Stand Up, Fight Back: The Rising Militancy of the Immigrant Rights Movement

Activism for immigrant rights may be about to get much more militant.

Some 1.1 million undocumented people — beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or Temporary Protected Status (TPS) — are slated to lose their protection against deportation over the next two years, along with the possibility of obtaining work permits or aid for higher education. The result will of course be devastating for them and for their relatives, friends and communities, but there will also be repercussions for the society as a whole, especially in areas with large immigrant populations. Meanwhile, the country’s other 10 million or so undocumented people continue to live in fear, with Trump administration policies increasing the pressure. “[Y]ou should be uncomfortable,” Tom Homan, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), warned them last spring. “You should look over your shoulder.”

This crisis has been intensifying since September, when the government announced that it would terminate DACA. So far, the US political class has responded mostly by dawdling. In January and February, Congress and the White House failed even to come up with a compromise to protect the DACA recipients, and there are no prospects for relief for TPS recipients, much less for a larger reform of the immigration system.

“Now we have no choice,” Chicago-based immigrant rights activist Elvira Arellano wrote in mid-February. “The only way we can stop the deportations now is to demonstrate, to commit mass civil disobedience, over and over again. Sanctuary in churches must become militant mass sanctuary in the streets.”

Taking on the Deportation Machine

There is evidence that the stepped-up militancy Arellano called for is already under way:

• Eighteen protesters were arrested in Lower Manhattan on January 11 as they tried to prevent ICE agents from taking local activist Ravi Ragbir to immigration detention. The arrestees included two members of the New York City Council.

• Hundreds of Houston high students staged a walkout on February 14 to protest ICE’s detention of a fellow student after he was allegedly slurred and bullied by another student for being undocumented.

• About 50 protesters blocked an ICE van in downtown Los Angeles for at least two hours on February 15. ICE agents had to call in Los Angeles police to disperse the crowd.

• As of March 10, more than 40 immigrants were reportedly receiving sanctuary in US churches, up from five when Trump was elected in November 2016. Some 1,000 places of worship are now offering to provide sanctuary, despite the possibility that they might face federal “harboring” charges.

Not all resistance to the deportation machine has involved street protests or civil disobedience.

• The administration’s effort to end DACA has been slowed, at least temporarily, by injunctions that two federal judges issued in response to lawsuits brought by immigration lawyers and a coalition of 16 state attorneys general.

• A federal judge has temporarily halted deportation for New York’s Ragbir, thanks to strong community support and the work of the activist’s legal team. Since December, federal judges in California, Florida, Massachusetts and New Jersey have blocked deportations for hundreds of immigrants.

• There is renewed activity around educating vulnerable immigrants about their legal rights. In Denver, for example, a coalition of labor, religious and grassroots organizations is relaunching a know-your-rights training program, along with a 24-hour hotline to report ICE raids.

• Some unions in California and New York are providing similar training for their members; they are also pushing for contracts in which employers agree not to cooperate with immigration inspections beyond what is required by law.

• On February 24, Libby Schaaf, the mayor of Oakland, California, issued a warning that “credible sources” had said ICE raids were imminent. ICE head Homan was furious. Schaaf’s warning was “no better than a gang lookout yelling ‘police,'” he fumed on Fox News, claiming the mayor had helped some 800 people avoid arrest.

“I’m Going to Start Challenging You”

While Homan’s 800 number was wildly exaggerated, there’s little doubt that the various acts of resistance have thrown a wrench into the deportation machine and helped out a significant number of immigrants. But how effective are these efforts in the long term?

We can expect skeptics to tell us that protests are less practical than organizing to get out the vote for midterm elections. Some will undoubtedly question the need for civil disobedience at this point, citing the risk of a backlash.

We could answer that the people being detained and deported can’t wait until November, and that Democrats aren’t reliable allies. As for civil disobedience, American Prospect’s Harold Meyerson suggests that blocking ICE operations is now morally imperative, like obstructing apprehensions of escaped slaves in the 1850s. But the best answer is to look at US history — at the labor strikes of the 1930s, the civil rights movement in the 1950s and the 1960s, the fight for women’s rights and rights for LGBTQ people in the decades since. Whatever progress we’ve made in the past has required grassroots struggles led by activists who refused to respect repressive and undemocratic laws.

Still, undocumented immigrants remain a minority in a population of more than 300 million. A lot will depend on the level of support they receive from those of us who are not under threat.

“So how can you help?” Ragbir asked a New York church’s congregation on March 4, according to the New York Daily News. “This is where I’m going to start challenging you. You can create a space where you can help someone. You can make a phone call. You can write a letter. You can tweet. You can just talk to someone about a fact, about what they are saying wrong. Talk to someone when they are saying propaganda.”

Public opinion is now generally favorable to immigrants and has grown more so in the past two decades. And we’re in a period where the political climate can change overnight. At the beginning of February, conventional wisdom held that labor was on the ropes, West Virginia was hopelessly right wing, and nothing could be done to challenge the dominance of the National Rifle Association. It took less than a month for a handful of Florida high school students and some 20,000 West Virginia school teachers to change all that. New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg has suggested that “a spirit of revolt” might be “sweeping across the country.”

Immigrants are under attack, and there may never be a better time to act on the familiar slogan: “Stand up, fight back.”