The New Resistance: Immigrant Rights Mobilization in an Era of Trump (July 2017)
Austin Kocher, Ohio State University
Although both Campaign Trail Trump and President Trump issued a litany of potential threats to immigrants living in the United States, the Trump administration’s actual threat to immigrant communities can be usefully captured in the three executive orders issued during the first week of Trump’s presidency. Two of the three memos were issued on January 25, 2017. The first executive order, called “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements” (Exec. Order No. 13767, 2017), accused the federal government of “failing to discharge [the] basic sovereign responsibility” of preventing immigrants from crossing the border surreptitiously; the memo sought to further militarize the border and to speed up deportations for anyone seeking entry into the United States, including refugees from Central America who are seeking asylum. The second executive order, called “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States” (Exec. Order No. 13768, 2017), abolished the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP) created by President Obama under a memorandum issued on November 20, 20141, and promised to rely once again on the widely-criticized Secure Communities and 287(g) programs (Aguilasocho et al., 2012; Armenta, 2012; Coleman, 2012; Nguyen & Gill, 2010; Strunk & Leitner, 2013) to facilitate greater numbers of deportations by enrolling in the help of local law enforcement agencies. Taken together, these two memos represented President Trump’s condemnation of President Obama’s deferral-based approach to immigration enforcement that characterized his second term, and reintroduced aggressive border and interior enforcement reminiscent of the George W. Bush era and President Obama’s first term. The third executive order, called “Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist En- try Into The United States” (Exec. Order No. 13769, 2017), abruptly denied previously- approved green card holders from entering the United States, creating pandemonium at airports along the eastern seaboard as flights arrived from Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. The substance of the memos is certainly more complicated than I have summarized here. But the key is that these three memos, when taken together, represented the fruition of threats against immigrants made on the campaign trail, and became the new legal context in which immigrant rights groups mobilized.
The first strategy that organizers pressed for in Columbus after the election was a sanctuary city policy. Although there is no universal definition of a sanctuary city, a fundamental component of sanctuary city policy is a refusal by city officials to use city resources—most importantly, the police—for the purposes of immigration enforcement (Ridgley 2013). Although these polices are not new (Ridgley 2011), they became an important political strategy in the late 2000s for municipalities that wished to avoid getting tangled up in the expansion of local immigration enforcement through 287(g) and Secure Communities policies (Provine et al., 2016). Although the City of Columbus and Franklin County have never opted into a 287(g) agreement, data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (2015) and ICE’s (2015) own records indicate that Central Ohio is a hot spot for the arrests and deportation of low-priority immigrants. These statistics were supported by stories of ICE arresting immigrants with no criminal convictions, including the arrest and deportation of a Moroccan national in early 2017 who was married to a U.S. citizen and was in the process of trying to adjust his immigration status. To challenge these on-the-ground realities, immigrant rights organizations and individuals from the community pressured city council and the mayor to take action through public demonstrations, online petitions, and closed-door negotiations. Although the city never declared itself a sanctuary city, on February 3, the mayor and city council released a statement affirming that they would refuse to participate in federal immigration enforcement, and that they would begin a process of translating this position into official policy. On June 5, 2017, Columbus City Council passed an ordinance3 that turned some of these policies into law. It is unclear yet whether this policy change will result in a meaningful, observable reduction in deportations from Columbus, but the fact that this policy was passed for the first time after Trump became president does suggest that pro-immigrant organizing after the election had a substantive impact on local policy.
Second, immigrant rights organizations developed rapid response teams to respond to what I call ‘deportation events,’ i.e. any action taken by ICE to make immigration arrests en masse or on an individual basis, particularly when that event is publicized immediately through social and traditional media. The purpose of a rapid response team is to create a network of volunteers who are ready to respond to deportation events by showing up on-site to document and record ICE activity, connect affected people with legal resources, providing social and moral support, and publicize the event in an effort to mobilize further volunteers and undermine public support for ICE through ‘shaming’ tactics. At one of the early rapid response meetings held in February 2017, over twenty people gathered to create a rapid response team. The group was a mix of Spanish and English speakers; documented, undocumented, and citizens; DACA recipients; spouses and family members of undocumented immigrants; members of progressive religious organizations; and long-standing community organizers. These volunteers became involved in several public actions over the following months to conduct outreach to the immigrant community, ground-proof rumored deportations taking place, and attempt to prevent the deportation of high-visibility cases. Rapid response teams are being used in cities across the country as first responders to increased immigration enforcement. Furthermore, given the lack of DHS transparency about deportation operations, rapid response teams are also an important way that communities generate working knowledge about ICE, and use that knowledge to better prepare immigrant communities for deportations.
Each of these responses takes place within a diverse urban landscape. The passages of pro-immigrant policy through Columbus City Council generated at least some resentment among Black social justice organizers whose efforts to create police oversight have been met with municipal recalcitrance. Rapid response teams can, when intervening quickly and without adequate information, exacerbate rather than relieve the panic of (or rumors of) deportation events. It remains to be seen whether the community advocate position can do more than develop community resilience by contributing to the political pressure for meaningful reforms at the local, state, and federal levels. These are not criticisms of the three projects discussed here, but they are struggles that will have to be worked out over time through practical critical engagements.
Finally, I want to caution against an analysis of these projects based solely on their instrumental effectiveness. A basic theory of change framework for political activism goes something like this: Step 1, identify and analyze the problems or threats; Step 2, develop and implement strategies to ameliorate the problems; Step 3, analyze the effectiveness of strategies in Step 2 in light of the analysis in Step 1, and adjust as needed. This process model fell apart in the interim period between November 8, 2016, when Trump was elected, and January 20, 2017, when he took office, due to the inconsistent and unpredictable whirlwind of political rhetoric, agency nominations, and contradictory policy positions. Even after the inauguration, now that policy has begun to fall into place, case-based activism is still driven more by impassioned individuals than by a clear sense of what works and what doesn’t. Although activists have managed to elevate some deportation cases to the national stage, the relationship between public protest and ICE’s use of discretion is unclear. For instance, after a nationwide campaign, Dany Vargas, a DACA recipient liv- ing in Alabama, was released from detention (United We Dream 2017); just a few weeks later, Maribel Trujillo-Diaz, a mother of four U.S. citizens living in Ohio, was deported despite a similar set of strategies (Pilkington 2017). All this to say, although the projects I described above were born partly out of strategic thinking, their value comes not from their conceptual perfection, but from their ability to direct material resources towards immigrant communities, achieve short-term victories despite a lack of clarity from federal policy-makers, and deepen horizontal social networks that recognize the intersectionality of the immigrant rights movements.
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