Immigrant rights, labor, civil rights and many other organizations are preparing to mobilize on May 1, International Workers Day, to protest the Trump agenda. One of the most active organizations, Milwaukee-based Voces de la Frontera (Voices from the Border), is coordinating a statewide mobilization in Wisconsin that will include a march between Milwaukee and Madison, the state capital.
Voces formed in Austin, Texas, in 1995 as a newspaper in solidarity with maquiladora workers. It relocated to Wisconsin in 1998, and, in 2000, launched a statewide campaign for legalization of the undocumented. In 2001, it opened a workers’ center in Milwaukee.
Since then, Voces has become a membership-based organization with eight chapters in different parts of the state and has been at the center of several important fights for immigrant rights in Wisconsin, including massive marches in 2006 against the Sensenbrenner Bill — a federal effort to criminalize immigrants that was sponsored by a Wisconsin Republican and passed by the US House of Representatives in 2005.
Voces co-founder and Executive Director Christine Neumann-Ortiz spoke to SocialistWorker.org’s Lance Selfa about the organization’s work and its plans for May Day.
Lance Selfa: What changes have you seen for immigrants in Wisconsin since Donald Trump took office? Since 2011, you’ve also had the reign of right-wing Gov. Scott Walker.
Christine Neumann-Ortiz: Trump’s election is definitely a watershed moment, more so than Walker was. I think the biggest change was that it really sent shock waves throughout the immigrant community, not just throughout Wisconsin, but nationwide.
What I feel very good about is that we’ve been able to quickly address the situation and start organizing aggressively right away. The reason we were able to do that is because we were part of a national network, and we planned for a scenario situation if Trump were elected — which we thought highly unlikely, but we did plan for it. And that allowed us to hit the ground running.
We organized community forums throughout many parts of Wisconsin, where our chapters are, and rolled out a proposal for how to organize under Trump. This proposal was voted on by all of those chapters, and it’s what we’ve been implementing since.
The general strategy centers on locally based organizing with a focus on sanctuary policies, whether in schools or in local government, and rapid-response, anti-deportation work. We’re doing a lot of training about what people need to have in place when a deportation happens, but not just for a situation like that. Temporary custody rights for minor children, the financial forms and power of attorney are all part of know-your-rights materials so that people don’t sign away their rights.
We’re setting up a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week hotline, and we’ve been asking folks to volunteer to be part of a local rapid response network, so that if we get a call about something, we can send people out to verify that it’s real and connect up with the families — so that we can lift up those cases and aggressively resist the kind of mass deportation program that Trump is trying to set up.
Another part of our organizing has been getting religious institutions to agree to provide physical sanctuary. That’s something we’ve been engaging with churches on for many years.
The sanctuary movement started in the 1980s under the Reagan administration, when churches of all denominations courageously provided physical sanctuary to people who were fleeing wars in Central America and who were not being recognized as political refugees by the US government.
The second wave was the new sanctuary movement under the Obama administration, which was inspired by Elvira Arellano, who refused to be deported and took sanctuary in local church in Chicago.
Now, under the Trump administration, there’s a third wave of the sanctuary movement that is very strong and determined — stronger than the second wave — to send a message to immigrants and the administration of their commitment to defend immigrant workers and their families.
There’s been a tremendous response. We have a number of churches and entire religious networks, like the Lutherans and the Methodists, in the state of Wisconsin that are close to taking, or have already taken, a position of supporting any church that provides physical sanctuary.
We’ve put up task forces focused on education, and workplace- and church-based organizing. An example of that is the February 13 “Day without Latinos, Immigrants and Refugees,” where we used our economic power to send a message.
We’re also forming broader alliances. We created a Coalition for Inclusive Wisconsin to work with other groups that are also being targeted by the administration. We’ve worked very closely with the Muslim community in particular. There are now closer alliances between the immigrant rights community and the Muslim community because they’re being targeted by Trump’s executive orders.
You mentioned the February 13 action. What was the background to that?
February 13 was a community-wide general strike. We put out a call for a statewide response to demonstrate our deep opposition to Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke announcing that he wanted to bring 287(g) to Milwaukee County.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 287(g) is a highly controversial program that says that any law enforcement officer can be deputized to become immigration agents. They get just one month of training, and they’re ready to go.
