• Reading progress will be automatically saved and restored
  • Reading position has been automatically restored

Essential but deportable

‘Welcome to Donald Trump's USA’: Immigrants take to the streets to defend their rights

From Facebook groups that alert the community of raids to neighborhood patrols to monitor “La Migra,” undocumented communities in California and North Carolina step up the fight.

Maye Primera / Almudena Toral / Isaías Alvarado / Andrea Patiño Contreras
La lectura del texto dura unos 50 minutos. Si lo prefiere puede escucharlo:
Narrado por Maye Primera

1 Listos para lo peor

In August 2019, when President Donald Trump tweeted angrily at the North Carolina governor for vetoing a bill that sought to facilitate the arrest of undocumented immigrants, activists in the state had already convinced several sheriffs to stop coordinating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Among those activists was Iván Almonte, who had been working to convey to the new head of the Durham Sheriff's Office, Clarence Birkhead, the challenges faced by thousands of undocumented families in the county. Across North Carolina, the Hispanic population has doubled since 2000.

During Birkhead’s campaign for sheriff, Almonte presented him with countless articles and arranged meetings with lawyers to highlight the issues. As a result, Birkhead promised he would stop collaborating with ICE if elected.

After pro-immigrant groups backed him, Birkhead was elected in late 2018.

Clarence Birkhead was elected Durham County sheriff in late 2018. Andrea Patiño Contreras

Even though Almonte is undocumented and thus cannot vote, he spends his time helping progressive politicians like Birkhead get elected. After taking office, the new police chief kept his word, joining five black sheriffs in North Carolina to cut ties with ICE.

"Everyone has the right to feel safe and not fear that someone will come to their home to take their mother or father to deport them," Birkhead told Univision News.

After the measure went into effect, more immigrants began to contact Birkhead’s office, likely due to increased trust.

ICE's response was swift: it put the six counties that withdrew collaboration on its list of "non-cooperating jurisdictions" and regularly posts photos of undocumented immigrants released by law enforcement there.

It also hardened operations in the area. In August and September of last year, ICE arrested almost 2,000 immigrants, closing 2019 with 13,247 arrests in the Carolinas and Georgia. The figure represents a 13% decline when compared to the previous year, but a 49% rise compared to 2016, the final year of the Barack Obama administration.

Since the start of the Trump administration, more than 26,000 immigrants in those states have been deported.

“Many of my friends, people from the community, were deported. Many children were left as orphans,” said Almonte, who has been undocumented since crossing the border 21 years ago. "The system is so unfair, the separation of families is so drastic.”

Iván Almonte, who is undocumented, advocates for families separated by ICE in North Carolina. Andrea Patiño Contreras

Since Trump won the 2016 presidential election, millions of people across the country have turned to activism to fight his policies. Immigration activists are no exception. At the center of their protests is Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which has led to mass arrests, family separation, children detained at the border and a refusal to grant asylum to those fleeing violence in their home countries.

Although many have spent years fighting for the rights of their communities, Trump’s harsh anti-immigrant policies have forced them to step up their efforts. Some new initiatives include a radio show hosted by day laborers, organizations that use social media to respond to ICE operations and “self-defense groups” that monitor Hispanic neighborhoods to drive away ICE agents.

Almonte promotes voting, lobbies to influence policies affecting the immigrant community in North Carolina and advocates for families separated by ICE.

Monica Segura had an early delivery due to a car accident, weeks after her husband was detained by ICE. With the help of her community, she was able to support her family. Andrea Patiño Contreras

In January, he received a message on Facebook describing a situation he’d heard many times before. Ecuadorian Monica Segura wrote that her husband, Alex Pineda, from Honduras, had been detained over a traffic violation and was now in federal custody. She was alone with their five-year-old son, in the midst of a high-risk pregnancy and no money to support her family. Weeks after Pineda’s arrest, Segura injured her spine in a car crash and went into early labor.

Immediately, the community organized around Segura. And Almonte visited Pineda at the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia. "When a family is separated, it is trauma, it is stress," he said.

In February, several activists threw Segura a baby shower in Durham to be able to give her diapers, clothes and other items for newborn Monique.

Four months after Pineda was jailed by ICE, the family received a pleasant surprise: he was released due to an outbreak of the novel coronavirus among detainees.

Alex Pineda was temporarily released due to the coronavirus crisis. Cortesía de Mónica Segura.

On May 2, he reunited with his family and held his baby for the first time. "It was very exciting to see him again,” Segura said. “It was a miracle from God.”

California Day Laborers Radio

"Good morning. Welcome to ‘Voces Jornaleras’ (‘Day Laborer Voices’) in another edition of Nuestra Voz Radio Jornalera.”

Although he ventured into radio just months ago, Mexican Luis Valentan greets his audience like a professional. He has been a day laborer for over 20 years, and works as a bricklayer, painter—or whatever his boss needs in a given day. Sometimes he gets a job while he’s on air. When that happens, he hands over the microphone to his co-hosts.

