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A Day Without Immigrants: Last Week’s Protests Were a Foretaste of Strikes to Come, Organizers Say

Immigrant workers understand the power of their contributions to the workforce and economy and will demonstrate it.

Demonstrators take part in the Day Without Latinos, Immigrants and Refugees march in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on February 13, 2017. (Photo: Sue Ruggles)

Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed, and what is still the same. Today’s interview is the fourteenth in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one the most recent interview before this one.

Across the country last week, immigrants went on strike to demonstrate what the country would be like if Donald Trump actually followed through on his promised deportations. The Day Without Immigrants actions kicked off in Wisconsin on Monday, February 13, where Voces De La Frontera and partner organizations held a Day Without Latinos, Immigrants and Refugees to protest Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke’s plans to collaborate with the Trump administration to deport people.

We spoke with German Sanchez, one of the workers who went on strike that day. In addition to being a farmworker, Sanchez also volunteers with Voces De La Frontera Milwaukee, United for a Better Future from Fox Cities, and ESTHER (an interfaith social justice group in Wisconsin).

Sarah Jaffe: Tell us about the big Day Without Immigrants [on February 13].

German Sanchez: It was a big, big day, for all immigrants in the state. We organized our community to be ready to go against this 287(g), the [Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE] program that Sheriff Clarke wants to run in Milwaukee. It was important to educate our community and the rest of the state that this issue is not just for Milwaukee, it can be brought up in the rest of the state so that’s why it was so important for the people to support and help our people in Milwaukee. Everything was clean, no arrests, so we had a big, big day to show the state and the country that in Wisconsin we are organized and ready to fight if we have to.

Tell us about 287(g). What would it do?

287(g) is “Secure Communities” — it is the same program that Sheriff Joe Arpaio used in Arizona. That’s why the people are so concerned about it, because everybody knows the history about Arpaio.

Tell me about the Day Without Immigrants action. How long did that take to come together?

Maybe eight or nine days. The thing that I do, I use social media to educate my community on what’s wrong. We spread out the message, we try to be as clear as we can so they understand the consequences, and of course, for them to understand our options also.

Talk a bit more about the organizing you do on the farms.

It’s hard. Of course, I have to do my work, too. Let’s say, in my lunch break I make emails or text messages, when I’m done [with] my day I make a video. A lot of people don’t know how the capital in Madison works, a lot of people don’t know how the law works, even some American people don’t know. The point is, I educate myself: I talk to some lawyers, I talk to some person about Assembly Bill 450, what does it mean, SB533. All those things that I’m learning about I send out; of course, in Spanish for my community, so they understand the levels a law moves on in the capital, what our options against those bills as immigrants are. This is the hard part, to educate people and understand those bills. I do videos maybe twice a day to talk about that and of course, I text message back, I answer emails, a lot of questions, a lot of concerns. A lot of people are concerned about the consequences if they don’t go to work.

But with those anti-immigrant bills moving, it’s easy. You can miss one day of work, but if those bills move you can lose everything.

What are some lessons that other people can take from the work you’ve been doing under Scott Walker?

If you do not agree with something you have to organize. You have to show whatever is in your hands to ask for a change and make a difference. A lot of people are not able to be really part of politics but that doesn’t mean that I’m not able to educate myself on political issues. Of course I can. I live in Wisconsin, I live here for the last 10 years, I love this state, I love my neighbors, I love what I’m doing on the farm. The 10 years I have been here I’m working on the same farm, that should tell you something.

Finally, people are now planning for a nationwide Day Without Immigrants on May 1. Can you tell us about the organizing you are doing going forward?

Actually we talked about that last Monday in Milwaukee. We had a meeting that night in Milwaukee, and I had some meetings with some people here in the Fox Valley, in Green Bay. Definitely we have to show our power in the economy, again. We are unable to make a difference in politicians’ deals but we live here, we make money here and we spend money here. So we are going to spread out the message for the community and be ready in the best way possible. We are not going to go out and make noises for nothing, no, we’ve got ideas, we’ve got the logistics.

Last year it was the same as this year: no problems, no issues, everybody goes back home safe. Last year the capital was clean after we leave. Last Monday in Milwaukee, the courthouse, it was clean when we leave. That is the message that we try to send around to the country and the state. We’re hard workers, we’re family-oriented too, we share a lot of the same values as Americans. This is our big challenge, let the people know that we are part of the community.

Anything else that you want people to know?

Just know that every time you drink milk, if it comes from Wisconsin, any people working on those farms where that milk comes from, they’re working happy and they love what they do but that doesn’t mean they are not organizing. That doesn’t mean we are not really concerned about what’s wrong with the country. We are concerned about it! And we take care of our families as best as we can and we appreciate our neighbors and we’ll keep working on it!


We also spoke with Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces De La Frontera, for some background on the day’s actions.

