From LA to D.C., young activists take up civil disobedience for immigrant rights

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Fresh winds are blowing for immigrant rights, thanks largely to the energy and determination of young activists. Angered by record deportations under President Obama and the refusal of Congress to pass humane reform legislation, they are pushing for change with vibrant acts of civil disobedience.

Their protests range from fasts and risky border crossings to self “outings” as undocumented and blockades of deportation buses and detention centers. And their stage extends from the East Coast and New Orleans to Los Angeles and the Southwest border with Mexico.

Chains for freedom. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operates under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Funding legislation for DHS gives ICE a target: 400,000 deportations every year and the housing of 34,000 detainees every day (many in for-profit prisons). This is one of Obama’s excuses for his appalling flood of deportations.

Young people aren’t buying it. The president used his executive authority to implement a program (DACA) deferring deportation for “Dreamers,” immigrants brought to this country as children who meet certain conditions. Protesters today demand that he expand his initiative to suspend deportations entirely — “DACA for all.”

On Dec. 16, protesters in LA and Fairfax, Va., outside Washington, D.C., sent the message of “Not one more deportation!” to the president they call the “deporter-in-chief.”

In downtown LA, five undocumented youth locked themselves to two ladders outside the detention center, preventing any buses carrying deportees from leaving. Demonstrators rallied in support, chanting “Undocumented — unafraid!”

The five were arrested, charged with a number of offenses, and released. Their court dates have yet to be set.

A similar scene took place in Fairfax, where about 60 people created a human chain outside an ICE facility by linking their arms together with plastic pipe. Nine were charged with obstructing entrance to a federal building and then released. They will be in court in February.

In LA, Ilse Escobar was one of the five arrested; she came with her family from Mexico when she was three. Said Escobar, “No longer will we allow our bodies to be used for profit; profit from our labor, profit from our incarceration. We demand for President Obama to stop all deportations of our families now.”

Kevin Solis, an adult adviser with the group DREAM Team Los Angeles, tells the Freedom Socialist, “The government has failed to do anything for meaningful immigration reform — so the mission now is to shut down ICE.”

A tide gaining force. The events in LA and Fairfax were only the latest in a wave of bold and innovative actions.

Last summer kicked off with a trip by three Dreamers to the Arizona border during the unbearably hot month of June. They reunited there with their mothers in Mexico, hugging them through the rusty border fence at Nogales and providing a profound visual image of the cruelty of family separation.

On July 22, nine members of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance crossed the border from Mexico into the U.S., again at Nogales, and requested humanitarian parole and asylum. Known as the “Dream Nine,” they all have spent most of their lives in the U.S. and consider it home. Three of the nine are indigenous people, with roots in Oaxaca, and one is a 37-year-old mother.

The nine were arrested and held at the Eloy detention center for two weeks. But, in an important victory, they were then released, allowed to stay in the U.S., and provisionally granted asylum, pending final rulings on their claims.

In August, a group of mothers in Phoenix rallied demonstrators to surround a bus filled with immigrants who were to be deported. The standoff lasted for five hours and ended with the bus retreating back into the detention center. This daring event burst onto national news as photos were spread through social media. Hundreds demonstrated outside the ICE offices in Phoenix again in October.

Three quarters of immigrants to the U.S. are women and children. In September, over 100 women from 20 different states, some of them immigrants without papers, were arrested after blocking a major street in downtown D.C. to protest family separations and demand legislation providing a path to citizenship. They were released without charges being filed.

The goal of this action was to support Democratic politicians and pressure Republicans to pass the deeply flawed immigration reform legislation that is currently on the table. (See “Obama’s Cruel Immigration Hoax”.) However, it was a brave action that called attention to the special plight of undocumented women and children.

Sit-ins, blockades of vehicles and facilities, and other direct actions have taken place in cities across the country: Elizabeth, N.J.; Philadelphia; New Orleans; Chicago; Laredo, Texas; Tucson, Ariz.; Fresno, Calif.; San Francisco; and more.

These protests, along with mass demonstrations, are the best hope for justice. The people engaging in civil disobedience are risking arrest, and often deportation, in order to stand up for their own families and for millions of undocumented workers. They deserve support — and the people they are championing deserve unconditional amnesty and an open border where no one is harassed, detained, deported, or oppressed for attempting to survive.

Email Yolanda Alaniz, co-author of Viva la Raza: A History of Chicano Identity and Resistance, at

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