Turning the Tide: Migrant Rights, Barrio Defense, and New Directions

Originally published by Left Turn Magazine. Dec. 2010

These days people are scared. Whether it’s fear of big government or job loss, immigration raids or foreclosure, socialism or fascism, police violence or terrorist attacks, cap and trade or ecological collapse, one thing we all hold in common is an undeniable sense of insecurity.

Which direction the country goes to resolve these fears is largely up to us. Times of crisis hand us all with the responsibility to answer the question, “How shall we be together as a people?” One of the key sites for resolving that question is the migrant rights movement and the resolution of who is and who is not considered part of the body-politic. While people in the US facing unemployment and migrants facing economic and ecological displacement are tied together by the same corporate causes, immigration has become a central tool to sink any legislation that could benefit either group. The fact that this nationalism coincides with an increase in migration as well as organizing by the right and the left presents us with one of the key human rights moments of our lifetimes.

Not too long ago, in the first half of the past decade, the majority of the movement believed we were on the potential brink of sweeping reform. Now we are facing the complete nationalization of criminalization programs that merge local police and the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), or the migra, within the next two years.

Now that migratory communities are being treated as criminals, the migrant rights movement is being pushed to recognize itself within the long legacy of Black-led racial justice and anti-criminal justice work. A look at the historic trends that brought us to this place would be instructive as we explore effective responses to the recent right-wing advance.

The manufacturing of fear by and awarding of perks for those loyal to the nation-building project of the United States at the expense of people of color is nothing new. Since the country’s inception, politicians have debated and decided how the spoils of empire should be divided. For those European settlers ending their indentured servitude during the eighteenth century, options for economic opportunity were either advancing the frontier over native land via massacres or by getting paid to man the fugitive slave patrols which captured and returned escaped Africans to enslavement.

The tactics of inclusion and exclusion didn’t only occur on the job but also in the streets. From the Klan’s subversion of Reconstruction through a campaign of terror against blacks to the rise of “law and order” politics in the twentieth century that won elections by stoking then assuaging fears of violent “urban” youth, appeasing an active and angry white populace has been central to the formation of national policy. Citing this historical trend, the Rights Working Group, Detention Watch Network, and the AFL-CIO and 500 other organizations recently sent a letter to the President demanding an end to the merging of immigration and criminal justice systems and highlighting the deep racial discrimination occurring in both.

As Sarahí Uribe from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network observes, migrant rights work as a whole is only recently recognizing the need to “work across sectors and to understand these attacks as part of a long legacy of institutionalized racism.”

Arpaio-ization of the US

Politicians are seizing the political space opened by the most-recent rise of grassroots right-wing organizing to propose legislation that moves the needle further to the right. Originally passed in 1996, the institutional attack on migratory communities is coming via the poli-migra, the collaboration or merger between local law enforcement and the federal ICE, written in section 287g of the immigration code.

These 287g agreements empower local police to act as ICE officers, devastating community policing initiatives and inciting racial profiling wherever they’re implemented. When Sheriff Arpaio of Maricopa County—long known for chain gangs and housing inmates in outdoor tent cities that he’s referred to proudly as “concentration camps,”—got his 287g agreement in 2007, it became open season on migrants and anyone who fit the profile in the Phoenix area.

These police/ICE collaborations have morphed and changed to include the Orwellian named “secure communities” program, but the effect is the same. In Sheriff Arpaio’s example, deputized vigilantes don ski masks and carry teddy bears to anonymously round up mothers driving with broken taillights and to attempt to comfort the children torn from their parents.

It’s these and similar ICE programs that laid the ground work for Arizona’s SB 1070, a set of laws that made it a crime to drive or house undocumented people, targeted corner day laborers, and essentially codified racial profiling. While the Obama administration sued Arizona over the law, it is spreading SB1070-like policies nationally through these so-called “secure communities” agreements. Unless we successfully intervene, the administration is committed to implementing “secure communities” in every single county by 2013.

