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Interview: Waging the Fight for Migrant Justice From Under a Border Patrol Truck

Raul Ochoa tells Truthout why he threw himself under a Border Patrol truck to stop an arrest.

Protesters rally in front of Tucson Police Department headquarters on Monday, February 18. (Photo: Murphy Joseph Woodhouse)

As with many deportations, René Meza Huerta’s started with a traffic stop. The Tucson Police Department (TPD) had received a call about a suspected kidnapping of six children from a man who saw Huerta’s and his girlfriend’s children getting into the hatchback of their newly purchased 99 Mercury Cougar. TPD was searching for the car when they pulled Huerta over in the early afternoon of Sunday, February 17. After determining that no kidnapping had taken place, TPD officers asked Huerta for his driver’s license, a document he did not have. Deciding that they had probable cause to suspect Huerta was in the country without proper documentation, TPD called the Border Patrol (BP), which came to detain him.

This is a scene that plays out constantly in communities within 100 air miles of the US-Mexico border, the so-called “constitution-free zone” where BP has expansive powers of search and seizure. In Arizona, this is compounded by Senate Bill 1070 (also called SB 1070), the state’s infamous 2010 “show me your papers” law that was partially upheld by the US Supreme Court in June of 2011. Section 2(b) of the law, which was not struck down, requires all state law enforcement officers, “when practicable, to determine the immigration status of the person, except if the determination may hinder or obstruct an investigation,” when “reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien and is unlawfully present in the United States.”

There’s a lot about Huerta’s deportation that makes it totally unexceptional, most importantly that it resulted in the separation of yet another parent from his children. What sets it apart is that somebody tried to stop it: Raúl Alcaraz Ochoa, a day labor organizer with the Southside Worker Center and member of the migrant justice group Corazón de Tucson.

Eleazar Castellanos, an undocumented day laborer affiliated with Tucson's Southside Worker Center, leads the crowd in chants of solidarity. (Photo: Murphy Joseph Woodhouse)Eleazar Castellanos, an undocumented day laborer affiliated with Tucson’s Southside Worker Center, leads the crowd in chants of solidarity. (Photo: Murphy Joseph Woodhouse)

Ochoa’s decision to place himself under a BP truck to prevent the detention and likely deportation of Huerta was a bold act of civil disobedience and a tremendous personal risk. Ochoa, who was born in Mexico, is a legal permanent resident, meaning that he is subject to deportation if convicted of certain crimes. Ochoa’s and Huerta’s arrests sparked a 300-strong protest in front of TPD’s headquarters the next day, little more than 12 hours after the previous afternoon’s events. Attendees demanded the immediate release without charges of both men, an end to TPD/BP collaboration and a halt to all deportations.

Truthout interviews Raúl Ochoa below. The interview is followed by a video of René Huerta’s account of his arrest, incarceration, “trial” and deportation. The two men discuss the events of that February afternoon and, more broadly, their thoughts on what contemporary immigration enforcement means for undocumented communities and the role civil disobedience should play in the ongoing struggle for migrant justice.

Raúl Alcaraz Ochoa, whose attempt to intervene in the arrest of René Meza Huerta helped spark today's rally, tells the crowd that Raúl Alcaraz Ochoa, whose attempt to intervene in the arrest of René Meza Huerta helped spark today’s rally, tells the crowd that “immigration reform is either just for absolutely everyone, or it’s not immigration reform.” (Photo: Murphy Joseph Woodhouse)

Murphy Joseph Woodhouse for Truthout: Could you give me a brief account of what happened and what you did the afternoon of Sunday, February 17?

Raúl Alcaraz Ochoa: I was biking from my home to a community meeting. About a block east of there, just as I was about to arrive at the meeting, I saw three Tucson Police Department vehicles that had pulled over a car to my left on a corner one street over. I walked my bike to the scene, and I saw that there was a man who was handcuffed and in the custody of the police officers. I approached the car and there were six kids inside, six children. They were scared; they were startled; they were crying. I approached René’s partner and she was crying and she really didn’t know what to do. She explained to me what had happened. She said that they got pulled over by the police and that [the police] had called the Border Patrol.

When she told me this, I took out my notebook and I started writing everything down: the time, the officers’ names, the patrol car numbers, just as much information as I could. An officer approached me; he was a sergeant. He asked me if I needed help. I immediately asked him, “Why did you call Border Patrol on this family?”

When I asked that, he said, “My officers are obligated and required to call Border Patrol because of SB 1070.” I responded to that, “You actually have discretion even within 1070. You only need call Border Patrol when practicable and if it’s not going to hinder another investigation.” And then he told me that they had received a call that René had abducted children and that’s why they had stopped him.

“So you mean to tell me that these children in the middle of the street crying for their father because you have him handcuffed – are you telling me that these children were abducted by him?” And then he said: “Well, no no no no. We determined, after the investigation, that that was not the case, that he was not abducting the children.”

