Deportation Is an Emergency. Here’s One Coalition’s Way of Fighting It.

Raids are violent. They are unpredictable, traumatic and can even be bloody. They rip families apart and spread trauma through whole communities.

Supporting immigrant communities impacted by deportation involves much more than the provision of legal resources. Though legal resources are essential in combating deportation, the range of needs is vast, requiring dedication, networking, and plenty of creativity from advocacy organizations.

I sat down with Margaret Harner and Maria Ibarra-Frayre, volunteer organizers and leaders at the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights (WICIR) — an organization based in Washtenaw County, Michigan, with which I also volunteer — to talk about the broader work of supporting communities facing the threat of deportation.

WICIR is a volunteer-led organization created to support undocumented immigrants facing possible detention and deportation during immigration-related emergencies. It monitors ICE activity to better document the long-lasting impact of immigration enforcement in Washtenaw County. It also seeks to educate allied communities and shape local governmental policies to empower and protect immigrant community members. Since its beginnings in 2008, WICIR has received over 875 calls from individuals asking for help. The organization has trained dozens of volunteers who function as “urgent responders” who assist immigrants in navigating the complicated and harsh immigration processes.

What is your experience with immigration raids?

WICIR was created in 2008 as a response to a violent raid that occurred in an Ypsilanti mobile home community [Ypsilanti is a city in Michigan]. The raid was violent and traumatic; there was blood, guns pointed at people’s faces, people thrown to the floor, and the inevitable trauma that follows losing a primary family member. From observing and documenting immigration enforcement, we’ve learned that raids generally occur in homes, places of employment, or traffic stops by Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Raids are often physically violent: They involve being thrown to the floor, unnecessary use of physical force and they utilize the element of surprise. Raids typically happen early morning, as people are getting ready for school or work.

Within the past year, immigration actions against immigrant communities in Washtenaw County have significantly increased, occurring weekly and sometimes daily. We are seeing an increase of “collateral damage” incidents – meaning that ICE goes into a location looking for a specific person (often without a warrant) and detains anyone in the area who is undocumented. We saw this happen last year at a restaurant in Ann Arbor, where ICE entered the kitchen looking for one individual and instead took three other men who were present.

The effects of a raid are devastating for the whole community. Many immigrant families only have a primary breadwinner, oftentimes a man; and when he is detained and deported, the whole family structure is destabilized. Parents are forced to choose between leaving their children in the United States or moving them to a different country that may not have the resources available in the US and is often dangerous.

What is the role of advocacy organizations in combating deportation?

WICIR has two main roles in advocating for families facing deportation. The first role is to help stop the deportation through the aid of immigration lawyers and helping the family understand what is happening with their immigration case. WICIR is completely volunteer-led, and although many of our volunteers have a deep understanding of immigration law, none of them are lawyers. Thus, we rely on pro bono resources through the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center and through trusted partnerships with private immigration attorneys. WICIR has a list of about 15 lawyers that have been carefully vetted and have agreed to work with WICIR.

We work creatively and exhaust every resource to help stop deportations, including utilizing the support of elected officials, running public campaigns, and letting the mass public know that deportations are violent and should be stopped.

The second advocacy role is to offer emotional, psychological and often financial support for families going through deportation. We see our role as relationship brokers: We try to connect families to the resources that are needed, and do it in a way that empowers but also facilitates access. Many families face cultural and language barriers. There is so much fear and uncertainty during a deportation fight that WICIR fights primarily to make sure the family knows that they are not alone. WICIR has connected families to food banks, provided transportation, translated and interpreted information, offered money for gas, rent and groceries (when funds are available), helped find physical and mental health resources, connected families to journalists and reporters so their story is heard, and helped fundraise for post-deportation needs.

In addition, WICIR tries to take proactive steps to prevent raids in the first place by doing frequent “Know Your Rights” trainings for those in the most risk and their allies, recently focusing on places of employment and schools. WICIR also helps prepare temporary guardianship documents for parents with minor children, should the parents ever be deported.

What would you tell those unfamiliar about raids?

Raids are violent. They are frequent, unpredictable, traumatic and tear families apart. There is nothing about a raid that makes sense, nothing that could ever be justified. Raids serve to keep our communities afraid and constantly on guard. They tear away parents from children, break apart marriages, harm our communities, and they must stop.

It’s frequently stated that advocacy movements are siloed. Do you see links between the work you do and that of other movements? Which?

Yes! WICIR’s work is inextricably connected to other movements that center the struggles of people of color, poor people, queer people, people with disabilities, women and youth. Immigration does not work in a vacuum, and for too long, immigration has been reduced to just a Latinx issue. WICIR supports anyone who is seeking help regardless of race, gender, nationality or background.

WICIR actively works to build alliances with organizations working for the liberation of all communities. We stand in solidarity with the Poor Peoples Campaign, Black Lives Matter, Congregational Sanctuary movement, Washtenaw Regional Organizing Coalition, TEAM (Teen Education & Advocacy Movement), ICPJ (Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice), Transforming Justice Washtenaw, and many local grassroots and faith-based organizations.