The struggle for immigrants’ rights challenges humanity

July 6, 2017

From the July-August 2017 issue of News & Letters

by Buddy Bell

The massive increase in inhuman attacks against immigrants and undocumented people is spurring new activism and urgency among those who refuse to accept arbitrary and legalistic excuses for denial of the human right to freedom. Abraham Medina, an organizer in Orange County, Calif., who took part in a Ramadan iftar meal of tacos shared between Latino and Muslim community members, asks: “What does it mean to defend the human dignity of all people regardless of immigration status?”

Inserting that question into the discussion has become crucial since the inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. President, who defined himself with character attacks on non-whites, non-Christians and foreigners. He quickened the pace of deportations and is on his way to removing all of the stops that former President Barack Obama had in place, even while Obama was presiding over a record rate of deportations.

The sensationalist February arrest of Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, as he dropped his daughters off at a Los Angeles school, doubled as intimidation theater for undocumented people trying to go about daily life. As a result, work positions have gone unfilled, use of sick days has risen and English as a Second Language and GED programs have seen decreased attendance. Student absences at all grade levels have gone up, as parents opt to keep children at home.


Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez. Inset: a picture of his arrest when he dropped his two daughters off at school in Los Angeles. Since then his conviction of receipt of stolen property has been vacated.

Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez. Inset: a picture of his arrest when he dropped his two daughters off at school in Los Angeles. Since then his conviction of receipt of stolen property has been vacated. (Photo: National Day Labor Organizing Network)

Recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) were able to legally procure employment over the last five years, but Trump fired the opening salvo against their personal and labor security by having Daniel Ramirez Medina locked up in a Tacoma, Wash., jail after agents came to his home to arrest his father. The agents stated without offering evidence that Ramirez was a member of a gang. By the time he got a bond hearing, he had been incarcerated six weeks. Since his arrest, more DACA recipients with no criminal record were arrested in Portland, Ore., Los Angeles, San Diego, San Antonio, and Jackson, Miss. In the Mississippi incident, Daniela Vargas was followed and arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers after speaking at a rally.

Even in cases where an immigrant has a petty misdemeanor conviction or an arrest but no conviction, much of the administration’s ability to deport them hinges on the vagueness of the term “aggravated felony” for immigration purposes. Because there is no definition, the government can apply it to any conceivable crime, thereby making more people eligible for detention and deportation.

A case soon to be heard by the Supreme Court, Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions, may set a definition. Leaving it the way it is would continue to devastate undocumented Black people in particular, since institutional racism is present in the arrest process and all the way through to the immigration courtroom, where judges make largely subjective decisions relative to regular criminal proceedings. One fifth of people who end up deported by reason of committing an “aggravated felony” are Black.

A separate case before the Supreme Court challenges indefinite detention of immigrants. Lower courts held that denying detainees bond hearings for years at a time is unconstitutional, but the practice yields more profit for private prison companies. These companies bet big when they helped fill Trump’s campaign coffers, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions paid out by reversing the Obama Justice Department’s decision to phase out private detention contracting.


More than 65% of immigrant detainees are placed in private facilities, up from 25% in 2005. An opening proposal for the 2018 federal budget includes $1.5 billion to expand detention capacity beyond the 34,000 beds ICE is required to maintain according to federal law. In mid-April, Sessions declared that the department would hire 125 more judges over the next two years to preside over immigration cases, which are heavily backlogged. By the end of the month, ICE’s deputy director resigned to take a job at Geo Group, a private prison company expected to bid on a Bureau of Prisons contract for a new 9,500-bed facility.

That revolving-door development, combined with Sessions’ moves to increase prosecution and terms of confinement are evidence of major steps along a path to state capitalism, where industry becomes lawmaker and judge.

To this end, an aristocracy of labor is finding a voice in the leadership of the border patrol and customs police unions. It is abetted by rank-and-file agents who go above and beyond the voracious bans and executive orders coming from Trump. Concurrent with the issuance of Trump’s first order to ban admittance to the U.S. for nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries, many customs agents at airports and land borders jumped to pressure immigrants into signing documents saying they voluntarily give up their visas. Border patrol agents are directed by their union to “obey now, grieve later” and to use extreme caution before declaring an exception, such as when an order is illegal. These unions also lobbied successfully for the public hiring of 5,000 new border agents, a 25% increase in the force. Union officials appear on radio and TV to advocate for more immigration prisons, courts, walls and fences. They get especially angry recounting cases where an asylum applicant is released to await trial at a relative’s home, rather than inside a detention center.


Pushing back against the prison lobby were activists in Phoenix, who chained themselves to the state Capitol on March 30 right before a Senate vote. The bill would have required immigrants in prison to serve a higher percentage of their sentence before being deported. It was narrowly voted down in the Arizona Senate.