Raul Alcaraz Ochoa hugs René Meza's sister-in-law Lizbeth Hernandez, who spoke about what happened to her brother-and-law and his family. (Photo: Murphy Joseph Woodhouse)Raul Alcaraz Ochoa hugs René Meza’s sister-in-law Lizbeth Hernandez, who spoke about what happened to her brother-and-law and his family. (Photo: Murphy Joseph Woodhouse)

“So why is he still handcuffed?” I asked. “Why is he under your custody?” That’s when he said that they had reasonable suspicion to believe that he was undocumented. Then I asked him to define what reasonable suspicion was and why René was reasonably suspicious. He refused to answer and threatened to have me arrested if I didn’t leave. I told him I wasn’t going to move because I was on a public sidewalk within a reasonable distance and I wasn’t interfering with any of his duties. Then the Border Patrol came onto the scene. It was one vehicle and one agent. Once the Border Patrol parked, I immediately thought “I’m going to get under the vehicle. I’m going to try to impede as much as possible them taking away this father away from his crying children.”

Once I got closer to the Border Patrol vehicle and I saw that the agent was walking toward the vehicle with René handcuffed, I immediately rushed in front of the vehicle and lay down on the ground and crawled underneath the vehicle. As soon as I did, the officers rushed up to the vehicle and screamed, “What the hell are you doing?” And then one of them grabbed me by the arm and then he let go like he was really confused and surprised. They didn’t know how to respond. When he let go of me, that’s when I crawled deeper underneath the car. The Border Patrol agents were taking pictures of me and I was taking pictures back. I was calling people, sending messages and telling people to come. Then the Border Patrol agent came up to me and said if I didn’t leave the area, if I didn’t get out from underneath the vehicle, then I would get felony charges for impeding the work of a federal agent. They threatened to pepper-spray and Taser me. Eventually they pepper-sprayed me to get me out, and then they dragged me on the concrete floor until we were in an area where they could handcuff me and take me away to the Border Patrol station. That’s where René and I were taken.

Why did you feel compelled to intervene?

I work with day laborers, with domestic workers, with mothers and fathers, and youth. On a regular basis I receive calls from people, friends, colleagues, coworkers, who tell me they have been stopped by the police and that they may potentially call Border Patrol. Sometimes I don’t even know that this happens until I get a call from somebody in detention who has been incarcerated. Police pull them over, stop them and then call Border Patrol. This happens on a regular basis. This is daily life in Tucson, Arizona, in one of the most militarized regions of the continent. I regularly hear about my community, my family members, my coworkers being taken, pulled over by police and then handed over to Border Patrol and disappeared from their communities: torn apart, family separation, community disruption taking place invisibly. I constantly deal with the effects of detentions and deportations and how they tear people and families apart. I have witnessed firsthand the effects of all of these injustices that take place.

After dealing with them from the time I was little and detained along with my parents when we were crossing over to the United States when I was young, all the way to my auntie getting her house raided by ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agents, to working here in Tucson, Arizona, amidst SB 1070, and working with families and day laborers and them constantly getting pulled over, harassed and incarcerated, I felt like enough is enough. We do everything that we can; we document when abuse happens; we take pictures; we show videos. But at this point, seeing René being handcuffed in front of his six children, and his six children crying their eyes out and screaming for their father to be given back to them, and then just thinking that these are children who are possibly not going to have their dad with them this evening at home, comforting them, I felt like I needed to do something that was more than just document what was going on. I felt like I needed to put my body on the line to interrupt this detention from taking place. That’s what I felt needed to be done at the moment. I needed to do everything in my power to be able to attempt to stop this injustice that takes place due to unjust immigration and state laws.

Lizbeth Hernandez, René's sister-in-law, addresses the crowd. (Photo: Murphy Joseph Woodhouse)Lizbeth Hernandez, René’s sister-in-law, addresses the crowd. (Photo: Murphy Joseph Woodhouse)

Have you been charged with felony obstruction?

Currently, my case is being reviewed by the US Attorney. So, it’s pending. I haven’t received word of anything as of yet.

In your view, what is the importance of direct action and civil disobedience in the context of the ongoing debate around immigration policy?

Currently, the only thing that can save us from the right-wing immigration reform debate is grassroots community organizing, direct action and civil disobedience. If there is no massive movement that resurfaces again, much like the DREAMers have done in the past and continue to do, if there isn’t a focus on strategizing around community organizing and direct action, then our movement is going to be hijacked and co-opted by the center-right tendencies of the big national Hispanic organizations that claim to represent us.

In the conversations around immigration reform, I believe it is key to demand a moratorium on deportation, ending detention and family separation, and a halt to the militarization of the US-Mexico border. To give voice to those demands, we are going to need to continue and escalate civil disobedience and direct action. In order to be able to amplify these messages and these demands that don’t have the mainstream appeal within the movement, I think we need to learn from the actions that the DREAMers have done, the UndocuBus, the civil disobedience that took place in North Carolina and along the journey to North Carolina, where undocumented people were speaking for themselves and making that sacrifice and taking that risk to come out of the shadows, undocumented and unafraid. That’s where the power lies.