Voces de la Frontera had a massive Day Without an Immigrant last week. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Christine Neumann-Ortiz: We had on Monday, February 13, a Day Without Latinos, Immigrants and Refugees. It was a statewide event where we called a community-wide general strike that involved work stoppage, small-business closures, consumer day of boycott, and mass protest and mobilization that convened in Milwaukee. The reason for that was to demonstrate our deep opposition to the 287(g) program. Sheriff Clarke from Milwaukee County had declared that he wants to enter into this program, a key piece of Trump’s executive order on immigration setting up a mass deportation program and legalizing discrimination in the United States. This program would allow local law enforcement to become immigration agents. They would be able to profile someone without any basis of having committed anything, and stop and interrogate them and put them in deportation proceedings. It’s a program that can be quickly lifted up and Trump’s plan is to get 70 different local entities to buy into that program in his first year. It is a program that was highly discredited, famously by Sheriff Arpaio in Maricopa County. It has been found to violate people’s constitutional rights and civil rights. [The Feb. 13 day of action] also was a mass protest against the executive order on the whole, really using our collective economic power to demonstrate the positive economic contributions immigrants make to our economy.

We had done similar actions in the past. The first Day Without Latinos and Immigrants, if people recall, was in 2006. Milwaukee in that case was the third city to go out in a mass wave of protests and general strikes and business closures. That was the first one that really burst the modern immigrants’ rights movement. At the time, the protests were directed against a pending bill by Congressman Sensenbrenner from Wisconsin. It was quickly moving through Congress and was going to be signed by President Bush — it would have turned an immigrant being undocumented into an aggravated felony, and anyone who knew someone who didn’t turn them in would also face criminal charges. That first action really defeated that [bill] and brought us back to a discussion on immigration reform.

That was the first one. This last one was really our sixth general strike. It is something that we don’t call all the time. There is great sacrifice that goes with this. Great financial sacrifice. The potential threat of retaliation. You have moms who have children who depend on their paycheck who participate in these actions. This will be the sixth time that we have used it and it has been an important tool of the immigrant rights movement to defend itself at a very critical juncture. What was unique about this year, we only organized it 10 days out from the time that Clarke declared that he was going to bring this in, because it is a program that can be set up so quickly. We did that through different chapters, through online organizing, through flyers.

The most critical step on any of these occasions has been that we actually bring that proposal, that call to action to our own membership and, in some cases, to a much broader communitywide presence so that people can inform us — it is like a temperature check. It is like, “Do we believe the threat is high enough that it would warrant such a strong action?” It has only been on that basis that we move forward.

We know that on February 16, through a very spontaneous online call-to-action we saw that strategy roll out in other cities. I would say that immigrant workers have an inherent understanding of what their power is as part of the workforce and small immigrant business owners know how much they contribute to taxes and in job creation and people. The way they are being characterized is discriminatory and it actually is a lie. Immigrants contribute more and should be treated with respect and be thanked for their contributions. We should be making life easier for them. There is that inherent understanding and when people act in a very collective way, we have seen that it actually can make an impact through demonstrating the force of our collective economic power.

I want to actually go back to the Sensenbrenner bill because, of course, as you said, Sensenbrenner is from Wisconsin. That probably made it kind of personal.

I would say there have been four examples where we have used the Day Without Latinos and Immigrants. It has been six times, but I would say four times where you could really see the weight of it had a direct impact. Obviously, in 2006, as part of that whole national wave of strikes and mass protests, the Sensenbrenner bill was defeated. Sensenbrenner was demoted. Only now recently in the Trump administration has he gotten promoted again. He is now on the Immigration Sub-Committee.

Obviously, [the defeat of his bill] was a huge victory not just for immigrants so much, but for democracy itself. Undocumented workers have legal rights, for example. If someone tries to cheat you out of your wages, under national labor law, it doesn’t matter if an employer tries to use immigration status against you as a way to not pay you, because obviously that incentivizes hiring more undocumented people and taking advantage of them. That is where the law is very strong. That law would have said if [labor attorneys] don’t turn somebody in [they would face charges]. It was really a draconian bill, very Trump-like, that threatened our democracy itself.

The second one where I would say we also had a big impact was later on in 2011. It was in the context of the Act 10 when there was the very spontaneous upswell of rank-and-file union members against the repeal of collective bargaining rights for public employees. There was the sit-in at the capitol. Part of that whole attack on workers was directed at immigrants, too. That included a repeal of tuition equity and a bill that was introduced that would have been a copycat bill of the “Show me your papers” bill in Arizona.

We joined with labor union allies on May 1, which ever since 2006 has now become a tradition with mass [immigration justice] protests. At that point, we had also made that deep commitment to continue to use the general strike. I think that context and the threat of things even escalating further were helpful in defeating the Arizona copycat bill. Last year in the state capitol, there was a Day Without Latinos and Immigrants organized in 11 days with tens of thousands of people throughout the state converging at the state capitol. Because of that, we were able to successfully defeat an anti-sanctuary city bill, which would have been very similar to 287(g). It would have turned local law enforcement into an arm of ICE. That was defeated because of economic pressure, including a sector that is very much a part of the Republican Party base, which is the dairy industry and agriculture. Because of the leadership on the part of immigrant workers and their families and supporters, it created the political pressure to defeat that bill from being signed into law.

