war on immigrants is truly frightening.

According to the Washington Post, between January 20 and March 13 of this year, "Immigration arrests rose 32.6 percent in the first weeks of the Trump administration [compared to the same period in 2016], with newly empowered federal agents intensifying their pursuit of not just undocumented immigrants with criminal records, but also thousands of illegal immigrants who have been otherwise law-abiding."

The targeting of "otherwise law-abiding" undocumented immigrants is by no means a new development under Trump. But according to the Post, the number of immigrants arrested without any criminal record has "more than doubled" compared to 2016, so clearly Trump has made a bad situation much worse.

The increase in immigration detainers--nonbinding requests from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to local law enforcement, asking them to keep arrested immigrants in custody beyond their normal release date in order to give ICE agents a chance to get hold of them--is also striking.

The Post found "a 75 percent jump from the year before," although noting that many of these detainers "were issued in areas that do not necessarily comply with ICE requests." Nonetheless, the drastic increase in detainers shows that ICE is eager to take full advantage of Trump unleashing federal authorities.

While the number of immigration arrests has gone up sharply compared to 2016, the number of deportations is actually slightly lower--so far. There are various reasons why this might be so, but in any case, the Post reported that "the number of non-criminals deported is higher this year."

The numbers only tell part of the story, of course. ICE has never been renowned for its humaneness, but under the Trump administration, the agency seems determined to set ever-higher standards for cruelty.

Take, for instance, the story of Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, an Arizona mother of two who had been convicted in 2008 of using a fake Social Security number to obtain employment, but had been allowed to remain in the country since, provided she checked in annually with ICE to have her case re-evaluated.

At her annual check-in in February, Garcia de Rayos was arrested and deported--for no other reason than that she had this one nonviolent felony on her record.

Or there's the case of the woman who was arrested by ICE agents at a courthouse in El Paso, Texas, where she had gone to seek a protective order against her abusive partner. has reported extensively on these and other incidents and on the role they play in the Trump administration's overall immigration strategy.

It should be clear that the administration is eager not merely to expand the scope of ICE's activity, but to do so in a way that maximizes fear and uncertainty among immigrants in every community. The objective is to create the impression that no undocumented immigrant is ever safe.

IT HAS been suggested--for instance, in a Guardian article published on April 3--that immigrant rights activists may be inadvertently helping Trump to achieve this goal by stoking fear and uncertainty.

While it is true that a poorly thought-out plan of action could raise false alarms and sow confusion, no one should lose sight of the fact that we are facing a genuine emergency. Pretending otherwise in the name of avoiding panic is no solution at all.

Instead, immigrants and their supporters need to respond to the heightened and very real threats from ICE and the federal government with concrete initiatives and community defense networks.

In many cities, such responses are already underway, but everywhere, we need to organize to extend their reach and effectiveness.

Know Your Rights
One of the first steps being taken in many communities is to help vulnerable members to know their rights if confronted by police or ICE; know how and where to seek legal assistance; and make family preparedness plans if different members are detained or deported.

Several advocacy organizations have prepared materials that can be used in community campaigns. Look online for the Immigration Defense Project, which offers a variety of documents, including know-your-rights posters and flyers in more than a dozen languages; and the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC), which also has know-your-rights materials and very useful guides for schools and for family preparedness plans in English, Spanish, and Chinese.

The ILRC makes an important point that all activists should recognize in its "Guidance for Schools":

Undocumented immigrants may be hesitant or fearful to come to a public event intended only for immigrants without legal status. Therefore, make sure the event is welcoming to all families who are interested in immigration updates. U.S. citizen families may attend to educate themselves and pass on information to their immigrant friends and neighbors.

Accompaniment Programs
One tactic increasingly favored by ICE under the Trump administration--as we know from the case of Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos--is to apprehend the undocumented when they show up at ICE facilities for mandated check-ins.

A tool to combat this tactic is to organize community members to accompany immigrants to their check-ins. In addition to showing solidarity, such efforts may reduce the likelihood of detention. If nothing else, they can ensure that individuals who are apprehended don't simply disappear without a trace.

One recent success story--and a reminder of the powerful effect that a strong and vocal public presence can have on ICE's behavior--involves New York City activist and undocumented Trinidadian immigrant Ravi Ragbir.

Since 2011, when an order for his deportation was stayed, Ragbir has been required to check in annually with ICE to learn whether the stay will be extended. Before his check-in in March, concerns grew Ragbir might be detained and deported--not least because of his role as an organizer for the New Sanctuary Coalition of NYC.

Hundreds of people, including several city council members and at least one state senator, came together to accompany Ragbir to his appointment at the Javits Federal Building in Lower Manhattan and hold a rally nearby.

Despite initial indications--such as the unprecedented barring of his wife and ministers from the hearing--that this would be a more hostile proceeding, Ragbir emerged with a new check-in date. Initially, the reprieve seemed brief, but Ragbir was later informed that his next check-in date won't be until 2018.