It is up to people power, how much the people believe in their own power and act on that power to really create political pressure for an immigration reform that truly lives up to our visions of equity and liberation; an immigration reform that will be meaningful and that will include all of the 11 million people who are undocumented at the moment. Living under this deportation regime, I am not sure this can happen, but we must utilize all direct action tactics to make our undocumented dreams a reality.

Raul Alcaraz Ochoa, Lydia Lopez, Rene Meza's mother-in-law, and one of René Meza's six children. (Photo: Murphy Joseph Woodhouse)Raul Alcaraz Ochoa, Lydia Lopez, Rene Meza’s mother-in-law, and one of René Meza’s six children. (Photo: Murphy Joseph Woodhouse)

How is René’s case representative of how undocumented people and their families are forced to live by state law and national policies in a place like Southern Arizona?

Pre-SB-1070 Arizona is, in practice, not too different from post-SB-1070 Arizona, meaning that before SB 1070, local police departments were calling Border Patrol agents to take people away that they suspected were undocumented. Now that SB 1070 has become law and the US Supreme Court has upheld it, people, families and community members continue to be targeted at a higher level, now with the backing of state law and the court’s ruling. Now, local police departments in Arizona have been given the green light to continue using the practices that before were seen as unacceptable but were still taking place. Now that there’s a law that legalizes racial profiling, there’s been an increased amount of persecution and an increased amount of terror within our communities. Families I know have decided to no longer drive a vehicle because of the high risk of a police officer pulling them over and calling Border Patrol. I know families that don’t go out at night at all. I have met families that will take all the precautions available so that they will not come in direct contact with law enforcement. A lot of people, women that I have met who suffer from domestic violence, don’t call local police.

So, there are a lot of things that happen in our communities that go unreported because there is no trust with local law enforcement. In terms of work, I work with day laborers, so this environment of persecution, of being under surveillance, of racial profiling, of police brutality, has created an environment where employers don’t want to hire workers and be perceived as people who are hiring undocumented people. It has created a hostile environment that is anti-labor and that really targets and serves to exploit undocumented people as a source of cheap labor. It drives people even further into the underground, into the shadows, and that creates a more exploitable permanent underclass that capitalism needs to flourish.

So, on the one hand, this system says they want us deported, and at the same time, they benefit economically from undocumented labor that is exploitable. I think that René’s situation brings up so many issues with regard to the brown working-class community living and working in an economically and politically oppressive environment, society and political structure in Arizona and the rest of the country. René represents the people who will not qualify for immigration reform as it is currently being proposed. What is the United States going to do with the millions of people who are still not going to qualify for immigration reform if it is to pass as they are currently proposing? He is an example of the plight of millions of undocumented people who will still remain in the shadows despite the promises of legalization and pathways to citizenship.

His case also highlights the fact that there is only so much that we can do within the legal structures that we have, within the court systems that we have and within the immigration laws that we have. These laws are inherently unjust and no immigration reform is going to be able to overturn and dismantle this oppressive structure that will ultimately deport whomever it wants. René’s case highlights how we can demand as much as we want, but at the end of the day, there are laws that are unjust, and these laws need to be challenged and defied in order for our community to be able to have justice and live in political and economic equality within the system.

His case also highlights how local police departments are calling Border Patrol and arguing that they are enforcing SB 1070 and that their hands are tied because of the state law. That’s why, when this sergeant approached me and said that they are mandated to report René to Border Patrol, I challenged him on that. I believe that René’s case highlights how SB 1070 is being enforced. Local police departments, city councils and all governmental agencies are complicit and compliant to this unjust state law, a law that still leaves room for loopholes where officers don’t have to call Border Patrol on families if it is not “practicable” or if it “hinders the investigation” of an officer.

Protesters rally in front of Tucson Police Department headquarters on Monday, February 18. (Photo: Murphy Joseph Woodhouse)Protesters rally in front of Tucson Police Department headquarters on Monday, February 18. (Photo: Murphy Joseph Woodhouse)

How do you see movements for migrant justice fitting into broader struggles for social justice?

I think right now we are at a historic crossroads in the movement not just for migrant justice, but for human liberation. I think this is a pivotal moment for us to continue to demand that our dreams and our visions of a just world be fulfilled. This is the moment to be uncompromising; this is the moment to really feel free to demand and articulate the vision of the society in which we want to live. I believe right now it’s important to make all the connections of everything taking place in terms of family separation and persecution of undocumented people here, and the situation of innocent Iraqis or Palestinians being persecuted and bombed abroad. We need to see this in terms of the US military involvement and economic interventions in Latin America, Africa and Asia. We see migration as a global issue, as an international issue, as a universal issue because it is something that takes place all over the world.

What drives migration is elites and US/Western economic and military policies and decisions that are created to benefit the 1 percent at the expense of the 99 percent, as the Occupy movement would say. Right now we have a government that wants to deal with immigration with Band-Aid solutions that are not solutions. Instead, it should really look at the policies that it has at a global level that are driving and causing migration to the United States. I think that for us to continue fighting in this movement, to continue struggling for justice and migrant liberation, it is important to see this in the context of a global movement for human and life liberation.

In this video, René Meza Huerta describes the events of Sunday, February 17, their consequences and implications:

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