For many immigrants living in the United States, President Trump’s rhetoric and recent executive orders have become a source of confusion and fear. But the president’s hard line on immigration also appears to be providing a new opportunity for activists, who’ve long struggled to generate interest in issues that affect the undocumented community.
Undocumented immigrants, by definition, have a vested interest in keeping a low profile. Few nonimmigrants who do interact with them in their daily lives are probably even aware that they are undocumented, making it hard to combat efforts to paint the entire community as “criminal.”
“The demonizing effect of that word creates a very difficult public narrative,” said Jacinta Gonzales, field director at Mijente, a Phoenix-based Latino and immigrant advocacy organization. “It makes people not want to show up when they’re most needed.”
Recently, however, immigrant rights advocates have been getting some help from an unlikely source: Donald Trump.
President Trump made cracking down on illegal immigrants a central feature of his presidential campaign, and among the first actions he took upon entering the White House was to order the construction of a wall and detention facilities along the U.S. border with Mexico.
However, much of his strategy for dealing with immigration simply expands on policies followed under President Barack Obama, who oversaw at least 2.7 million deportations while in office, more than any other U.S. president.
But getting progressives and even members of the broader immigration movement, which has largely been focused on immigration policy reform, to fight back against immigration enforcement and deportations was a lot harder under a Democratic president.
“Now we have a bogeyman,” said Erika Andiola, a prominent advocate for the undocumented and former staffer on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
“I’m not saying Trump isn’t doing worse than what we had before,” she continued, referring to the fact that Trump has scrapped the Obama-era Priority Enforcement Program, or PEP, which sought to prioritize the deportation of convicted violent criminals, known gang members and others deemed a threat to public or national security, over those with nonviolent, often immigration-related charges on their records.
“There was sort of a narrative framed around [the] Obama deportation machine that … only violent people were getting deported,” Andiola said. However, she added, the reality was that “the deportations of people who shouldn’t be deported” started before Trump took office.
“Now we have the ability to tell that story because people are paying attention to that,” she said.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency have insisted that the recent immigration raids resulting in 680 arrests were part of routine enforcement operations. However, cases involving people who had been protected under Obama administration policies — such as Guadalupe García de Rayos, who was deported following a routine check-in at the ICE office in Phoenix last week; Daniel Ramirez Medina, a 23-year-old with no criminal record who was taken into ICE custody in Seattle this week; and Jeannette Vizguerra, an undocumented mother of four who has taken refuge in a Denver church for fear of deportation — offer evidence to the contrary.
“Under Trump, those dehumanizing words are being applied to the whole community,” said Gonzales. “Anyone is at risk for deportation.”
While this has created a terrifying reality for members of the undocumented community and their families, it has also provided a new opportunity to generate support for an issue that has long eluded public interest.
“It wasn’t easy to mobilize other folks around this issue,” said Andiola, who was involved in organizing local support for Garcia de Rayos ahead of the routine ICE check-in that resulted in her removal from the United States after more than 20 years.
Of the 200 or so people who showed up to protest outside the ICE office in Phoenix where García de Rayos was taken into custody last week, Andiola said that the majority were already connected to the immigrant rights movement in some way.
However, as national media picked up on García de Rayos’ story and the widespread ICE raids that followed, Andiola said she started to hear from people outside the activism world “who wouldn’t necessarily ask about what to do before,” but were angry and had suddenly become eager to get involved.
Other organizations have noted a similar increase in support from outside the immigrant rights movement.
“Since the election, the grassroots fundraising response has been inspiring,” said Julie Miles, development director at Make the Road New York, a nonprofit organization that advocates for low-income Latino and immigrant communities. “Small online donations have increased by 500 percent.”
A spokesperson for Make the Road also told Yahoo News that the organization has seen a major spike in participation in its Aliados, or allies, network, made up of mostly nonimmigrants from outside the communities it serves. More than 400 people reportedly attended the latest allies meeting this week.
Even before the recent ICE raids, Make the Road had teamed up with other local organizations to help mobilize massive numbers of people in response to other Trump administration policies that threaten all immigrant communities. More than 5,000 people protested at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport the night after Trump ordered a travel ban for citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries, and a rally drew more than 30,000 to Manhattan’s Battery Park the following day.
Across the country, events like this week’s “Day Without Immigrants” boycott, when immigrant workers, both naturalized and undocumented, decided to stay home, have continued to promote a more unified showing of solidarity from within and outside the broader immigrant community.
Gonzales is a strong proponent of such intersectional advocacy, but emphasized that it will take more than protests to create change. “Marches can be great space for us to have our voices heard and to get people excited,” she said. “But we constantly have to remind people that it doesn’t end there.”
Given the federal government’s expressed commitment to cracking down on deportations, she said, the objective now is to “build off that momentum,” to get more people involved in demanding action on the state and local levels.
“Without government officials weighing in, it becomes a completely lost cause,” she said. “Political speeches on sanctuary aren’t enough; we need policies that protect all of our communities.”
While Trump’s recent actions may be increasing awareness of the cause, Gonzales and others noted that the new administration has transformed the political landscape. “The tactics and strategies that could be used under the Obama administration are no longer useful,” she said.
As organizers continue to test the waters, Andiola is trying to leverage public interest in the stories of people like Garcia de Rayos, to stop deportations on an individual level. She expects the public will have plenty of opportunities to grasp the human impact of harsh enforcement policies as more people face ICE check-ins, undergo deportation proceedings, and, inevitably, decide to take sanctuary.
“For a lot of us, we’ve seen this for so long,” she said. “Harsh enforcement [during the] Obama administration was a harsh reality for us. Now it’s a harsh reality for the rest of the country as well.”