From a Day Without Immigrants to a City Without Fear

From a Day Without Immigrants to a City Without Fear

As the Trump administration intensifies its war on immigrants, undocumented workers are resisting with the most effective weapon: a refusal to be afraid.

A speaker at the launch of the Freedom Cities campaign, New York City, January 20 (Jake Ratner)

As the Trump administration intensifies its war on immigrants, it has threatened a full-scale militarized crackdown in recent weeks. A wave of Homeland Security raids has targeted immigrant communities in several cities, with the backing of new rules that dramatically expand federal agents’ power to arrest, detain, and deport unauthorized immigrants. But if Trump seems hell-bent on bringing a certain kind of “law and order” to the country by terrorizing the most vulnerable, immigrant communities are resisting with the most effective weapon: a refusal to be afraid.

On February 16, amid the raids and Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric about ejecting “criminal aliens,” came the Day without Immigrants—a decentralized, spontaneously coordinated wave of protests across major cities including New York, Chicago, and Oakland. Nationwide, tens of thousands of mostly Latino workers are estimated to have participated in demonstrations and strikes. And while the day did not have a massive economic impact, the social resonance was explosive, showing that even for the communities in the administration’s direct crosshairs, it’s possible to resist Trumpism not with panic but rather with pride and dignity, building a sense of security through solidarity.

The day’s protests echoed an earlier campaign that helped launch the modern-day immigrant rights movement: the original May 1, 2006 “Day Without Immigrants,” which combined labor actions and pro-immigrant street protests to pressure Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform. The legislation foundered, but the movement went on to thrive and inspire immigrant workplace organizing, low-wage workers movements, and civil rights campaigns, all under the banner of economic justice and equal rights. Now the communities that led that campaign are on the front lines of anti-Trump resistance.

Community defense can start with something as simple as knowing your rights. In New York City, the economic justice organization Make the Road New York runs trainings to inform people about how to respond when ICE comes knocking—including refusing to answer the door unless authorities produce a warrant for arrest and knowing that with or without papers, everyone has the right to remain silent.

Groups like Make the Road are taking a proactive approach to reduce the number of New York residents caught in ICE’s dragnet in the first place. At the top of their agenda is ending the aggressive policing tactics that send tens of thousands of New Yorkers of color into the jails and courts every year for minor offenses—and put countless at risk of detention and deportation.

“Broken windows policing puts immigrant communities at risk by increasing interactions with law enforcement,” says Make the Road organizer Daniel Altschuler. Immigrants with criminal records for minor offenses such as jumping a turnstile or smoking a joint can wind up on Homeland Security lists and get sucked into deportation proceedings. “That’s one of the reasons that immigrant New Yorkers have long stood up with our black and brown allies to call for an end to broken windows policing—and for police reform and accountability.” To that end, Make the Road is currently working with a broad coalition of groups—ranging from the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement to the Democratic Socialists of America—to pass the Right to Know Act, a bill that would limit repressive day-to-day police practices such as unjustified “stop and frisk” searches in heavily patrolled neighborhoods.

In Los Angeles, Pablo Alvarado, head of the National Day Labor Organizing Network, which represents low-wage immigrant workers and their communities, is now building off the momentum of the February 16 Day without Immigrants to prepare for this year’s May Day demonstrations, which are set to be the largest since 2006. His group plans to channel its efforts in the coming months toward “decentralized” campaigns that wield economic power in tandem with direct action, including a range of labor and consumer mobilizations.

“The level of maturity of people is leading in a direction where the economic boycott could become a very feasible tactic moving forward,” Alvarado says. “The consciousness of people is growing in that sense.” Historically, mass joint consumer-labor actions like the civil rights–era boycott campaigns and the groundbreaking migrant-led United Farm Workers Delano grape strike and boycott have catalyzed public consciousness around social movements.

