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Rethinking Sanctuary Cities in an Age of “Targeted” Deportation

Activists need to work to create more venues for undocumented immigrants to take the lead in challenging state crackdowns.

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Since the historic immigrant-led general strike in 2006, US immigration policy has been thrown into a frenetic tug-of-war between an enforcement iron fist and a diplomatic velvet glove.

Immigration enforcement strategies under President George W. Bush’s iron fist included full-on attacks against immigrants, such as attempts to control immigration through deportation, militarization and large-scale raids. These tactics are generally pushed by capitalists and politicians who believe they would benefit from eliminating immigration completely, playing into right-wing white supremacist populism.

“Migra Watch and Cop Watch play a role, but there needs to be a lot more comprehensive work to keep ICE out of New York City.”

More recently, the Obama administration, while detaining and deporting more people than Bush, has focused on “targeted enforcement,” which relies heavily on agreements with local police. In practice, President Obama’s strategy means dividing the immigrant population in two: the “good” (assimilated) immigrants and the “bad” (so-called “criminal”) immigrants. Obama’s approach is an effective way to harness immigration in the interest of the ruling class. The capitalists are able to weed out potentially unruly immigrants and allow “hard-working,” tax-paying, essential immigrants to remain in the country. Despite being exemplified in the Bush-Obama divide, these strategies do not fall neatly along party lines. In fact, many Republican and Tea Party members in the Southwest can be found advocating an Obama-style velvet glove strategy, in the interest of large and small businesses.

In response to these conditions, many activists and organizers have pushed forward demands for sanctuary cities, creating a budding grassroots movement. But what does “sanctuary city” actually mean?

When most organizers demand a sanctuary city, it means they want a city-level policy that prevents public service providers from collaborating with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Minimally, this will mean that institutions like libraries, schools and hospitals will not ask immigration-related questions and will not collaborate with ICE. At best, sanctuary city policies can mean local law enforcement will “opt out” of ICE ACCESS programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities, meaning they will no longer turn over detainee information to the US Department of Homeland Security or hold people for ICE.

More than 225 local law enforcement agencies have policies to ignore ICE holds nationally. Most recently, Philadelphia made national headlines by adopting a policy that will align it with other major cities including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Sanctuary city policies try to cut the conveyer belt between local police departments and immigration officials. Unfortunately, plenty of other conveyer belts remain in operation, so these policies cannot prevent ICE from stalking, detaining and deporting people. Not only can local cops simply ignore the rules, but ICE also learns about immigrants’ whereabouts through racist neighbors and vigilantes, landlords and employers. In this form, local government officials are allowed to simply wash their hands of their constituents’ demands.

We need to start small, in blocks and neighborhoods, in order to build real sanctuary cities.

Many organizers are now realizing that official sanctuary city policies are not enough to keep ICE out of our communities. Community groups across the country have started building grassroots defense committees against ICE and cop watch-inspired programs (Migra Watch) that seek to actively monitor ICE. Josselyn Atahualpa, an organizer based in Queens, New York, saw an organic connection between her work with a local cop watch organization and her neighborhood organizing with Queens Neighborhoods United. In response to Obama’s plan to hunt and deport thousands of Central American recent immigrants, she helped coordinate a three-day Migra Watch in her neighborhood. The action proved successful as an outreach tool in Queens.

“We reached a lot of people who recognized us later,” Atahualpa said. “We raised the presence around immigration in our neighborhood.” But the model has limitations as a long-term strategy for pushing ICE out of communities. “Removing ICE from our communities is hard,” Atahualpa added. “Migra Watch and Cop Watch play a role, but there needs to be a lot more comprehensive work to keep ICE out of New York City.”

Others are building ICE-free zones with churches and community spaces that will serve as “sanctuary spots” for immigrants who believe they are in danger from ICE. These efforts are also limited; many immigration activists are relying on the fact that ICE cannot enter a church, community space or home without a judicial warrant and the help of local police. There is no sense of how to protect the so-called “bad” immigrants who are being hunted by police on top of ICE.

One way activists are breaking through the “good” immigrant – “bad” immigrant dichotomy is by linking up with the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter activists broadly have a sense that the criminal legal system is fundamentally flawed and oppressive, and some groups are attempting to combat police impunity in the streets and develop alternatives to the police in dealing with community problems. For example, the Houston-based grassroots group, Out of the Flames of Ferguson, is connecting with the immigrant rights movement by mobilizing a neighborhood “speakout” in response to the underreported murder of a man who the group has learned to be a Mexican national. Out of the Flames of Ferguson is unconditionally opposed to police and is now beginning to take an active stand against ICE and all forms of police violence in its members’ racially diverse Houston neighborhoods. The immigration movement could bolster these budding efforts by developing a longer term, double-pronged flight-and-fight strategy:

1. Build a modern-day underground railroad of relocation and support services as a short-term strategy to escape ICE and;

2. Mobilize in moments of crisis to actively defend people as they are harassed by cops – whether they are immigration or law enforcement.

We need to start small, in blocks and neighborhoods, in order to build real sanctuary cities. We need to target the state on the many levels it attacks us; building ICE-free zones by definition means building cop-free zones, and vice versa. As the more militant elements of the immigrant rights movement exclaim, “¡La migra, la policia, la misma porqueria!” (“ICE, police, same bullshit!”)

Whatever form these struggles take, we must acknowledge those who bear the burden of these attacks as the agents of change. We regularly hear the argument that immigrants are in too vulnerable a position to take part in the confrontational organizing mentioned above, and that privileged allies should do so in their place. But while solidarity from documented people is indispensable, it is often undocumented people themselves who take the lead in challenging the state, leaping ahead of the established organizations and allies who would attempt to fight for them. Immigrants have a long history of fierce struggle and have built one of the most organized and militant US movements in recent decades. Here are some examples of undocumented immigrants fighting in their own interests in recent years:

  • In 2006, immigrants staged a national May Day Strike, also known as the “Day without an Immigrant” and “El Gran Paro Estadounidense” (the “Great American Strike”), which mobilized more than 1 million immigrants in response to draconian immigration legislation.
  • In 2009, immigrant detainees locked in solitary confinement at the federal Reeves County Detention Center in Pecos, Texas, initiated a rebellion that held the prison for five days.
  • In response to the passage of Arizona’s SB 1070, which would have mandated that officers ask immigration status questions during daily policing, immigrants organized neighborhood blockades to keep ICE out of their communities and physically stop deportation buses.
  • In 2013, a group of nine immigrant youths tested the limits of Obama’s diplomatic enforcement strategy by boldly crossing the border, infiltrating immigration detention centers and successfully organizing detainee hunger strikes.
  • There have been a series of hunger strikes in immigration detention centers across the country, with waves in 2010, 2014 and 2015.
  • In 2015, a 2,000-person uprising at one of the largest immigration detention centers in the country forced the facility to close.

These kinds of self-directed struggles are the lifeblood of the immigrant rights movement. They are driven neither by funders’ dollars nor by the commitment of allies, but by the interests and experience of people with a direct stake in their own liberation. Only this kind of struggle has the ability to pose a consistent, uncompromising defense against the state and forge change. Activists in the immigrant rights movement need to work to create more venues for immigrant communities to organize themselves and take action on their own terms.

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