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On Direct Action and Trump’s Immigration Agenda

We should focus on three types of direct action tactics: sustained action, spectacle and disruption.

Immigrant rights organizations Juntos and Mijente host a small rally outside City Hall followed by a march past Arch Street United Methodist Church on March 2, 2017, in Center City, Philadelphia.

We are nearing the tail end of the latest round of reports of (and subsequent righteous uproar at) the ongoing crisis at the U.S./Mexico border and all things immigration. At different points over the last several weeks, folks have wondered aloud online about where was the immigrant rights movement? What could be done?

Speaking for myself, it’s been difficult to produce a convenient answer (or even an inconvenient one that will work). I have felt pena ajena when I see that the only action step for people is to donate or call some number. I have done my best to not let cynicism catch hold of me, and remain committed to the possibility for new ideas. But I also honor what feels true for many who organize to fight deportations all the time: that this is neither the beginning or the end of this gruesome fight.

Last year at this time many groups, Mijente included, organized marches and protests across the country in response to the “zero tolerance” policy, increased criminalization and the overall policy of cruelty toward migrants by the federal government. It was exhausting, it was effective and ultimately it wasn’t enough.

Trump announced via tweet that the zero tolerance policy was going to be shelved. A judge decreed. A new crisis or scandal emerged and the credits rolled on that episode of the Trump Administration Reality Show. These episodes garner the rage of millions, and they are only the tip of the iceberg. The reality for people impacted by these issues (and those who work every day to change the situation) is that the episode didn’t end, the cameras just moved on.

This is clear given that we’re seeing a new round of similar stories headline the news a year later. These moments pull and push you in different directions. Because it’s not only the issue of trying to figure out what will alleviate the crisis at the border, it’s that plus raids, worsening detention conditions, the expansion of surveillance, the threat to basic forms of relief like Temporary Protected Status or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. At Mijente, we’ve tried our best to hold steady while feeling the push and pull. We have tried to center our work on what action can produce the most good, we’ve tried to focus on impact. As an organization that is made up of Latinx people, many of whom are immigrant, who are Central American, and who live in border states; we are by no means immune to the horror. We also see what happens right in our very own neighborhoods and families. We owe our people and movement a clear eyed organizing play (or set of plays) that consider impact and are not solely about creating space for people to feel satisfied they did something. We owe at least that much to all the people who have a boot on their neck right now.

This is not meant as a discouragement of allies taking action/making plays that feel within reach. By all means, go for it! What this is meant to communicate is that those who have a sense of how this deportation machine works can provide guidance on what types of things could actually be impactful in this time.

And that, in these times, is very complicated. Here are some thoughts.

Taking a step back to address the big picture strategy of this time, I orient around three core strategies: reduce harm (stop deportation cases, get people out of detention even if its one person at a time), throw a wrench into the machine (target companies or groups that enable detention and deportation) and win at the ballot box (mobilizing the vote to elect people dedicated to real and bold change). In all of this we also have to hold the following orientation: roll with the punches — be ready to respond to, or take opportunities, as they come.

We should know by now strongly worded statements don’t go far with the Trump administration. Our tactics need to reflect the reality of the moment, specifically, we need to shift from and/or revise the tactics that were effective during the Obama administration. During that time tactics that exposed injustices or incongruences created dilemmas for decision makers. Now, they are content for Trump’s re-election pitch. He wants to reflect a tough, “break-the-rules-if-I-have-to” optic to his base because he pledged to take bold action on immigration.

When it comes to direct action tactics, here are three types I have been thinking a lot about: sustained action, spectacle and disruption. When I think about whether or not an action is “worth it,” I think of a couple of different criteria (not listed in order of importance): Is it going to engage new people (bonus points for folks who are new to activism) in a meaningful way? Does it reduce harm to (or at least provide a platform for) people who are directly affected? Will it expose enablers of the Trump agenda? Because Trump might not care about the optics of jailing babies, but surely some of the customers or constituents of companies, politicians and groups who enable his agenda do.


Under Trump’s administration we can still use this type of action — but the intended target can’t be Trump, but rather the public who are standing on the sidelines. We have to peel them off toward our side. Given that, the message of the action and how that message is demonstrated through the action itself matters a great deal. Creative, punchy actions that make arguments from different angles are especially helpful here. Actions that create a spectacle often carry a message that reaches above the turbulence of the public conversation to strive for higher ideals and break things down in a most simple way.

Spectacles provoke, they disarm, they’re the kind of things that make people look twice. They do not employ business as usual messages or tactics. One example I have been thinking about a lot is to show the massive amount of taxpayer funds used on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). What does that amount of cash look like? When we push for big solutions to problems of our time we are often met with the same old question of: How are we going to pay for that? A spectacle action that creates the visual and poses a question from a new angle can directly challenge the argument Trump is making. Stay tuned on that one… or hit me up if you’ve got some ideas (!)

Sustained Action

Sustained actions (actions that hold space for an extended period) offer the possibility to tell a story over time. When dealing with an issue as complicated as immigration, this is necessary. This kind of action is particularly powerful when directly affected people are front and center. Dehumanization is part of the problem, and it is part of Trump’s objective. Continuing to have people who have skin in the game is not only ethically right, it is strategic in the long and short term. The courage of those who come from our communities must not be written out of the story: We are not passive bystanders, or powerless victims. I’ve seen lots of strategies that involve “influencers.” This has been a welcome opportunity, increasing dramatically during the Trump administration. We should appropriately engage influencers, and these types of actions are perfect for it. Famous folks who take the time to support protests probably aren’t coming to be the star of the show, they’re coming to lend their star to the show. Sustained action that creates a platform for all directly affected people is a great way to link influencers who can bring attention to an issue.


Actions that prevent business as usual can create situations where our adversaries either can’t move, or are forced to work harder to function. These types of actions were critically important to immigrant rights organizing during the Obama administration. They were particularly effective because they served the purpose of disrupting the status quo, and over time were able to change the debate and compel decision makers.

A good example of this would be the #ShutDownICE actions we did, which over a period of months disrupted dozens of ICE offices and detention centers. One example in particular was an action done in Tucson to shut down Operation Streamline. By disrupting the regular logistics flow, the action successfully prevented proceedings that would have sent dozens of people to federal prison in addition to being deported.

Currently, this approach seems most applicable to enablers of the Trump agenda. Particularly in the tech world, companies with aspirational mission statements of an inter-dependent, social and transparent society will not be quick to bear responsibility for (or association with) the behavior of the Trump administration. Still, their profits are high in this time and it’s going to take work to get them to stop facilitating the Trump agenda. This is why we’ve focused on the company who ICE has called “mission critical” — Palantir. This is why ongoing campaigns targeting technology corporations, private prisons, detention centers and banks are strategic.

These are reflections, ideas under construction and an invitation to other immigrant rights organizers to weigh in on what plays might be effective. Three things I know for sure:

1.) We will keep dando la cara (showing up) and doing right by all our people whether we have the perfect plan or response;

2.) We will continue to tell the truth, including the reality that this deportation/crimmigration machine wasn’t built by Trump or even solely by Republicans;

3.) Like boxers, we are gonna keep moving and stay active because that is the best way to catch some of that organizing luck or magic that comes every once in a while — and we need all the good we can take right now.