A time for reflection As the political terrain shifts to the right, the migrant rights movement is reevaluating its strategy. For the past decade, the dominant objective has been an emphasis on the legislative route of “comprehensive immigration reform” (CIR), a packet of laws that combines heavy security and enforcement measures with some form of a limited pathway to citizenship. Given the current political context where CIR champions such as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) have said that bills like SB 1070 may be necessary, many have concluded that such an effort has become nearly impossible and likely undesirable. Pablo Alvarado, the director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, explains, “Criminalization and legalization are two incompatible strategies. You cannot set a human being on a path to legalization while at the same time classifying that person’s community as criminal.”

To achieve legalization, Alvarado suggests we need to fight criminalization: “What we need is a national movement of strong empowered communities building together from the bottom up. Investing in our own community’s leadership and reaching out to build a united front is the only way for us to not only achieve our goals but to survive these times.”

The right to live, love, & work

The national movement that Alvarado refers to is quickly taking shape. In cities and neighborhoods across the country, people are deciding that we are at a moment to draw a line in the sand. Last month, more than 200 people gathered in New Orleans to coordinate strategy under the banner of Turning the Tide. As Cesar Lopez of Tierra y Libertad Organization (TYLO) in Tucson, Arizona said, “We have outlasted our ability to be afraid. We are asking the question now, what will we do about it?”

Tierra y Libertad is an independent organization in Tucson built outside of the 501c3 model. The group was founded a decade ago after a peaceful direct action that caused the organizers to realize in ref lection that they didn’t have the community backing them up. Lopez explains, “These tactics don’t work if you don’t have the community riding for you. If you don’t, then it’s just you. Now we’re building it from the ground up.” The organization organizes among undocumented people in Southside Tucson through arts, gardening, micro-loans, and migrant rights with a special focus on base-building by establishing barrio protection networks.

The protection networks organize families to be prepared for detention and deportation and to have the resilience to endure certain conditions as a community. “Here, police didn’t need 1070 because they already have ‘discretion.’ When our folks get pulled over, they just call border patrol and they’re taken away to a detention facility run by the corporation, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). More people are deported from the Tucson area than anywhere else,” explains Lopez.

Through weekly door knocking, TYLO families share knowledge about their rights, prepare the proper documents for power of attorney in case of detention, and build community agreements to actively support each other in caring for children, fighting courtroom battles, and dealing with the emotional trauma of family separation. “It came from folks on the bottom asking, ‘I could be deported today and I have kids here, what am I going to do about that?’ For us, it’s not just offering a solution, it’s about giving people the opportunity to work with us with dignity.”

Just north of Tucson, the Puente Movement, an indigenous human rights group, is implementing a similar model known as the Barrio Defense Committee. Sandra Castro of Puente explains, “Activists are people who just turn on and off like a light switch. We wanted to find a way for people to channel their outrage into organizing.” The committees were born out of a May 1 rally where instead of having a platform with named speakers, the organization broke the 20,000 gathered into small groups to discuss strategy in response to the recently passed SB 1070. Out of those groups, people volunteered to organize committees in their own neighborhoods on every side of the city.

The deep community work runs in conjunction with continuous planned protests and actions which culminated recently in the 100,000 person march on the May 29 and July 29 Day of Non- Compliance where people stopped raids on the first day of SB 1070’s implementation by locking down the entrance of Sheriff Arpaio’s jail. Citing the daily protest held for the past two years at the Wells Fargo building that houses Sheriff Arpaio’s offices Castro said, “Our mobilizations serve as a base for how people can get involved. Each action is an opportunity to learn or practice a skill in the movement.” Grounded in the ongoing community organizing work, such actions are credited with raising the profile of the dangers of police/ICE collaboration and galvanizing the reemerging energy of the migrant rights movement.

Front line states & beacon cities

As police/ICE collaborations and SB 1070 copycat bills proliferate and the prospects of positive legislation in DC wane, community groups and national networks everywhere are taking up the charge to turn the tide. Arlington, VA and Santa Clara, CA are following on the heels of Washington, DC and San Francisco and acting as beacons for the rest of us by passing resolutions and officially seeking to end local cooperation with ICE. Across the board, groups are moving to build from the ground up communities resilient enough to survive and thrive and strong enough to determine the policies that shape our lives.

B. Loewe is currently supporting NDLON in building the Turning the Tide campaign from Chicago after most recently being part of organizing the US Social Forum in Detroit.

For a protection network toolkit or more info check out altoarizona. com or follow B on twitter at BstandsforB.

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