Forty Days of Action for Immigrant Rights

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As the immigration reform bill remains in limbo, immigration activists are confronting human rights abuses and border militarization.  

This
article originally appeared at Waging
Nonviolence
.

Ten immigrant justice activists, including
one elderly nun, were arrested in New
York City on Thursday in protest of the unprecedented
detentions and deportations under the Obama administration. They also condemned
the U.S. House of Representatives for its lack of action in passing a
comprehensive immigration reform bill that would include a clear path to
citizenship for the 11 million people living in the United
States without U.S. residency papers.

Several faith leaders led a “Jericho walk” to the Varick Street
Detention Center
in Lower Manhattan, where people being
detained are held for processing before they are transferred. The marchers
arrived cloaked in white and singing freedom hymns. Others who were unable to
risk arrest because of their immigration status amassed along the sidewalk,
carrying signs, chanting and singing. The 10 activists spoke out against
detentions, as well as the particular challenges for LGBT detainees, before the
crowd coalesced in the street, effectively blocking the entrance to the
detention center. Police gave warnings before the protesters, who included
faith leaders and an academic, were handcuffed and taken away in a police
vehicle.

Detention centers across the country are
increasingly being targeted for actions that highlight the struggle of
immigrant families separated by deportations. Earlier this week, four activists
were arrested in Phoenix, Ariz., after chaining themselves to a fence
outside the city’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters. These
protests are part of 40 days of nationally coordinated civil disobedience and
other actions to protest the House’s stalled immigration reform negotiations,
which will not be debated until after Congress’ five-week August recess. Under
the bill passed by a bipartisan Senate vote in June, undocumented immigrants
will be required to come forward about their status, pay back taxes, learn
English and wait an estimated 10 to 13 years to become a citizen.

The 40-day campaign began on August 1,
when more than 40 civil rights, labor, religious and immigrant leaders and
Dreamers — undocumented youth organizing for the passage of the Dream Act,
which would provide a path to legal status — were arrested in Washington, D.C.,
outside the Capitol building. Protests continued in the districts of House
Republicans who have not pledged support for a path to citizenship. Last week,
more than 1,000 immigrant rights activists descended upon Bakersfield, Calif.,
at the district office of Rep. Kevin McCarthy. Several
House Republicans have publicly backed a pathway to citizenship in the last few
weeks, although McCarthy has not yet reversed his position.

The coordinated civil disobedience in New York City on Thursday
signals that advocates — which include a broad network of workers, faith
leaders, families, business owners and students — have intensified their
efforts and reaffirmed demands on Congress. As Manuel Castro, campaign
organizer for the New York Immigration Coalition, said, “Across the country and
here in New York, we are escalating pressure
and demanding a vote on citizenship for all 11 million people living in the U.S. without
residency papers. This week we protested in front of the Varick Street
Detention Center
to highlight the fact that every day the House of Representatives fails to act,
another 1,100 people will be deported, separating families and leaving children
without parents.”

Tens of thousands of people are detained
inside the United States’
immigrant detention system every day for unauthorized entry, reentry or
residency in the country, and many are later deported. These detentions are one
of the nation’s most rapidly growing segments of the federal prison system. As
outlined in a new report by the National Immigration Forum, the country’s
immigrant detention system costs taxpayers a whopping $5 million every day,
much of which ultimately profits private prison corporations that have been
contracted by the government. Under current immigration laws, judges often have
little power to halt mandatory deportations of people, even those with extremely
minor or outdated charges.

One of the people arrested at Varick Street
protest was Juan Carlos Ruiz. He came with his family to the United States from Mexico without authorization when
he was 17. Ruiz, who is now a citizen, is an ordained minister and the co-founder
of the national New Sanctuary Movement. He and other leaders of New York City’s New
Sanctuary Coalition staged the protest because they felt Dreamers should not be
the only ones escalating action. “We believe that clergy, prominent and
concerned citizens, and people of consciousness need to step up,” he said.

Ruiz expressed concern over the
immigration reform bill as it currently stands, stating that at least at least
2 million immigrants would not be eligible for legalization due to minor criminal
history. “Once you are labeled as a criminal, you don’t have any rights — you
are not treated as a human being.” This bill, he explained, “is going to drive
people deeper into the shadows.” Ruiz also cited frustration over plans to
expand the country’s detention system as well as to build additional fencing
along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The issue of augmented border security has
proved divisive for immigrant rights. One option they face is to accept a
Senate bill that would drastically increase military presence at the border and
government spending funneled to private security contractors — despite record
low levels of unauthorized crossings. Otherwise, they could reject the bill
despite heavy negotiations and compromise from lawmakers on both sides of the
aisle. Dreamers and advocates in border communities have been particularly
outspoken against border provisions in the Senate bill.

As attention is drawn to greater
militarization of the border as well as the costs, scope and impact of the
country’s detention and deportation policies, and as pressure for reform is
amplified, faith leaders like Ruiz have increasingly joined the struggle.
Catholic bishops and priests from major dioceses throughout the country have
declared they will preach a coordinated message in support of reform with a
path to citizenship. Evoking biblical teachings and the fact that many Latino
immigrants are Catholic, their efforts will include special masses on September
8, prayer marches and phone calls targeting 60 Catholic Republican lawmakers.
Even big business interests are wading into the debate, with Facebook founder
Mark Zuckerberg and other tech industry entrepreneurs leading a pro-reform
organization called FWD.us.

Dreamers continue to orchestrate the most
radical grassroots actions to highlight the immorality of the current system.
Last month, nine Dreamers who had been brought to the United States
as children staged a rare protest along the U.S.-Mexico border in order to
highlight record deportations under the Obama administration. When they
attempted to reenter the United
States, they were arrested, detained and
later freed from custody after supporters nationwide demanded their release.

There are still three weeks left in the 40
days of escalating actions, which straddle the 50th anniversary of Martin
Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. As the
anniversary was commemorated by a march in the capital on Saturday, the
coordinated surge of civil disobedience highlights the persistent injustices
and inequality embedded in the nation’s immigration policy.

Organizers say that after the 40-day push,
massive mobilizations will occur nationwide on October 5.

Image
by Waging Nonviolence/New York
Immigrant Coalition.

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