Three Protests and What They May Mean for Immigrant Rights

The immigrant rights movement is moving to a new level of militancy, at least to judge by events in New York City the first week of June.

  • At noon on June 1 several hundred people gathered in front of the Jacob Javits Federal Building in Lower Manhattan for a press conference and a civil disobedience action in which 56 people, including clergy, union officials, and three City Council members, were arrested for blocking traffic.  This was the third in a series of weekly actions which had already resulted in 53 arrests.  Organizers said the protests were “aimed at highlighting the growing human tragedy and unsustainable moral crisis caused by a broken U.S. immigration system badly in need of reform.”
  • One day later about 40 people began a three-day liquids-only fast, mostly in historic Judson Memorial Church at Washington Square in Greenwich Village.  Some of the fasters had been arrested at the Federal Building action, and the demands were similar to those of the day before, but this time many of the participants were immigrants — non-citizens had been asked not to risk detention or deportation at the CD downtown.  The fasters included middle-class activists from the faith-based New Sanctuary Coalition, young activists from the immigrant organization Make the Road by Walking, and Bronx community activist Victor Toro, once a leader in Chile’s leftist Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR).  The U.S. is now trying to deport Toro, who was tortured under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.
  • Meanwhile, the smallest but perhaps the most dramatic of the three protests was taking place amid posters, books, and sleeping bags on an often-crowded sidewalk on Third Avenue and 47th Street in Midtown.  Ten young people, a mix of undocumented immigrants and citizens from immigrant families, started a hunger strike at 10 am on June 1 in front of the building where New York’s senior senator, Democrat Chuck Schumer, has his local office.  They vowed to stay there without food until Schumer meets with them to discuss congressional action on the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education Act for Alien Minors Act), which would give some relief to many of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate each year from U.S. high schools but face limited prospects for continuing their education.

The Need to Stand Up

The three protests contrasted sharply with the relative calm in the immigrant rights movement just a year ago, but they also raised a lot of questions about the state of the movement and its tactics and strategies.

A striking feature of the protests was the participation of mainstream politicians and the focus on relatively centrist legislation.  The organizers of the protest downtown at the Federal Building — including Churches United to Save and Heal (CUSH) and the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) — weren’t specific on what sort of immigration reform they advocated, suggesting that they might back the “comprehensive immigration reform” (CIR) being pushed by politicians like Senator Schumer: a national ID card, a new guest worker program, and a very limited legalization program for the undocumented.

There weren’t any clarifications at the Federal Building press conference — no time was allowed for questions.  Instead, people like Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz ran through the standard sound bites: we are a nation of immigrants, our immigration system is broken, we must stop tearing families apart.  The politicians were especially strong in their opposition to Arizona Immigration Law SB 1070, an anti-immigrant measure which Governor Jan Brewer signed into law on April 23.  New York officials denounced the Arizona law’s de facto encouragement of racial profiling, apparently forgetting problems with a local “stop-and-frisk” policy that overwhelmingly targets Latinos and African Americans.

The young hunger strikers in front of Schumer’s office in Midtown were more forthcoming.

At their June 1 press conference, the strike’s organizers, from the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC), said there were now nearly enough votes to pass the DREAM Act, which has languished in Congress for the last nine years despite bipartisan support.  They were asking Schumer, who heads the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, to reintroduce the measure.  The senator has countered that he wants to hold off on the grounds that pushing the DREAM Act at this point could hurt the chances for passing comprehensive reform later this year.

But if the strikers’ legislative demands were “moderate” — some activists criticize the DREAM Act because of provisions in the bill about military service — their mood was not.  The citizens among the strikers described their fear of seeing friends and relatives deported, and their frustration at delays and runarounds from lawmakers.  “We cannot continue to be oppressed,” said a striker who gave his name as José Luis and said he was undocumented.  The politicians constantly say: “We’re going to do it,” Gabriel Martínez told more than a dozen reporters and supporters, but they haven’t kept their promises.

El Diario-La Prensa reporter Cándida Portugués asked about the risks for undocumented strikers.  What if the police or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) swept down on them at night as they slept there by the curb?

“It’s always a risk,” answered Jennifer Cariño, a co-founding member of NYSYLC.  But they’d had enough, she said.  “We can’t hide in the shadows anymore.”

“We need to stand up,” José Luis added.

A New Civil Rights Movement?

This sort of grassroots frustration, especially among the young, accounts for much of the new level of militancy, according to Ravi Ragbir, an activist with the Families for Families immigrant organization who was participating in the three-day fast in the Neo-Renaissance setting of Judson Church.  “The students are taking the lead,” he told me on June 3.  Ravi, who produces videos for Families for Freedom, has personal experience of what’s wrong with the immigration system: ICE held him in detention from 2006 to 2008.

