Immigrant Communities Brace for Trump

By David Bacon

Immigrants and others protest in front of Oakland City Hall the evening after Election Day.

The state of Nebraska went red on Election Day, voting for Donald Trump and the Republican ticket, but working-class Omaha, Nebraska’s largest city, went blue, voting for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. Clinton won urban Omaha-Douglas County by 3,000 votes, but lost the city’s electoral vote. In 2010, redistricting had joined Omaha to the wealthier suburbs of Sarpy County, delivering Trump a 12,000-vote advantage this year. Incumbent Democratic House member Brad Ashford lost his seat to Republican Don Bacon on Nov. 8 for the same reason.

Nevertheless, all 18 precincts of Ward 4 voted against Trump by a two-to-one margin, thanks to years of patient organizing by the immigrant Mexican community of South Omaha. African American North Omaha voted solidly against Trump as well. The Omaha results highlight both the achievements of years of organizing in U.S. immigrant communities, as well as the vulnerability of those same communities under a Trump administration.

“We have built institutions in which immigrants are winning power in the middle of a corporate culture,” says Sergio Sosa, director of Nebraska’s Heartland Workers Center. He describes a 20-year history of community and workplace organizing. “We resisted immigration raids in meatpacking plants under the Clinton and Bush administrations, and mounted marches and demonstrations for immigration reform. For eight years, we’ve fought deportations under President Obama, while building a precinct-by-precinct power base.”

Reaching beyond Omaha, the center helped Latinos organize in Schuyler, one of many small Midwestern towns where immigrants now make up the bulk of the workforce in local meatpacking plants. In many of these towns, Latinos are a majority of the population. In this recent election, Schuyler voted its first Latino, Mynor Hernandez, onto the school board. There he will help implement the town’s new policy of multilingual education for its racially diverse children.

“The reality, though, is that people in Schuyler are very scared of what a Trump victory will mean for them, as are people in South Omaha,” Sosa warns. “This is one of the big contradictions here — that we’ve achieved some degree of power on a local level while the danger from the national election results has increased dramatically.”

On the campaign trail, Trump gained notoriety for referring to Mexican immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists.” He also won infamy for promising to build an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall” across the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border.

His policy proposals, however, are far more dangerous than his insults. During the election he pledged in his “100-day action plan to Make America Great Again” to “begin removing the more than two million criminal illegal immigrants from the country” on his first day in office.

While Trump says this action would be limited to “criminals,” the promise raises the specter of a massive wave of deportations. In a society with one of the world’s highest rates of incarceration, crimes are often defined very broadly. In the past, federal prosecutors have charged workers with felonies for giving a false Social Security number to an employer when being hired. People arrested for drunk driving have been deported, even years after conviction. Police accusations of gang membership have been grounds for arrest and deportation as well.

Some of the most extreme of the anti-immigrant politicians now advising President-elect Trump have claimed that being undocumented is itself a crime. In 2006, Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner even convinced the House of Representatives to pass a bill, H.R. 4437, that would have made it a federal felony simply to be in the U.S. without legal immigration documents. That bill inspired huge national demonstrations of millions of people, which prevented its enactment into law. Tens of thousands filled the streets in Omaha, while 3,000 even marched in Schuyler — about half its entire population.

Further, Trump’s immigration policy will be implemented by Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, recently named attorney general in the incoming administration. Last year, Sessions proposed a five-year prison sentence for any undocumented immigrant caught in the country after having been previously deported.

Trump has proposed an End Illegal Immigration Act that would impose a two-year prison sentence on anyone who re-enters the U.S. after having been deported, and imprison for five years anyone deported more than once, in line with Sessions’ earlier proposal. Under President Obama, the United States has deported more than two million people. Hundreds of thousands of these deportees have children and families in the United States and have sought to return to them. Under this proposed law, they would fill the prisons.

Another of Trump’s “first day” commitments is to “cancel every unconstitutional executive action, memorandum and order issued by President Obama.” This promise refers to the attacks by Trump, and especially the right-wing media ideologues now advising his transition team, on Obama’s executive order giving limited, temporary legal status to undocumented youth brought to the United States by their parents (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA).

Young people who gained status under DACA — the “Dreamers” — have been one of the most active sections of the U.S. immigrant-rights movement. Obama’s order itself was a product of their street demonstrations, their defense of young people detained for deportation, and even their occupation of his Chicago office during his 2012 re-election campaign.

In Omaha, many of the young organizers who have gone door to door registering voters in Ward 4 are DACA recipients from local colleges. Canceling “every unconstitutional executive action” would not just remove their legal status. Because they’ve had to give their addresses and personal information to the government to get a deferment of deportation, these young people could become easy targets of a Trump enforcement effort.

On his first day in office, Trump further announced, he will “cancel all federal funding to Sanctuary Cities.” More than 300 cities in the U.S. have adopted policies saying that they will not arrest and prosecute people solely for being undocumented. Their actions respond to a two-decade federal policy by immigration authorities to place local police in charge of arresting and detaining people because of their immigration status.

Many cities, and even some states, have withdrawn from these federal schemes, notably the infamous “287(g) program.” Trump’s proposed order would cancel the extensive federal funding for housing, medical care, and other social services in cities that won’t cooperate in detention and deportation sweeps. As attorney general, Sessions, who has criticized Obama for not deporting enough people, can be expected to demand that local police cooperate with federal authorities in enforcing immigration laws, including arresting and holding people for deportation.