Former Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio made the program infamous by violating people’s constitutional rights with heavy abuses of power. That’s been its pattern wherever it’s been applied.
Trump wants to set up local law enforcement agencies to adopt 287(g) in at least 70 localities. And ICE has contacted county jails to subcontract with them. So this means that local government infrastructure is all part of Trump’s plan for mass deportations.
Another important piece of it is that these policies legalize racial profiling. How you’re dressed, if you have an accent, the color of your skin — all of that can be cause for law enforcement to stop you. It rolls back social progress and the sacrifices that the civil rights movement made. I think that’s often something that doesn’t get looked at enough.
For Voces de la Frontera, February 13 was the fifth time we’ve used the community-wide general strike — which includes a call for no work, no school and no purchases, including a shutdown of businesses and mass protest.
So we’ve used that general strike, which we called “A Day without Latinos and Immigrants” in the past. This time, we added “Refugees” to the name. We had a mass outpouring of tens of thousands of people from all over the state that came just 10 days after this call to action, and converged in Milwaukee County. It was an incredible show of force.
In terms of the social movement, it definitely had an impact, in that it inspired national and international support in a way that hadn’t broken through before. That had to do with the fact that this is the Trump administration, and that Sheriff Clarke is presenting himself as the next Arpaio. So this action waved the banner and encouraged others to do likewise.
Through social media, that general call of “stop 287(g) and rescind these executive orders” got picked up, and in multiple cities across the country, other workers and small business owners took it upon themselves to do similar actions on February 16. Now there’s recognition of the power of the general strike.
That has been adopted now as part of the May 1 mobilization throughout the country, which has very strong support behind it. [One of Voces’ campaigns will be a national call, as part of the May Day mobilization, to put pressure on Walker to fire Clarke. — ed.] So it’s a mass protest, but it also embraces the strategy of the general strike as well.
There’s no question it had huge power, and I know that Voces believes that in the current political climate, we have to lean more into refined, strategic efforts around using our collective economic power as workers and small business owners to really send that message.
We just convened a gathering April 1-2 in Wisconsin, bringing together some of the organizations — both union and immigrant — that are doing very good work as it relates to worker organizing or strikes, and really focusing on how we can start a conversation and a leadership development space where we can share our experiences and strategies and strengthen this part of the movement.
I’m very excited about that development. It’s an absolute necessity.
Last year, a mobilization of immigrant workers was the key factor in defeating an effort in the Wisconsin legislature to criminalize immigrants and government workers who service them. Tell me about that.
For more than a decade now we’ve been pushing back at various levels against the criminalization of immigrants and supporters and entire organizations.
In 2006, Milwaukee was the third city where people turned out for massive protests and successfully defeated the Sensenbrenner Bill. This brought back to the table the need to reform our immigration laws and establish a path to citizenship. So in terms of the birth of the modern immigrant rights movement, for me, it started in 2006 with that mass protest/mass general strike.
Of the five times that we’ve done the general strike, two times have really shown the power that it has. The first time was in 2006, and the next time was in 2016, when it secured a victory against State Assembly member John Spiros, who introduced several bills, including one that would ban sanctuary cities.
We decided that we needed something bold to defeat this. So we put out the call, we put it to a vote by our members, and within 11 days, there was a statewide general strike that converged at the capital.
Our show of force cut across all kinds of industries, but what I feel ultimately helped us defeat this anti-sanctuary bill was that it reached into the dairy industry, which is totally dependent on immigrant workers. And it was immigrant workers, in defense of their families and the lives they’ve built, who turned out.
Because of that, it really brought the attention of dairy farmers, who were largely Republican, to this issue. They became part of the fight to defeat it. We did prevail, and that bill wasn’t signed into law. It has been reintroduced this year, and that is part of the reason we’re doing a similar call to action on May 1. It’s because of the local, state and national fight — what’s different this year is that it’s also national.
What interaction did the immigrant rights movement in Wisconsin have with the Wisconsin uprising in 2011 against Act 10, an attack on public-sector workers’ collective bargaining rights?
We turned out heavily in defense of public employees to keep the right to collectively bargain. It’s all been very organic. Voces de la Frontera’s youth arm started in schools many years before in 2003, so we’ve had a strong relationship with teachers who are teacher-advisers to student chapters.