On May 1, close to 475 immigrants detained in a Geo Group prison in Tacoma, Wash., began a hunger strike and dozens of supporters camped out in the street in front of the detention center. Prisoners decried the deplorable conditions, including insufficient quantity and quality of food, delays of several months in trials, poor medical care, and lack of contact visits. By the end of the six-day strike, 750 prisoners were refusing food, and some were refusing water. The staff refused most demands, but minor improvements were made to the menu. The strike is now on pause.

On June 12, another hunger strike broke out in Adelanto, Calif. Nine members of a Migrant Pilgrimage that crossed Mexico in April and May stated: “We are from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. We ask for your attention, because Adelanto is one of the prisons which exist for those who are seeking political asylum. The bond is set impossibly high, and it’s a humiliating joke because we are poor, we don’t have that kind of money.”

On the first day of the strike they joined arms and refused to return to their cells. They were attacked by guards wielding pepper spray. Their list of demands is not just for themselves but for improved conditions for everyone at the prison, including better food, clean water and ultimately asylum status for each one of the inmates held there.


The impossibly high bonds, high level of border enforcement, and brutal immigration policies serve a major function in insulating U.S. wealth and resources from those dispossessed by colonialism or by local despots propped up by international capital. Zero-sum thinking mixed with news of continuing lethal violence faced by more than five million Syrian refugees, 1.5 million Congolese refugees, and 20 million people suffering famine in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen has spurred much anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiment.

When in 2016 thousands of Black Haitian refugees came to the U.S. border with Mexico, the knee-jerk response of Trump’s base was to hold forth on isolationism and to extol a strong border enforcement system, the fixtures of his campaign.

This year, as the most reactionary elements of Trump’s base lobbied to remove the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) afforded to Haitians after they experienced a magnitude seven earthquake in 2010, an email leaked from the account of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy chief Kathy Nuebel Kovarik. This staff memo included a directive to “…find any reports of criminal activity by any individual with TPS.  Even though it’s only a snapshot and not representative of the entire situation, we need more than ‘Haiti is really poor’ stories.” On May 24, TPS for Haitians was extended, but only for another six months, instead of the customary 18.

The staff directive of DHS betrays the lie behind Victims of Immigrant Crime Engagement. A propaganda arm of ICE, this is an initiative to run a support hotline for crime victims who think an immigrant’s citizenship status has bearing on the crime. ICE intends to publish a quarterly report studying the effects of such victimization. Lost in all the smoke is the reality that in the U.S., non-citizens commit fewer crimes than citizens. Parallels have been drawn to Nazi efforts to have German citizens write in to their newspapers to report on the misconduct of Jews. A database haphazardly rolled out by the government publicly revealed information about victims who are themselves in immigrant detention, allowing anyone searching the web to know when and where they would be released.

Writing the next chapter on a different Trump epic fantasy novel are four construction companies that will build border wall prototypes on federal land opposite the impoverished Tijuana neighborhood of Nido de las Águilas. The companies in this lucrative venture have not been identified: Trump’s second 2018 request is for $1.6 billion to build 74 miles of wall, or about $120,000 per 30-foot section.


The discrimination and violence faced by immigrants presents a challenge to Left/Labor and the rest of humanity. It must be made clear that all human beings deserve to reorganize society so that they can survive, associate freely with others and use their own labor to produce what is needed and desirable. Viewed through the distorting lens of capital and the nation-state, this vision is reduced to a privilege for a few. Attempts by unions to reduce the number of arriving workers fall into this trap of distortion.

Capital tries to counteract its declining rate of profit through artificially low prices of everyday commodities, which allow U.S. corporations to, on average, not raise wages at pace with inflation. They thereby extract more and more of the value created by workers. To keep commodity prices low, the government must maintain the existence of a still lower caste of workers who must work even more cheaply. Generally this group is located outside U.S. borders. They can also be inside the borders without full rights and living in fear.

Some of the many supporters who camped out in front of the Geo Group owned immigrant detention Center in May 2017 (Photo: NWDC Resistance/Resistencia al NWDC).

Some of the many supporters who camped out in front of the Geo Group owned immigrant detention Center in May 2017 (Photo: NWDC Resistance/Resistencia al NWDC).

In an effort to negate this nightmare rather than accommodate it, on Feb. 16 immigrants staged a nationwide Day without Immigrants in which many did not show up for work and some attended pro-immigrant marches instead. More than 100 participants of the campaign who were fired have a case before the National Labor Relations Board which will decide whether the firings were legal.

More marches and strikes occurred in 125 U.S. cities on May 1, when many more immigrants stayed home from work. On May 2, activists in Washington, D.C., escorted some strikers back to work so they would have support when confronting their employers.

