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“I Think It Provides A Lot Of Opportunities” Organizing In The Trump Era: Immigration Edition

December 1, 2016

I think it provides a lot of opportunities.

That’s what the rabbi (who has a long, courageous & distinguished career as a civil rights advocate) said yesterday when I asked what he thought about the US election results.

And certainly, the Trump administration—as well as the Republican-controlled Congress—is shaping up as a target-rich environment for all sorts of people: those who care about civil rights, equal rights, climate change, health care, economic inequality, governmental ethics, criminal justice reform, etc.

It’s also shaping up as perhaps the most vindictive and dangerous-to-those-who-would-dare-oppose-it administration in US history. The president-elect proudly and repeatedly proclaims, “Anybody that hits me, we’re gonna hit them ten times harder“.

Finally, the Trump administration—and this can’t be repeated too often—takes office as a minority government (Trump currently trails Clinton by 2.5 million votes) committed to broadly unpopular policies.

So let’s look at immigration.  It’s the issue that Trump used last year to kick off his presidential campaign; and in the only interview he’s given since winning the election, he reiterated his plan to deport 2-3 million undocumented immigrants as quickly as possible, and millions more after that. What “opportunities” exist there?

For over a decade now, roughly 2/3 of the American people have supported a path to citizenship for most or all of the 11 million estimated undocumented immigrants living in the United States. In 2013, the US Senate, by a 68-32 margin, passed a bill that would do just that.  But as has been true with every attempt at comprehensive immigration reform over the past decade, a well-organized and vocal minority blocked the bill.

The conversation we should be having—because it’s what 2/3 of the country wants—is how to create a path to citizenship for most or all undocumented immigrants.  Since President-elect Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress don’t want to have that conversation, the first challenge immigrants and their allies face is: how to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation until such time as the powers that be in the federal government are ready to talk about a path to citizenship?

And that, as the rabbi said, is a question that does provide a lot of opportunities—not just for immigrant leaders and organizers, but also for a broad array of local and state officials and agencies, employers and business interests, labor unions, religious and civic institutions, who favor a path to citizenship and oppose mass deportation.

ICE (Immigration & Customs Enforcement) is the federal agency within the Department of Homeland Security that is the “head of the spear” when it comes to deporting undocumented immigrants. To do its job, and this is in many ways the critical point, ICE depends upon the active or passive support of literally thousands of other institutions and millions of citizens.

An organized campaign of militant nonviolent resistance and noncooperation could make it effectively impossible for ICE to do the job of deporting undocumented immigrants. We know this because it’s been done before.

It happened during Prohibition. (New York Governor Al Smith served alcohol at the executive mansion and repealed the state’s Prohibition enforcement law.) It happened during the 1850s as the Fugitive Slave Act became increasingly unenforceable across most of the northern United States. It happened in Massachusetts, and much of New England, in the 1760s and early 1770s as the British government (which is to say, the government) increasingly lost control of its colonies.  By the end of 1774, months before the shooting at Lexington and Concord started what became the war for independence, the colonial government in Boston pretty much couldn’t get anyone to accept an official appointment to carry out the basic functions of government in most of the other towns in the colony of Massachusetts.  (See, for example, Alfred F. Young’s excellent The Shoemaker & The Tea Party.)

So, how does ICE operate? Where is its nearest office? What is its operating structure?  (Currently, for example, Sarah Saldaña is the director, Thomas Homan is Executive Associate Director for Enforcement & Removal Operations.)

Who’s the field office director for the ICE office that covers  your community? How many agents work in that office? Who are they? Who else works there? What are their jobs?

Where are the ICE detention centers in your area? Where are the courts that hear deportation cases? Who are the judges? Who else works there?

Who else does ICE interact with, and rely upon, in order to do the part of their job that involves deporting people?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions (and/or questions like them), then finding out is part of the task ahead. Remember, there are people in your community who already do know he answers to these and other questions: undocumented immigrants themselves and their family members, ICE agents and lawyers, immigration lawyers, judges and court officials, journalists, local law enforcement officials, religious and community leaders. Many of them are willing, even eager, to share their knowledge.

Once you can trace the path of deportation for one individual—from arrest, to detention facility, to court hearing, to airplane (or bus, or train) across the border—you’ll start to have an idea of how the system works, and where its weaknesses are or might be.

The challenge then is organizing nonviolently to remove the supports from the deportation system until it can no longer function effectively.

Gene Sharp is one of the foremost scholars of social change in the world today. Over 40 years ago he catalogued 198 methods of nonviolent action, classifying them into three broad categories: 1) nonviolent protest and persuasion, 2) noncooperation, and 3) nonviolent intervention.

Any organizer or leader who can’t read that list and come up with at least 20 ideas for action—whether it’s on organizing for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, or on another issue you care about—should probably start looking for another line of work.

The rabbi’s right; there are a lot of opportunities. It’s just a matter of choosing one and following it through.

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