In the past, it’s been the teachers and the counselors who have come out in support of immigrant youth and their parents to support education rights issues like the DREAM Act or for tuition equity. In this instance, the tables were turned and the focus of the attack was on the teachers. They were scapegoated for having too many benefits or making too good of a salary.
So we were able to come out in support of teachers and counselors who, in the past, had supported immigrant youth and their parents, not just around education, but on all of it — immigration reform and getting the state to issue driver’s licenses to immigrants. I think around eight buses turned out every day for the first two weeks of the Act 10 mass protests.
We were a very strong immigrant rights presence in the whole fight. What’s very important about that is that because of the relationship that we had over many years with some of the different union leaders, we were given the platform during these mass protests to lift up a message of solidarity, but also to lift up the issues that we were fighting on as well.
In the governor’s budget, they limited tuition equity for immigrant youth. It had been won two years prior, and it had taken us 10 years to win it. Those issues were really lifted up, and it brought us closer to other unions that we had never worked with before. We had teachers come forward and volunteer to be teacher advisers, so we saw organizational growth and stronger alliances. I think in terms of the movement side of it, in spite of defeats, we came out stronger.
Do you think of yourself and Voces de la Frontera as part of the more activist or left wing of the immigrant rights movement?
Voces is definitely stamped by very progressive principles around economic rights and social rights, so I’d say yes, we’ve definitely prioritized being part of statewide tables that bring different groups together to fight both for economic rights and civil rights issues.
We’re part of making sure that the Latino and immigrant community is informed on the issues and can have a voice as well in these broader fights. For example, people always talk about the issue of intersectionality. I think one of strengths of Voces is that part of our DNA is that we’re always very in tune to that. It’s not something new.
For example, we’ve always been very supportive of the Fight for 15. Immigrant workers themselves stand strongly on workers’ rights issues because they face a lot of discrimination, a lot of wage theft, so that’s something that they’ll support strongly.
Issues of economic rights matter deeply to Latinos and immigrants, so we’ve obviously always connected up on those issues. But there are also other issues. For instance, we recently won a municipal ID for Milwaukee that not only will benefit undocumented immigrants who can’t access a state ID, but it’s the best transgender rights ID in the country right now.
Part of that fight was a broader coalition, and it allowed us the opportunity to lift up the voices of our own Voces members who are transgender. So it’s really about raising consciousness in solidarity with other civil rights fronts, of which our own communities and our own families are a part.
What do you think of the framework of the comprehensive immigration reform that’s been the main focus of immigrants’ rights organizations since 2006?
I think part of the reason we don’t have immigration reform is that there’s been a battle about the kind of immigration reform we want.
One of my concerns now is that, under the Trump administration, they’re going to use some scare tactics, such as big splashy theatrical workplace raids in several cities, and then try to drive through a guest-worker bill that gives employers even greater control. These programs are so abusive — in some cases, they’ve been compared to legal trafficking.
I think that’s the kind of stuff we have to inform workers and their families about. We have to keep a high standard around the type of reform we want so that we don’t end up in a worse scenario. But I would say that we just haven’t had enough power up until now to secure immigration reform.
I think it was a huge disappointment for many people who were involved in supporting electoral campaigns to see in 2006 and 2010 that you couldn’t even move past the DREAM Act. So much of the fight under President Obama was the pushback on enforcement, which was at its highest level of any US president.
On the one hand, I feel like we’ve been in training because of the aggressive enforcement under Obama to meet the times that we’re in. So on the one hand, I feel like we’re in the right moment because of our experiences, and we’re in a stronger position to help lead the fight now.
But on the other hand, I think there’s a new opportunity that wasn’t there in the past.
In the past, the powers that be were very good at isolating different groups from one another and being very measured about how much they take from each one. But now, everyone’s under attack aggressively at the same time!
I think there’s an absolute necessity for boldness and staying ahead of situations. But at the same time, there’s no question that, in terms of the kinds of things that we should be fighting for, it’s a much broader horizon.
There’s no question — the right to migrate should be seen as a fundamental right. And that’s not to say that we’re not going to get into the nitty-gritty of the kinds of policies or systems that need to be changed, too, but in terms of the values and the standards and the principles, across the board, it’s also opened up those horizons. People are saying the right to public education for all should be a fundamental right.
I feel like we’re in a different moment. There’s much more opportunity around the kind of principles and vision that we want, and we should definitely be lifting that up.