After the election, city governments were quick to announce that they would not be intimidated by the threats. In San Francisco, which gets $1.4 billion yearly in federal funds, Mayor Ed Lee said, “We’ll always be a sanctuary city,” while Supervisor John Avalos called for “a clear, single standard for our sanctuary city, even while under attack from trumped up anti-immigrant sentiment.” California Senate President pro tempore Kevin de Leon and California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon joined in a statement that promised, “We are not going to allow one election to reverse generations of progress at the height of our historic diversity, scientific advancement, economic output, and sense of global responsibility.” The Los Angeles Board of Education reaffirmed its policy of not allowing federal immigration authorities onto school campuses without a legal order.

California, however, is a state where the Republican Party holds no statewide office, and has lost almost all power in its major cities. In Republican Nebraska, Sosa says, Trump’s victory has made Democratic politicians fearful. “The same groups that turned out the vote in South Omaha are now going to have to reconstruct the coalition that fought for measures like drivers’ licenses for undocumented people,” he says. They plan to meet with legislators to demand that they actively defend immigrant communities against seemingly imminent federal attacks.

“People here have to remember the power they’ve built on a local level and use it,” Sosa says, “even in the face of a national defeat.”

Other groups, especially the Dreamers, see direct action in the streets as an important part of defending communities. In the push for DACA, youth demonstrations around the country sought to stop deportations by sitting in front of buses carrying prisoners to detention centers. Even in detention centers themselves, detainees organized hunger strikes with the support of activists camping in front of the gates.

In Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio — who became notorious for ordering deputies to arrest people for being undocumented, and parading prisoners through the streets of Phoenix to a detention camp — was finally defeated in his re-election bid this November. Carlos Garcia, executive director of Puente, a Phoenix immigrant-rights organization, told Alternet reporter Sarah Lazare, “The people Arpaio targeted decided to target him. He lost his power when undocumented people lost their fear.”

Arpaio, who spoke in support of Trump at the Republican National Convention, tried to ride that allegiance into re-election victory, but was defeated by a grassroots movement built on years of local organizing. One activist, Parris Wallace, told Lazare, “We reached out to Latina/o neighborhoods all over the county. We talked to working-class white folks, college kids and people who are unlikely to turn out to vote. We reached out to the people who politicians don’t think it’s worth their time to engage.”

After the election, marches and demonstrations protesting Trump’s victory have taken place in cities across the country, and students have walked out of high schools and colleges. In Omaha on the Thursday after Election Day, students walked out of Central High School carrying signs saying “We are Stronger Together” and “Black Votes Matter!” Five thousand more left classrooms in 20 Seattle schools the following Monday. Community support for people threatened with deportation has been a visible part of those actions, along with protests by undocumented immigrants themselves.

In Philadelphia, less than a week after the election, Javier Flores Garcia was given sanctuary by the congregation of the Arch Street United Methodist Church after being threatened by federal immigration agents. “Solidarity is our protection,” urged the Reverend Deborah Lee, of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity in California. “Our best defense is an organized community committed to each other and bound together with all those at risk. … We ask faith communities to consider declaring themselves ‘sanctuary congregations’ or ‘immigrant welcoming congregations.'”

Maru Mora Villapando, one of the organizers of the hunger strikes and protests that have taken place over the last four years at the detention center in Tacoma, Washington, says organizers are not waiting for Trump to begin his attacks, but have to start building up defense efforts immediately. She advocates pressuring the Obama administration to undo as much of the detention and deportation machinery as possible before leaving office. “We don’t want him just to hand over the keys to this machine as it is right now,” she warns.

The United States still detains 380,000 to 442,000 people per year in immigrant detention centers. Prior to the 1980s, there were only 30 people, on average, in immigration detention per day. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), passed under President Bill Clinton in 1998, boosted that number to 16,000. In 2009, under Obama, the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] Appropriations Act was passed and signed into law, requiring that 33,400 detention beds be filled every day. Many of those detention beds are in immigrant prisons run by two private corporations, GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America.

While Obama this year ordered the Department of Justice to end the use of private corporations to run federal prisons, that order didn’t extend to immigrant detention centers. By broadening the order, the president could remove the private corporations who have lobbied for the bed quota, and who push for more detentions generally.

Activists have called on Obama to pardon DACA recipients, and even undocumented people in general. After the election, House Democrats Zoe Lofgren and Lucille Roybal-Allard, of California, and Luis Gutiérrez, of Illinois, sent Obama a letter asking for this action, which would cover an estimated 750,000 people.

“These are kids,” said Roybal-Allard at a November 17 news conference. “We feel a sense of responsibility.”

The White House, however, has so far refused. House Democrat Judy Chu, also of California, has additionally asked that the Obama administration block Sessions and the incoming Trump administration from gaining access to the records with the personal information of DACA recipients.

“We believe that all politics are local,” says Omaha’s Sosa. “That’s where we have our biggest impact. But we also need to be part of a national agenda, that goes beyond the kinds of compromises proposed in the last few years, and fight for what we really want.” Some compromises in Congress’s immigration reform bills, he charges, like increased immigration enforcement in the workplace or the buildup on the border, opened the door to Trump’s more extreme proposals: “Instead, we have to go back to the social teachings our movement is based on, to the idea of justice.”

Sosa recalls the huge marches of 2006, and the “Day Without a Mexican”– the idea that immigrants would stop working on one day to show their importance to the economy and the way society functions. “The other side isn’t afraid of a fight,” Sosa warns. “And we have to be ready to fight back just as hard.” 

David Bacon is an immigrant rights activist, internationally acclaimed photo-journalist, and former labor organizer.  His latest book is The Right to Stay Home (Beacon Press, 2014).  His work can be viewed at:

This article originally appeared in The American Prospect.

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