Recorded in a space that previously housed the Pasadena Community Center in southern California, ‘Voces Jornaleras’ has been on air since May 2019. It’s the morning highlight of Radio Jornalera, broadcast on the internet three times a week to audiences in Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, Ecuador and Canada.

The hosts of ‘Voces Jornaleras’ alternate working temporary construction jobs and informing immigrants about their rights. Almudena Toral

Valentan says that his program and the radio station were born from the need to inform the community’s most vulnerable immigrants—temporary workers who seek work on street corners and outside storefronts—about their rights. Many of his listeners are undocumented.

"Here on the radio we are focusing on empowering people to know their rights," he told Univision News.

The content on ‘Voces Jornaleras’ ranges from cumbias and protest songs to legal advice to tips on how to protect against ICE operations. A recorded message from the station counsels listeners on what to do if detained by immigration, or “La Migra”: “It’s important that you don’t sign anything and that you stay silent.”

Hosts also talk about police harassment, assaults by white supremacist groups and the president's political agenda.

"Unfortunately, the hostile environment that’s come from these racist policies has led employers to take advantage of workers, harassing them or threatening to call immigration or the police," said Valentan, who emigrated from Mexico City in 1991 and is now the father of three U.S.-born children.

Radio Jornalera is part of a "rapid response" network made up of various organizations that are willing to help in the event of an ICE raid in the area. The collaboration model, which works via social media, exists across the country.

Before starting an internet radio program, the hosts took part in pro-immigrant marches in Los Angeles, through their musical group Los Jornaleros del Norte.

"Music, art ... that is a form of resistance, more creative resistance. To create more strength in our community," Valentan said.

The ‘self-defense groups’ that follow ICE

“Good morning, my people. ‘La Migra’ is here,'' an activist warned over a loudspeaker on the morning of October 22, 2019, while driving through a Hispanic neighborhood in San Diego, California.

The moment was captured via live broadcast on the Facebook page of Unión del Barrio, a community organization created in the city 39 years ago. Towards the end of the video, two group members reported that ICE agents decided to cancel their mission. “‘La Migra’ did not leave on their own—the people forced them out," they celebrated.

Beni Martínez has become a sort of lone vigilante in San Diego’s Hispanic neighborhoods. Almudena Toral

At least twice a week, volunteers from Unión del Barrio head out at dawn to patrol the community and monitor ICE activity. They split up to be able to cover a broad geographic area, communicating via radio and gathering information from social media. They also change up their routes depending on the day.

The volunteers consider themselves "self-defense groups" and say their actions are in response to a police force that is "destroying" and "terrorizing" their neighborhoods.

"We were forced to create this 'self-defense' operation to keep our communities together,” said Armando Abundis, a 50-year-old from Mexico who has been a member of the organization since the 1990s. “We are tired of living in fear.”

That cold morning, he drove his black Jeep through neighborhoods inhabited mostly by Mexican immigrants, between highways 15 and 805. Another vehicle headed west. Both cars had signs on their doors that read: “Protecting the community. No more fear of ICE and the police."

Abundis’ car entered dark alleys, checked the parking lot outside a Hispanic supermarket and slowly patrolled several blocks.

"We started these patrols because we had to, due to the deportations that were going on here in the San Diego area," Abundis explained. "We try to locate people before an arrest that could result in a family being separated.”

When the group detects an ICE operation, the activists begin to broadcast live on Facebook and communicate with undocumented immigrants in the area to warn them not to go out.

Unión del Barrio also put together a guide that shows the vehicles most widely used by immigration agents. They’re largely American car brands with tinted windows and no license plates.

"The deportations that are taking place within our community affect us directly because these are people we know, people who are our neighbors, people who are family members,” said volunteer Rommel Díaz, who fled Chile during the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. “And if they are destroying us, who are we as a community?"

In a statement sent to Univision News, ICE warned that such volunteer activities may have consequences. "Interfering with a federal officer performing his duties or spreading falsehoods that cause hysteria is not only a danger to the officer, but also to the general public," said James Matuszewski, deputy director of the agency in San Diego.

But the Unión del Barrio volunteers are not the only ones in the area following “La Migra.” Beni Martínez, a Mexican immigrant who was undocumented for 23 years, patrols solo, relying on hundreds of Facebook users who follow his live broadcasts.

Hundreds of Facebook users follow Beni Martínez's live broadcasts as he searches for ICE operations in San Diego, California. Almudena Toral

In his red Honda, the activist drives the streets of Escondido, San Marcos and Vista, entering apartment complexes, business parking lots and other areas where he believes federal officials might be searching for undocumented immigrants.

"I 'hunt' for ICE agents, trying to find them before they make an arrest and deport someone," said Martínez, who decided to start patrolling—first in a group and later on his own—after Trump introduced his zero tolerance policy.