There can be little doubt that grassroots frustration was a major reason for the presence of local politicians at the Federal Building civil disobedience.  Backing immigrant rights is a safe bet for officials in a city where most voters have close friends or relatives who are immigrants, many of them in danger of having the same experience as Ravi.  Despite strong anti-immigrant feeling in much of the United States, a rightwing counter-demonstration across Broadway from the Federal Building on June 1 drew only seven or eight people.

The local politicians may also view a certain level of militancy as a safety valve for the growing anger among immigrants.

One of the speakers downtown called immigrant rights activism “the civil rights movement of the 21st century.”  The scene really was reminiscent of the 1950s and the 1960s, with the crowd singing “We Shall Overcome” as the protesters were led in handcuffs to police vans.  But the arrests were heavily scripted, on the model of the “celebrity arrests” in 1999 around the police killing of West African immigrant Amadou Diallo — so heavily scripted that the organizers felt free to pass out a news release at the start of the protest describing the civil disobedience in the past tense.  An activist from the New Sanctuary Coalition told me she felt that her willingness to be arrested represented a real commitment on her part; at the same time, the police were so cooperative that she found the experience “surreal.”

The kid gloves weren’t so evident with the young hunger strikers on Third Avenue.  The first night of the strike, the police woke the students up in the early morning hours to tell them they couldn’t lie down and had to remove their sleeping bags and books.  The young people spent the rest of the night sitting up on the bare sidewalk.  This was for their own safety, the police said, according to Rodolfo, a tired-looking Baruch College student who had still managed to get up in the morning and go to a summer school class.  (The students had in fact made their own security arrangements, with a “street team” designated each night to watch out for problems.  They had also arranged for medical students to monitor their blood pressure and general health.)

The New York Civil Liberties Union conferred with the police the next day, and by the evening the strikers had their books and sleeping bags back on the sidewalk.

As of June 8 there had been no further trouble from the police, but Schumer’s office seemed to be trying to wear the strikers down.  On June 3 the students met with staffers, who after various false starts finally came back with a date for meeting with the senator: June 18.  A staffer also suggested that the “rest of the movement” agreed with Schumer that introducing the DREAM Act would hurt the chances for comprehensive reform, José Luis told me.

Was Schumer’s office trying to create a division in the movement?  José Luis shrugged; he couldn’t say for sure.

Organizing from the Curbside

Where will the new militancy take the immigrant rights movement, and how will activists reach out to a wider public, especially outside immigrant-friendly cities like New York?

Ravi didn’t have all the answers, he told me on June 3 in Judson Church, but he felt that “any time you do something, you have an impact.”  The new tactics were definitely changing some attitudes, he said.  ICE had become more attentive to immigrant rights activists, for one thing.  Christopher Shanahan, ICE detention and removal field office director for the New York metropolitan area, had come down from his office high up in the Federal Building to observe the June 1 arrests from street level.

Speaking over traffic noises on the sidewalk at Third Avenue, José Luis told me passersby had seemed surprised at first to see the hunger strikers’ little encampment but became more and more sympathetic as time passed.  There had been some anti-immigrant remarks, but most people were friendly, and many had offered encouragement, made donations, or brought the strikers bottles of water or Gatorade.

Behind José Luis, several strikers were huddled around a laptop composing a statement; others read or slept.  It all looked strangely unlike anything you’d expect to see among office buildings in a U.S. city.  Dozens of laid-off electrical workers were camped out in Mexico City’s giant Zócalo plaza that same evening on their second month of a similar hunger strike, and the week before there had been no less than five hunger strikes going on in front of government buildings in Tegucigalpa, but until recently these things didn’t happen here.

A hunger strike is a drastic action, with many dangers, including those to the participants’ health.  But the tactic often stirs consciences in Latin America and changes attitudes in the general public.  Could hunger strikes do the same in El Norte?  There was certainly something powerful in the sight of students denying themselves food near a sign reading: “Education, Not Deportation.”

On the first day of the strike I asked José Luis if the tactic reflected the Latin American origin of so many immigrants.  “Maybe it’s our heritage, maybe it’s not,” he answered.  But they’d already written the letters, made the phone calls, and gathered signatures on the petitions; now they needed something “stronger, more direct.”

“Every movement has its own thing,” he added.  “Maybe this is ours.”

David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, Monthly Review Press, July 2007.

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