Immigrant Rights Activists in Chicago Join the National Fray, Part I

Immigrant Rights Activists in Chicago Join the National Fray, Part I

For Miguel Gutierrez, an American citizen whose parents came to the country from Mexico as undocumented minors and were legalized during the 1986 amnesty, a couple of hours in jail and a fine is a small price to pay for the bigger impact he hopes to have. “It’s the least I can do,” said Gutierrez of the civil disobedience action in which he participated Tuesday morning, meant to disrupt what advocates see as an increasingly unjust immigration system.

Along with other students, religious and labor leaders and immigration rights activists, Gutierrez took part in a vigil and all-night rally at the Broadview Detention Center in Broadview, Illinois, which culminated in an attempt to block a bus carrying deportees from the detention center to O’Hare International Airport. Activists delayed the bus for nearly two hours, with the episode ending in the arrest of some of the most prominent members of Chicago’s immigrant rights community.

The protest, which called for President Obama to issue an executive order to end all deportations, was part of a coordinated, nationwide chain of actions in the wake of the passage of what may be the most restrictive immigration bill in US history, signed into law in Arizona on Friday. The law will give police the right to stop anyone “if reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the US,” and calls on state residents to sue any police officer who is not doing his duty to enforce immigration law.

Young children attend the candlelight vigil outside Broadview Detention Center.

Young children attend the candlelight vigil outside Broadview Detention Center.

Gutierrez, a student at the University of Illinois in Chicago, said that because his undocumented friends and classmates “risk a life-changing move” when they protest, it is up to him and other people who have Social Security numbers to use tactics such as civil disobedience to escalate the fight against the continued deportations and now against the new law in Arizona.

Since the bill, SB 1070 or the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act,” was signed into law, students in Arizona have conducted walk-outs and chained themselves to the State Capitol in Phoenix. According to the Guardian, the state legislative Capital was also defaced with swastikas. A Democratic congressman from Arizona, Raul Grijalva, called for an economic boycott of the “unjust and racist legislation,” and was forced to close his office over the weekend following the receipt of two death threats.

Immigrant rights activists dance to cumbia music during the all-night rally.

Immigrant rights activists dance to cumbia music during the all-night rally.

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera was among other legislators calling for a boycott of nine businesses from Arizona. He urged city departments to look at contracts held with the State of Arizona that could be canceled, calling for a boycott of Arizona’s companies following the introduction of the bill.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association announced Friday that it would be moving its fall conference, originally scheduled to take place in Arizona, to another state. “We cannot in good conscience spend association dollars in a state that dehumanizes the people we represent and fight for,” said AILA’s association president Bernie Wolfsdorf.

An undocumented immigrant is taken inside the Broadview Detention Center.

An undocumented immigrant is taken inside the Broadview Detention Center.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, an African-American civil rights activist, called up the spirit of the 1960’s civil rights movement to fight the law, which advocates say will essentially legalize racial profiling. Sharpton said he planned to organize “freedom walkers” to Arizona when the bill goes into effect, as he helped organize “freedom riders” to board segregated buses in the 1960’s.

The sports editor of the Nation, Dave Zirin, announced he would no longer write about Arizona’s baseball team, the Diamondbacks. “For me, they do not exist. They will continue to not exist in my mind as long as the horribly named ‘Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act’ remains law in Arizona,” he wrote.

Arizona is also facing a possible lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union and Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, along with a potential injunction by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund to keep SB 1070 from going into effect.

Protesters begin their civil disobedience action, and promise more of the same if the April 30th deadline to end enforcement is not met.

Protesters begin their civil disobedience action, and promise more of the same if the April 30th deadline to end enforcement is not met.

The law also made news on the international stage, prompting a condemnationfrom Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who said that Mexican-American relations would be seriously affected as a result of the new law which “opens the door to intolerance, hate, discrimination and abuse in law enforcement.”

The government of the Mexican state of Sonora, just across the border from Arizona, broke its forty-year tradition of attending an annual co-operation meeting with Arizona, and the head of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, also condemned the bill, saying it was especially discriminatory against Latin American immigrants.

The protesters seen from the white truck carrying undocumented immigrants to be deported.

The protesters seen from the white truck carrying undocumented immigrants to be deported.

John Gibler, a Global Exchange Media Fellow who reports from Mexico, said that by focusing on the racial dimension of the Arizona bill, Calderon was ignoring the “socially destructive trade policies” like the North American Free Trade Agreement. The Calderon administration’s reluctance to address bi-national trade policy, Gibler said, shows once again that the two nations’ governments “are deep allies and they share basically the same trade policies … so there is no fundamental political discord about the roots of labor discord” which pushes immigrants to seek work north of the border – and then criminalizes them for it.

The Broadview police approach the protesters.

The Broadview police approach the protesters.

Despite the hypocrisy inherent in Calderon’s response to the Arizona bill, Gibler is heartened to see activists within the United States building on the “energy of outrage against the “huge, draconian racist movement in United States policy.”

Chicago plans to hold another civil disobedience at Broadview detention center, to take place later this week, as well as a picket planned against the Arizona Diamondbacks, who will play Chicago’s Cubs baseball team Thursday. During Monday night’s candlelight vigil at Broadview, the events in Arizona were not far from anyone’s mind. It included a call-in from activists in Arizona who were staging a 24-hour sit-in at the State Capitol, as well as chants of “Shame on Arizona.”

A labor leader waits in a police car after being arrested during the peaceful demonstration, holding a sign calling to stop the raids.

A labor leader waits in a police car after being arrested during the peaceful demonstration, holding a sign calling to stop the raids.

Among pleas for a policy of non-compliance with the strictures of the new law from all clergy, Rabbi Bruce Elder from the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs called out “the hypocrisy of a nation that prides itself on family values, but that does not value families” that are broken by immigration policies such as deportation.

“You have had a number of people stand up here and say shame on Arizona, no, no, I’m not here to say shame on Arizona,” Elder said. “I’m here to say shame on America that lets an Arizona happen.”

Protesters not participating in the civil disobedience cheered from the sidelines.

Protesters not participating in the civil disobedience cheered from the sidelines.

Following the vigil, the crowd of more than 150 people dwindled to about 50 who planned to carry on an all-night rally at the detention center. Much of the group spent the night wrapped in blankets in tents and lawn chairs, while others danced to cumbia music under a generator-powered light. The mood changed around 2 a.m., when the first of five white vans drove up and parked in front of the detention center. Each van was estimated to hold about ten to fifteen people, who during the deportation process are chained by their hands, feet and waists.

As the vans continued to arrive at the center, where people would be processed before being deported to their countries of origin, the activists called out messages of solidarity in Spanish and marched in front of the vans, shouting “No more deportations, we are an immigrant nation!”

Joshua Hoyt, director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, was among the 23 other people who sat and linked arms in a peaceful protest to block a bus carrying deportees out of the center to the airport in the morning, as a group of more than two hundred protesters stood on the sidelines, chanting “Show me what democracy looks like – this is what democracy looks like.”

“It is immoral to destroy 100,000 families per day while politicians are paralyzed,” said Hoyt, before being handcuffed and escorted to a waiting police car by an officer. He called on Obama to bring about immigration reform, saying that Americans can no longer tolerate what has become “a racial reign of terror.”