At 6:30 in the morning on February 24, Maru Mora Villalpando and eight other people locked their arms together and formed a human chain across the driveway of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash. A cold rain drizzled down as they stood in the path of a bus departing the facility, which held immigrants being considered for deportation, asylum, or residency. Through the tinted windows of the bus, Maru could just make out the silhouettes of people inside waving, straining to reach their shackled hands above the windowsill.
Both Maru and one of the other activists were undocumented, so by participating they risked not only arrest but also detention and deportation. But they carried out the action anyway, hoping it would make a strong statement against the policies of the Obama Administration, which has deported more than 2 million immigrants—more than any previous government.
As it turned out, their blockade did much more than make a statement. It helped set off a cascade of mobilizations led by undocumented immigrants themselves, who are increasingly going public about their status and taking the lead in the fight for immigrant rights. Their primary concern is the separation of families — for example, between July 2010 and September 2012, more than 200,000 parents were separated from their U.S.-born children through deportation, according to government data obtained by the online magazine Colorlines in December 2012.
On March 7, less than two weeks later, 750 out of the 1,300 detainees held at the Tacoma facility began a hunger strike, directly inspired by the bus blockade, in protest of detention conditions and the Obama Administration's immigration policies.
Next, detainees held at the Joe Corley Detention Center in Conroe, Texas, began their own hunger strike inspired by the one in Tacoma. Detainees at both facilities said they faced retaliation by GEO Group, the private prison corporation contracted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to run the two detention centers.
The protests didn't end there. On March 24, one month after activists locked down in Tacoma, seven members of the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice chained themselves to the doors of the Etowah County Detention Facility in Gadsden. As in the Tacoma action, two of the Alabama activists were undocumented. All seven were arrested that day — and then, a few hours later, released.
“Ironically, being open about not having papers seems to make activists less likely, not more likely, to be targeted by immigration officials and deported,” says Ruth Gomberg-Munoz, an anthropology professor at Loyola University of Chicago who specializes in studying immigration.
She says the newfound political influence of undocumented immigrants “shows how even the most disempowered people can struggle for rights and recognition.”
DREAMers join in
Supporters of increased immigration enforcement, along with President Obama himself, often claim that most of those affected by detention and deportation are criminals. But since the 1990s, several amendments to the Immigration and Naturalization Act have greatly expanded the list of deportable offenses to include nonviolent minor crimes. And a recent New York Times analysis of internal government records found that under the Obama administration, “two-thirds of the nearly two million deportation cases involve people who had committed minor infractions, including traffic violations, or had no criminal record at all.” Only 20 percent of those deported had committed serious crimes.
And it's not just undocumented immigrants who can be detained and deported — so can legal permanent residents and refugees seeking asylum.
A number of national campaigns are calling attention to these policies, from Not 1 More Deportation, started by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, to #BringThemHome, an effort spearheaded by the National Immigrant Youth Alliance. The former organizes protests in the United States aimed at pressuring President Obama to end deportations, while the latter challenges the policy through events in which groups of formerly deported immigrants seek re-entry while supporters gather at the border. The week of March 10 saw more than 100 people attempt to return from Mexico to the United States.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!