We realize that now it is going to have to be more sustained and prolonged, but the strategy to go deeper and to use our collective economic power through boycotts, through strikes, is critical under the Trump administration to defeat the immigration executive order and to push back against this broader anti-civil-rights, anti-worker agenda.

One of the conversations that happens a lot around politics in this country is this urban/rural split. But a lot of the immigrant workers in this country are working on farms, they are working in rural communities that are otherwise really white. Talk about organizing in rural parts of Wisconsin and how you can break down the divisions in those communities.

Through social media and radio and then, just through local connections we have made as we have built chapters out of last year’s Day Without Latinos; we intentionally built chapters in the different cities. We were able to use that as a foundation to quickly respond to the current threat. There has been a lot of self-organizing, actually, going on in numerous different workplaces, including the dairy farms.

One thing that has been very helpful for us is that we had also established a relationship at a different level with different employer associations. We have been engaging the Dairy Business Association over the years on different initiatives like trying to secure driver’s licenses in Wisconsin, which is something that is very important in rural areas [where] there is even less public transportation and driving is a necessity. Or, more recently, around communicating with [the Dairy Business Association] to coordinate communication with farmers. Figuring out ways that the farmers could support their workforce in advocating against these bad bills, because for the dairy industry, which is a very key industry for Wisconsin, if you eliminate the immigrant workforce, that whole industry collapses and with it, a whole domino effect, a whole series of jobs that would also drop. But in farms … it is not like a factory where you can just stop the work … you would actually kill the cows. People were able to coordinate making sure there is a skeleton crew available. Farmers, in turn, were an important voice within the Republican Party to call for the defeat of these bad bills.

We believe that there needs to be deeper engagement and a strengthening of networks so that we can sustain similar actions. Voces has always been there to support people in the build-up and in the aftermath of any cases of retaliation, we have sent delegations to meet with employers. We have given people a chance to understand and take back people if there were any dismissals or any kind of retaliation to make good on that and to not go public. Otherwise, we do believe there should be a public accountability of businesses that are not supporting their workforce. Especially when their workforce is so critical to their wellbeing. By and large, we have had a strong record of success, and I do believe the organizational support for workers and their families should be something that accompanies all of these calls to action. It is important that is a commitment that is made there, ideally, in any city, that there is that level of support for people to back people up.

Obviously, deportations and attacks on immigrants are not a new problem, but a lot of people are really waking up to the scale of this problem now. How would you say that people who are not in danger of being deported can get involved and support immigrant workers in their communities?

We have an online petition directed to Sheriff Clarke that we are asking people to sign that says we do not want Milwaukee County to become Maricopa County. We don’t want to normalize these politics. Sheriff Clarke is someone of equal temperament to Trump or Arpaio. In the case of Clarke, despite being African American he has become a mouthpiece for white nationalists, characterizing African Americans as ISIS, calling them sub-human. In the City of Milwaukee, the majority of the residents are African Americans. He has characterized, for many years now, all immigrants as targets for deportation. Which, again, flies in the face of immigration law because to be undocumented is a civil infraction. He has become a national figure as part of these kinds of politics.

We ask for people at a national level to help make contributions to Voces, because one of our goals is to engage similar minded organizations that want to go deeper on economic strategy, using that as a way to fight back against the policies that are being implemented or that they are trying to implement [under] the Trump administration. Lastly, there are local coalitions that can be formed in the build-up to May 1. May 1 will be not just a national protest but another national day of strike. There are already conversations going on with larger networks to see the potential of folding in this action under a broader platform with different groups, with climate change, with women’s [rights], immigrant rights. That stuff is in process, but in terms of immigrant rights, I know that is certainly a day that has been set.

There are ways to support immigrant rights organizing that is tied around preventing local stuff from getting implemented — “Does your local sheriff want to implement this 287(g) program or not?” Most National Association of Chiefs of Police [members] are totally against it. They have already said so. But it is good to have the community come out and say, “We don’t want that in our community.” We want you to take a public stance and say, “As a local law enforcement official, we do not want 287(g).” The more people that stand up and say that, the more marginal those politics become.

A lot of the resistance is local in nature, especially around immigration work. I think in the build-up to May 1 in whatever way people can contribute to helping at a local level and just get more informed around the facts versus the fiction around immigration. It is always good to have many different messengers carry that message. We do need to hold our elected officials accountable to not being enablers [of] the kinds of really far-right politics that are aggressively being shoved down our throats. [We need] the voice of people who have the right to vote, who are comfortable going to town halls and picking up the phone. That is something that immigrants are not as comfortable with. It actually is a very important way to stand in solidarity with newer immigrants to the United States.

How can people keep up with you and your organization?

We ask people to like our Facebook, which is Voces de la Frontera, and our lesser known Voces de la Frontera Action, which is our C4 arm which allows us to have a voice in elections and do more advocacy against bad laws. We have a website called People can click there and get updates through email.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and concision. Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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