Throughout the year, there have been accelerated efforts by community organizations to encourage non-citizens to “know your rights” and an increasing number of attorneys are offering pro bono help to those who encounter legal hangups, such as help at airports after the Muslim bans were ordered. A popular mobile app, Relaid, allows people to report police roadblocks and checkpoints and thereby help others avoid them.


Residents are creating their own roadblocks, like in Los Angeles on Feb. 9, when the street in front of an ICE detention center as well as a nearby highway exit were blocked by protesters for two hours in the evening, after 160 people had been suddenly detained earlier that day in mass raids throughout the city. Further protests specifically against raids have been seen in Chicago, Austin, Tex., and Fairfax, Va. In New York on April 13, protesters filled the atrium of Trump Tower to declare “No Ban, No Wall, No Raids!” Neighbors of raided homes have physically surrounded ICE vehicles and impeded them from leaving in Los Angeles and in Queens, N.Y.

On June 8, students marched under the banner “Undocumented Unafraid, Transqueer Unashamed” from East Los Angeles City College (LACC) to that city’s police headquarters to decry local police assistance to border patrol during recent arrests of community members. A local activist captured the irony of the sanctuary city concept:

“When the city says they’re protecting us and they let the border patrol come in, they’re not protecting us. It’s not enough that we know our rights when they knock on our door, and we know our rights when they get us in the patrol car, and when they take us to the detention center, and we know our rights when they send us to the deportation place. We are not being defended. Defense means they tell the border patrol to get out.”

Public officials at all levels have apparently been feeling the heat from people’s protests and activities. Only days before the march, the governance structure of East LACC had voted to become a sanctuary campus, following the lead of the L.A. Unified School District.

Cities that declare themselves sanctuary—that deny local cooperation with ICE in varying degrees—are growing in number, despite Trump/Sessions promises to defund them of federal money. Cincinnati, Ohio; Ipswich, Me.; Malibu, Calif.; Pleasant Hill, Calif.; Salem, Mass.; Santa Ana, Calif.; Travis County, Tex. (Austin); and Warrenton, Ore., have voted to become sanctuary cities so far this year, with Santa Ana pledging to phase out a lucrative contract with ICE which allows immigration detainees to be housed in the municipal jail. Pasadena, Calif., added more protections to its sanctuary status after more than 100 people marched on City Hall in late February.

In April, the city council of Lansing, Mich., declared sanctuary status, only to repeal the declaration two days later, caving to threats from a pending state bill that would withhold state money from these cities. Similar anti-sanctuary bills are enacted or under consideration in Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, and Mississippi. On the Texas legislature’s last day in session, lawmakers passed a bill to prohibit any sanctuary city provisions from preventing police officers from inquiring about citizenship status, but protesters thronged to the Capitol building, filling the ground floor and every one of three balconies in the atrium. A federal judge partially blocked implementation on June 10.

In contrast, bills being considered in California and Massachusetts could make these “sanctuary states.” Another California bill could divest all state funds and state pensions from any company which profits from construction of a border wall. On June 6, Tucson, Ariz., voted on and passed ordinances to do exactly that with the city’s contracts.

Chicago activist Tania Unzueta at the People’s Summit said, “It’s important to put our fights for sanctuary and for what sanctuary means in the context of how people are being attacked. The front line for making sure that people don’t get put into deportation proceedings to begin with is our interactions with local police. It is through our interactions that, most often, our names are put on a list, and people are criminalized, and we are found in different ways….We need to talk about how non-immigrants, particularly people of color, particularly Black, are also targets of law enforcement. How do we create a real separation between immigration and police? How do we deal with the way police act now in Chicago to expand the concept of safety?”

The imagining for a new society has been called forth by new undocumented and immigrant leaders. In imagining, they reconstruct reality.

View from solitary

A lot of folks write about being in Solitary Confinement, which has many names: Detention Hall, The Hole, Disciplinary Segregation, The Can—even Death Row. But not many people at home know what Solitary looks like. So I’ve included a portrait to illustrate exactly what I see 24/7.

I’m stuck in a box that’s 12’x7’x9’ and everything is white. I’m lucky I get to ‘see’ sunlight everyday but I haven’t been in the sun/sunlight since Nov. 23, 2016. The only time I leave my cell it’s in handcuffs and that’s to shower three days a week. What I wouldn’t give for a nice hot bath right now. The only thing I have going for me at this point is enrollment in Ohio University distance learning program.

If anyone would like to write me with pointers or advice, please do so at: S.R.C.I., Jonathan J. Rodriguez #17349747, 777 Stanton Blvd., Ontario, OR 97914.

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