By Peter Zschiesche
There can be no doubt that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids at workplaces and in neighborhoods will once again become major activities in our area – top officials in ICE have said so. After California’s Governor Brown signed a law limiting California law-enforcement officials’ cooperation with federal immigration authorities, Mr. Holman, a top ICE official warned, “California better hold on tight—they’re about to see a lot more deportation officers.”
Top ICE officials have also said that they intend to instill fear among all undocumented immigrants, to force “self- deportation”, and we see this is beginning to happen. Fear is real when facing immediate, forced separation of families on a moment’s notice – without even knowing how to find loved ones – losing everything that residents have worked for sometimes for decades while here in the United States.
Those of us paying attention read of a Virginia mother was sent back to El Salvador after her 11 years in the United States unraveled because of a traffic stop. A Connecticut man with an American-born wife and children and no criminal record was deported back to Guatemala. A workplace raid in California nets 6 workers that ICE was not looking for and now they face deportation back to Mexico. 150 more are reported arrested in the Bay Area in recent days.
ICE made 37,734 “noncriminal” arrests in from October 2016 to October 2017, more than twice the number in the previous year. This category of arrests includes suspects facing possible charges as well as those without criminal records. These are doing no great harm to the rest of us and in most cases are working hard to make good lives for themselves, their children and local economies.
Many immigration advocates and many more good-hearted people are asking what can we do to respond to this attack on families and human dignity? What is the right thing to do when we know that the wrong thing to do is to watch it happen and do nothing? What can citizens do when they disagree so strongly with our federal immigration laws?
Upon overturning an ICE case where they took an undocumented immigrant activist into custody, U.S. District Judge Forrest said, “It ought not to be — and it has never been — that those who have lived without incident in this country for years are subjected to treatment we associate with regimes we revile as unjust…we are not that country.” It seems that we are about to become that kind of country!
We have been in this situation before when draconian federal laws challenged the fundamental morality of so many citizens that they felt compelled to act in ways that challenged the power of those laws. In 1850 the Fugitive Slave Act became law in a United States dominated by Southern slave-owning states. It stated among other things that slaves that escaped from those Southern states were the property of their owners and people in the non-slave states were compelled to return those slaves to their owners.
In response to this law, abolitionists (those seeking to abolish slavery) and many others opposed to slavery pushed for state and local laws that sought to counter this federal law – sound familiar? These were local attempts much like our sanctuary cities and states to protect immigrants today. The South considered this treasonous then, and our current Attorney General, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, a super conservative from Alabama, has a similar opinion about our national sanctuary movement.
During the 1850’s those opposed to federal enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act often took matters into their own hands. When confronting slave-owners who came north seeking to recapture their slaves who had escaped, some cities ran them out of town or jailed them for violations of local laws. Citizens took matters into their own hands and protected ex-slaves or set them free when recaptured. These responses were often motivated by the moral refusal to see humans returned to the cruelty of bondage, especially after witnessing the brutal taking of ex-slaves by brute force and shackles.
To get a real feel for how this resistance operated in local areas throughout the non-slave states, read “Bound for Canaan, the Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement” by Fergus M. Bordewich. It is our history as recorded by so many and taught to us by so few.
This is all to say that from time to time in our history, people of good will find ways to respond to bad laws and, for some of us, this is the time to respond to the cruel and unnecessary enforcement of our federal immigration laws, now being administered by those who express hostility to immigrants.
In San Diego as in several other U.S. cities, a local “Rapid Response Network” is being organized and many people can become part of it, doing what they can to take stand for what is morally right. This network describes itself as an “interconnected system of organizations and individuals working together to respond to dehumanizing immigration enforcement activities, including checkpoints, raids, arrests, and harassment, occurring in San Diego County.”
The network maintains a 24-hour hotline at 619-536-0823 to document that kind of enforcement, provide emergency assistance, and connect affected people with resources. There are dozens of volunteers already staffing the hotline, but they will need more. There are other dozens who will volunteer to record objectionable ICE activities and offer impacted families emergency relief, but they will need more volunteers, too. There are lawyers who have volunteered their services to those seeking legal assistance and community organizations who are helping to develop the network further.
This is not 1850 with its Fugitive Slave Act but it is that kind of moral moment when good folks need to ask themselves, when ICE came and carried away hundreds of our local neighbors, fellow workers, churchgoers, parents of my kid’s friend at school or relative of mine, what did I do to respond?
According to the network, there are many ways to respond that can fit individuals’ or groups’ skills, circumstances, and resources.
Peter Zschiesche is a former Machinist Union Business Agent and President of IAM Local 389. Over the past 30 years, he has worked with the last 5 leaders of the San Diego Labor Council and served on its Executive Boards with 3 of them. He founded the Employee Rights Center in 1999, retired from there, and remains active on its governing body, Labor’s Alliance. He also serves as a Trustee of the Board for the San Diego Community College Board since 2002.