Martínez acts as a solitary vigilante in the migrant neighborhoods. He heads out early in the mornings, while it’s still dark out, and follows his instincts and the reports he receives on social media. To protect himself, he always connects to a live feed on Facebook and notifies his family where he is going. "Welcome to Donald Trump's America," he said.

In 2019, San Diego was the site of several large-scale arrests of undocumented immigrants, as Trump threatened to carry out massive raids in sanctuary cities across the country. In February, 26 employees of the Zion Market store were arrested, and in July, 20 immigrants were arrested as part of a week-long operation.

In spite of those arrests, the local ICE office ended the 2019 fiscal cycle with 2,280 arrests, 65% fewer than the 6,538 arrests made in 2013. It’s unclear how pro-immigrant groups influenced that decrease. ICE has said it’s been hampered by sanctuary laws that limit cooperation with local law enforcement.

Martínez has had some notable successes during his patrols, like the day he chased away undercover agents who were waiting outside an apartment building. "I filmed a gray Impala with tinted windows that was parked there for hours," he said. “People didn’t even go to work out of fear.”

Martínez, who left his native Guadalajara in 1993 due to drug violence, expresses satisfaction at having created an online community to monitor ICE. "I have thousands of eyes, people are reporting,” he said. “I know I’ve made ICE’s work more difficult.”

What's next in the resistance movement

A quiet neighborhood in Long Beach, in southern California, suddenly became a party, featuring Aztec dancers, taco sellers and traditional Mexican drinks. The next day, a mariachi arrived.

But it wasn’t a party; it was a protest outside the home of an ICE official demanding he resign, fix problems in detention centers and release immigrant children.

The protests took the federal agency by surprise. ICE called them an "attack" on its officials and their families, and alleged that the activists had taken their complaints to "another level.”

"We have groups standing outside the homes of our officers calling them Nazis and racists,” David Marin, the director of enforcement and removal operations for ICE in Los Angeles, told Univision News in November. “They are disrupting their lives and the lives of the people who are in their community, and that is unacceptable.”

Among the activists was Patty Chávez, well-known in California’s anti-Trump movement. She’s protested in front of the immigration transfer center in Los Angeles and outside the Adelanto prison. Recently, she showed up to raise her voice against Republicans who opposed economic aid for undocumented immigrants during the pandemic.

Patty Chávez is studying law at Peoples College of Law in Los Angeles with the hope to defend immigrants in court. Almudena Toral

“In California, we are winning over activists and the community because we have been organizing, fighting against discrimination, against ICE attacks,” said Chávez, who is an administrator of the Facebook group ICE Alert. “We go out to raise our voices for all those who are voiceless.”

“There are more attacks in our community,” she said. “People are afraid, they are terrified. They call me to say: ‘Patty, we don’t have food and we can’t go out because immigration will deport us.’ We’ve reached that extreme.”

Chávez was 14 when she left her native Michoacán and crossed illegally into the United States. She traveled with neighbors who’d promised her a job in the U.S., but when she arrived, they forced her to take care of three children. At school, she suffered discrimination. But her hardships awakened a fighting spirit and, in 2018, when Trump began separating thousands of families at the border, she engaged fully in activism.

She now has two jobs, is studying law at Peoples College of Law and is the coordinator of a resistance committee at Unión del Barrio in Los Angeles. "It’s basically the community resisting the attacks of 'La Migra,’" she said.

The group has its sights on the Adelanto ICE prison, where seven immigrants have died since 2011. The federal facility, the largest of its kind in California, has faced multiple allegations of abuse, neglect and mistreatment of detainees. "The situation is so horrible that many people try to commit suicide," Chávez said.

Her two teenage children are following in her footsteps and accompany her at protests. "That’s one of my purposes in life, to instill in my children the need to fight for the rights of others," Chávez said.

After winning his race thanks to the support of pro-immigrant groups, Sheriff Clarence Birkhead now frequently attends community events, including this February 2020 celebration to raise funds for the funeral of a Mexican immigrant. Isaías Alvarado
Despite threats from the Trump administration, Mexican and Central American immigrants in Durham, North Carolina, hold events to raise money and lift spirits. Andrea Patiño Contreras
Patty Chávez and her teenage children at a demonstration outside the ICE detention center in Adelanto, California. Almudena Toral
Chávez’s family has protested multiple times outside of California's largest ICE detention center, which has been plagued by complaints of abuse and where several undocumented immigrants have died. Almudena Toral

When asked what she’ll do if Trump is reelected in November, Chávez said she’ll continue to protest, inform undocumented immigrants of their rights, encourage voting and go after “La Migra.”

She’s not very encouraged by Democrat Joe Biden. After all, he was number two in the Obama administration, which deported almost three million undocumented immigrants, a record that remains unmatched even by Trump.

Almonte, the activist in North Carolina, said immigrants need to continue to unite their voices to create power.

“If this resistance movement didn’t exist, we’d be more oppressed,” he said. “It’s a collective resistance, a resistance of struggle, of dignity.”

Univision Noticias. 2020