It isn't difficult to imagine a very different outcome if Ragbir's supporters hadn't turned out in force to send a message to ICE that they are watching.

Solidarity Demonstrations
Accompaniment actions often provide opportunities for larger demonstrations as well.

These mobilizations are important not only in showing solidary with immigrants and demanding the release of detainees, but in pressuring local authorities to declare sanctuaries for the undocumented and adopt other pro-immigrant policies, and to protest the collusion between ICE and local law enforcement.

The effectiveness of protest in the struggle against Trump's immigration policies was made clear in the first weeks of his presidency when the unprecedented mobilizations to airports to challenge Trump's Muslim travel ban put pressure on the courts to block it.

There have been effective local actions since. In Portland, Oregon, in March, for instance, on March 26, ICE agents, acting without a warrant, apprehended DACA participant Francisco Rodriguez Dominguez from his own home and threw him in a detention center.

By the following afternoon, thanks largely to an e-mail campaign, local organizers had gathered several hundred people for a rally to protest the detention. Rodriguez was released on bond later that evening.

Sanctuary Spaces
The concept of sanctuary is traditionally associated with churches, and groups such as the New Sanctuary Movement are working to reinforce and build on this history to create safe spaces for vulnerable community members.

But sanctuary doesn't need to be limited to houses of worship. In some communities, efforts are under way to encourage people to make their private homes available as sanctuary spaces.

For instance, soon after Trump's inauguration, an organization in San Diego called Mi Casa es Su Casa reportedly attempted to establish such a program. It isn't clear yet how successful the effort has been, but this suggests another possible avenue for community defense.

There is also a growing movement at universities across the country to establish sanctuary campuses.

One of the leading examples of such an effort is Rutgers University in New Jersey, where students, faculty and staff have long defended the rights of undocumented students. In 2013, for instance, activists led by then-Rutgers undergraduate and DACA participant Giancarlo Tello successfully lobbied for the passage of a bill making undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition.

In the wake of Trump's election in November 2016, a coalition of Rutgers students, faculty and community members, along with labor and immigration advocates such as New Labor and Movimiento Cosecha, petitioned the university's administration to declare Rutgers a "sanctuary campus," protect the identities of undocumented students and bar ICE agents from campus.

Rutgers President Rob Barchi has so far refused to use the word "sanctuary," instead referring to the university as a "safe haven for immigrants." Nonetheless, his administration has responded to the pressure by articulating, in much clearer detail than it had before, concrete policies on protecting the rights of vulnerable students.

Activists continue to urge Barchi to do more and explicitly declare Rutgers a sanctuary campus, but the gains already achieved are a testament to the effectiveness of mobilization in support of immigrants on college campuses.

To help guide students wishing to organize or strengthen sanctuary movements on their campuses, the student-led Immigration Response Initiative at Harvard Law School, along with Movimiento Cosecha and the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical program, has created a useful Sanctuary Campus Toolkit.

Community Responders
One of the more ambitious but effective initiatives is a community-wide "rapid response network" to be called into action when ICE carries out a raid or other action. One such network has been established in the Bay Area by the San Francisco Immigrant Legal and Education Network.

The aim is to gather a large enough pool of community members that responders are available at short notice at any time, day or night.

Tasks for a city- or region-wide network include: verifying reports of raids; summoning legal aid; observing and recording ICE activities to ensure that agents know their actions are being documented; showing solidarity with ICE targets and defending them if possible; and trying to ensure that the civil rights of targets and detainees aren't violated.

In cases where community members are apprehended, responders can follow to see where the detainees are taken, so their families can be notified and legal aid can find them more quickly. Other networks have set themselves the task of trying to ensure that family members left behind are properly cared for and taken to a sanctuary space.

A lot of organizing needs to go into the rapid response networks, but activists say demonstrations and political forums are a place to enlist support.

Bridget Broderick, a member of the International Socialist Organization in Chicago and part of the city's May Day Organizing Coalition, points out that May Day offers an important opportunity to initiate community response networks.

"One thing that the May Day Coalition formation in Chicago has been discussing and beginning to organize is a rapid response network for May 2, in defense of workers and students and any community members who may face reprisals for going out on strike, taking the day off work or not going to school," Broderick said, explaining that the coalition considered the possibility of "flying pickets" that can be deployed as needed within the community.

"It's not just the work on May Day that's important," she added. "It's really what that can generate in terms of people becoming active."

THE ORGANIZING work that will be needed to build and maintain these initiatives is ongoing, and there are other ideas for efforts, including 24-hour hotlines to report ICE actions or provide legal advice and text message and/or e-mail alerts warning of police or ICE actions.

Communities in some cities and regions have been able to build on existing organizations, such as Voces de la Frontera, Movimiento Cosecha or Make the Road New York. But there are also groups coming together for the first time to take steps to build community defense. The urgent need is giving rise to action.

As Broderick says, "People should sign up, organize in their neighborhood, do what they can. That's what it's going to take to take on Trump."

Danny Katch, Alan Maass and Eric Ruder contributed to this article.

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