The Undaunted Resistance

From the November-December 2013 PNL #829

by Aly Wane

As an undocumented migrant’s rights activist, I have been tempted to give up these past few weeks. The government shutdown paralyzed Congress once more and the important conversation this country needs to have about immigration reform was sidelined once again. More alarming, however, is the fact that the current immigration reform proposals are not justice-based proposals, but “solutions” which could entrench the real profit makers in the migration crisis: the prison and defense industries.

However, despite this bleak landscape, the amount of grassroots resistance has been fierce and inspiring. All over the country, innovative actions have highlighted the agency and courage of migrants who are working to claim and define their rights in a society that often denies them their humanity.


Congressional advocates push for progress

One of NDLON’s activists obstructs a bus from ICE on
October 11, in Tucson Arizona. Source: National Day
Laborer Organizing Network

In early October, there were a series of actions organized by well-funded, pro-Democratic Party groups to push the House to adopt the principles of the Senate Immigration bill. On October 5, there were well coordinated actions in about 150 cities including vigils and protests. This culminated in numerous acts of civil disobedience on October 8 which resulted in the arrests of about 200 people, including eight Democratic politicians. The power and significance of these actions should not be diminished. It took a tremendous amount of resources and organizing to pull this off and all of the participants should be commended.

However these actions were largely directed towards the goal of getting “any” piece of legislation passed, no matter how problematic. In fact, even the arrests were planned and coordinated with the authorities: as brave as it was for many of these activists and advocates to be arrested, there was little risk involved, considering that organizers had, for the most part, already negotiated the future release of the arrested, calling into question whether this was civil disobedience or simply powerful political theatre.


Radical Voices from the Grassroots

On the other hand many grassroots organizations which have been openly critical of the coming legislative proposals have been downright inspiring in their willingness to truly push the envelope. One of the most vocal and effective groups has been the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON),  which has focused on calling attention to the administration’s culpability in deporting migrants at record levels (1,200 deportations daily). NDLON’s “Not 1 More” campaign calls on the President to use his executive power to put a moratorium on deportations until the current broken immigration system is revised. Just as the President deferred the deportation of many undocumented youth last year, he has the power to do so for many migrants in other categories.

In mid-October, in Arizona, the NDLON had a series of actions under the rubric “Shut Down ICE” aimed at concretely slowing down the deportation machinery. The actions were as simple as they were powerful: the activists simply either chained themselves to buses used for deportation, or lay down on the deportation routes, refusing to move. Some activists also decided to chain themselves to the entrance of the notorious Eloy Detention Center. Interestingly enough, for the most part, the authorities decided to release most of the protesters. Similar actions occurred in San Francisco.

Another terrific, undocumented-led organization that has upped the ante has been the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA). Last year, this organization succeeded in “infiltrating” ICE detention centers by having activists turn themselves in to the authorities on purpose in order to do “organizing from the inside” as they dubbed it. Once inside the detention centers, they gathered the stories of undocumented detainees who should have been eligible for relief under the seldom used “low-priority” principle which recommends that ICE not detain migrants with no criminal records. The tactic succeeded and numerous detainees were released.

This year, NIYA created the DREAM 9 action: three undocumented activists chose to “self deport” to Mexico and then presented themselves to the US border with 6 other DREAMers who had previously been deported to seek asylum. The activists were all detained and eventually released pending the resolution of their cases. Recently, 35 undocumented youth called themselves the DREAM 30 (some were minors) and tried a similar tactic, all trying to cross from the Mexican side of the border. At this point, many have been released, but one of them was deported and thirteen are still in custody. In each of these actions, the detained activists have gone on hunger strike as a tool of political resistance.


The Struggle Continues

These actions by NIYA have not been universally welcome. Many of the same activists pushing for comprehensive immigration reform have called these actions “distractions” and destructive to the goal of passing legislation. This has highlighted the tension between pro-Democratic Party immigration reformers and grassroots activists who have refused to ally themselves to either Party.

The continuing refusal by undocumented activists to acquiesce to a system which largely profits from their misery is a reminder that, while Congress is increasingly unable or unwilling to address the issues, the grassroots community will always find a way to make its voice heard.

Aly is an undocumented activist and a member of the PNL editorial board.