Alvarado is wary of emphasizing the threat of raids and deportation at the expense of more structural issues. As a labor organizer, he takes a broader view of social justice for migrants, encompassing far more than just having papers. He notes a common pretext used to paint immigrant workers as criminals, “social security fraud,” as an example of how a deeply punitive approach to law enforcement deprives immigrants of basic economic rights. While the “fraud” charge implies nefarious identity theft, it usually refers to nothing more than forging a number on a job application—a common practice, and, in many cases, a necessity to secure formal employment. Immigrant workers typically believe, he says, “‘If I apply for a job, I just want to be able to go and produce a social security number. . . . I want to have the same access as any other person has to apply for a job.’”

Anti-immigrant policies, Alvarado says, codify a systemic “war of attrition” on civil rights, seeking to make everyday life unbearable for the undocumented in hopes of eventually driving them to “self-deport.”

“People say, if I am driving and there’s a police officer patrolling behind my car, I don’t want to feel that fear. . . . I want to be able to go and register my kids at the school district and be treated . . . just like citizens are treated in this country,” he continues. “So these are the little things that people want and need in order to live a life that is equal to everybody else’s in those neighborhoods. Deportation is just . . . one obstacle that people have to face in their lives.”

The combination of social marginalization and aggressive policing now being championed by the White House was piloted years ago in Arizona, Alvarado notes. The state is home to the notorious SB 1070 law, which authorized local police departments to deputize their officers for immigration enforcement (and, in provisions that were ultimately struck down as unconstitutional, opened the door to sweeping racial profiling), as well as to the infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose twenty-four-year reign over Maricopa County earned him a reputation for spectacular raids and Trumpian rhetoric. Grassroots groups learned how to resist those policies through “neighborhood defense” strategies, which emphasize civil disobedience, mobilizing immigrant worker groups, and campaigning widely against federal immigration enforcement.

“Some people believe that in order to assert your labor rights, you have to have papers. And sometimes it works the other way around,” Alvarado says. “The reality is that all workers, whether they are documented or undocumented, enjoy the same rights, like the right to organize, the right to ask to be paid minimum wage, the right to go on strike. These are rights that everyone enjoys. In terms of labor, we need to assert those rights. Once you assert those rights, you can fight to stop your deportation.”

This approach of “living the values of labor,” as Alvarado describes it, is spreading rapidly amid Trump’s dual assault on both the working poor and communities of color. Back in New York, the New York Worker Center Federation, a collaboration of several labor advocacy organizations, has joined forces with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in a new initiative to build “Freedom Cities,” or places where community life truly embodies the labor movement’s values of solidarity and economic justice well beyond the workplace. The initiative was developed by immigrant worker organizers to help cultivate community leadership around a shared set of principles, centered around “safety beyond policing,” social equity, and economic justice. At its base are local worker centers, which—in lieu of a traditional union—provide workers with a vehicle to organize for decent working conditions and fair economic policies.

The “Freedom Cities” concept builds on “sanctuary city” policies, under which local governments order their agencies to refuse direct cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. As New York’s adherence to broken windows–style policing illustrates, however, the promise of “sanctuary” might amount to little more than a well-intentioned gesture as long as aggressive, racially polarizing police practices remain in place. In light of the escalation of federal crackdowns even in supposedly “immigrant-friendly” cities, the Freedom Cities campaign seeks more than a mandate of non-cooperation with federal authorities. It aims to build a more just, inclusive society from the neighborhood level up, through mutual aid, community protection, and long-term cultural change.

Basma Eid, a trainer with Enlace, a partner of the Worker Center Federation, says the inspiration for the campaign emerged from “workers themselves, who had been meeting regularly, building their leadership . . . they were the ones who were like, ‘This is the vision that we have.’” Worker centers, she says, offer a platform for members to air “really strong and important voices that are often being left out of the conversation around resistance,” since grassroots labor struggles tend to get sidelined in public discussions about Trump’s assaults on civil rights.

When both economic and social justice are under siege, whether in the face of an abusive boss or of the Oval Office, the key to community defense is to build from a place of strength, not fear. Organizing block by block, workplace by workplace, is the only way to secure immigrant communities and our democracy against the security state.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor to Dissent and co-host of its Belabored podcast.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece named the head of the National Day Labor Organizing Network as Pablo Alvarez, rather than Pablo Alvarado. The text has been corrected above. We regret the error.