New Orleans There are a lot of very hard organizing jobs in the country these days, but it’s a feat to claim that any organizers are tasked with a more difficult and heartbreaking struggle than preventing deportations of undocumented people from the United States. Organizers like to win, but the immigrant rights organizations and their organizers claim their victories in the hundreds while witnessing deportations carried out swiftly in the thousands. This is not a new struggle, but in the age of Trump, it is getting more attention. In that vein it was good to see a featured story in the New York Times Magazine by Marcela Valdes entitled “Is It Possible to Resist Deportations in the Age of Trump?” The answer in the piece was “yes,” but not often, and frequently when there is some success it is thanks to efforts by organizations like Puente in Arizona, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) nationally, and organizers like Carlos Garcia, who directs Puente.
I was fortunate to be working in Phoenix regularly before and after the passage of the draconian SB 1070 by Republican legislators attacking immigrants and clearly targeting all Hispanics in the process and often intersected with NDLON during that process and got to visit frequently with Garcia. Their boycott of Arizona cost the state “over $200 million in canceled business conferences,” according to the Times, but more powerfully they were the face and force of resistance in Arizona. NDLON and Puente argued that Arizona was in effect the “Mississippi” of the immigrant rights movement. In the warm glow of the aftermath of the Obama election in 2008, when I was doing a bit of work with several immigrant rights organizations, they were often one of the few and loudest voices pointing out that the emperor was wearing no clothes and that investments and strategic resources needed to focus on resistance and that ground zero was Arizona, even when they were drowned out too often by beltway advocates and money handlers. In the hopes of winning critically needed reform on immigration, many advocates wanted a more muted response to the record breaking level of deportations under Obama’s ICE and Department of Homeland Security and the Secure Communities Act which enabled Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s reign of terror. In Arizona, the world looked different and organizers had to respond on the frontlines.
Garcia and Puente’s organizing strategy in the wake of this crisis was classic community organizing translated into effective resistance by creating neighborhood defense committees or comites del barrio like those in Cuba and Nicaragua in order to build a base for real resistance among threatened families. Building such house-to-house strength in recent years required huge courage for immigrants to know and stand up for their rights, and paved the way for the more intense direct action required these days.
The stories of immigrant families being torn asunder in this national eviction are rending and dispiriting, but the terribly difficult work of these organizers and organizations is inspiring. In my house my well-worn “Legalize Arizona” t-shirt from the great Phoenix march against SB 1070 and Arpaio is worn more gingerly now, and we need a new one these days, but it should now say, Legalize America.