PHOENIX – Among the thousands who march each day in support of the Black Lives Matter movement are immigrants and their advocates.
But protesting for them has an added risk: inadvertently winding up in immigration custody.
All over the country, immigrants are expressing solidarity with the movement that has taken off since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The same organizations that advocate for migrant rights are lending their support to Black Lives Matter, and many feel compelled to also march, often saying they relate to the struggle black people face with punitive policing and racism.
But with the deployment of federal immigration authorities to marches around the country, and with the existing relationships many local jails have with them, even marching peacefully — or in some cases, being at the wrong place at the wrong time — can upend someone’s life as they know it in the U.S.
At least four immigrants were arrested by Phoenix police as marches were beginning to take hold. Three of the four are protected through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shields immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation and allows them to work. Because the local jail allows officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement in its facilities, they all ended up in immigration custody, including a well-known young activist who has DACA protections and who was released the next day after intense pressure from immigration activists. The activist, Máxima Guerrero, had been serving as a legal observer and wasn’t participating in the protest when she was arrested, according to the organization she works for.
Immigrants — and especially Latinos — have been targeted in protests before.
During the 1992 unrest in Los Angeles after the police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted, federal immigration agencies including the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Border Patrol were sent in to help police.
According to a report by the Tomás Rivera Center completed shortly after the unrest, immigration authorities took advantage of the riots to find unauthorized immigrants. There were reports of not just immigration authorities pulling people aside, but of Los Angeles police sending people they'd detained straight over to them.
At that time, Madeline Janis was running CARECEN, a nonprofit that helped Central American refugees in the Los Angeles area. Janis, who now runs a nonprofit that advocates for good jobs for communities of color in the U.S., started getting calls from families who reported their relatives had been arrested and they couldn’t locate them, including the families of several pregnant women who Janis said weren’t involved in the protests.
“I just remember being so angry and outraged and people being so afraid,” Janis said. Central America was in the aftermath of decades-long civil wars, and people were terrified of being forced to return, she said.
Janis doesn’t recall what became of the three or four pregnant women she helped in that time.
“It just felt triply outrageous that these police officers were arresting these pregnant women for no reason and sending them off to these terrible situations. It just reeked of inhumanity,” Janis said.
The immigration authorities dispatched to recent Black Lives Matter protests, including Customs and Border Protection, have been mum about what they’re doing and where, saying doing so “could jeopardize operational security.” Democratic lawmakers have been critical and have demanded they provide more information. But authorities have said they’re not at protests to enforce immigration laws.
“This deployment is about supporting the efforts of our federal, state and local partners, not about carrying out CBP’s immigration enforcement mission. This is about the preservation of life and safety. We currently have resources deployed in several states undertaking various operational support roles at the request of our fellow law enforcement agencies,” the agency said in a statement last week.
That rings hollow for many of the immigrant advocacy groups who have little trust in CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Groups say they’ve been fielding calls from immigrants who want to participate in marches but aren’t sure if it’s safe to do so.
Scott Foletta, supervising attorney with the Immigration Defense Practice for the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, says his organization has been advising people to be watchful of their surroundings. The organization has also put out online flyers that recommend people write their attorney’s phone number on their arm and turn off facial or fingerprint ID on their phone.
“There is a lot of concern in the community if they can go out and protest,” Foletta said.
Jose Antonio Vargas, the founder of Define American and a well-known immigration activist, says he feels safe at the protests he has attended in Berkeley, California, but wouldn’t be so sure about going to one in places such as Phoenix, where the local jail collaborates with ICE.
Vargas has gotten a lot of private messages from immigrants who have DACA or are undocumented about whether it’s safe for them to protest. Vargas tells them he’s glad they want to participate but they should know there are risks.
He said the issue of police brutality against black people resonates with immigrants because they’re often subjected to or fear aggressive tactics by immigration authorities.
“Let’s not forget that the militarization of the border and the militarization of police forces are linked,” Vargas said, adding that they conduct the same “aggressive targeting of unarmed civilians.”
Vargas says he’s seeing fellow immigrant communities, especially young people, address anti-black racism in their own families.
“We bring kind of our embedded ideas about color of the skin and then we get here and part of our process of being Americanized is realizing that there’s this black and white dynamic and black means this and white means that,” Vargas said. “What’s happening is both these communities are trying to reject the same thing. They’re saying no more being anti-black in our families.”