On September 28, 2010, Esteban Garces led dozens of people in blaze-orange T-shirts into the Arlington County boardroom. The son of Bolivian immigrants, Garces had forgone a higher-paying career in network security to be a community organizer for the Northern Virginia nonprofit Tenants and Workers United. The members of the group were filled with excitement that day: they saw Arlington as the first step in challenging the mounting feeling of insecurity created by new immigration policies. At the head of the room, County Board member Walter Tejada introduced a resolution opposing the controversial Secure Communities program, stating that it "will create divisions in our community and promote a culture of fear and distrust of law enforcement that threatens public safety and makes communities less safe." When the board voted, it was unanimous.
Garces and the group had launched their campaign in April of that year, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) enrolled Arlington in Secure Communities. Largely unknown at the time, the federal immigration enforcement program enlists local police to share the fingerprints of every individual arrested with federal immigration authorities. Those identified as being in the country unlawfully are then located by ICE for detention and, eventually, deportation.
Garces recalls thinking that S-Comm was "the new incarnation of 287(g)," the contentious federal-local enforcement partnership that trains some police officers to directly enforce immigration law. For Margaret Huang, executive director of Rights Working Group in Washington, DC, and then-chair of the Arlington Human Rights Commission, the new program presented a fresh opportunity to look at the broader human rights violations associated with local enforcement of immigration law. And Arlington, with its history of progressive and pro-immigrant politics, seemed like an ideal testing ground for an organized pushback.
Garces, Huang and other activists worked quickly to form a coalition of immigrant organizations, human rights advocates, and church and union leaders concerned that S-Comm would create fear within the county’s immigrant communities. The coalition also worked closely with elected officials and law enforcement authorities to shape the county’s response to the program. But despite their local focus, says coalition member Edgar Aranda-Yanoc of the Legal Aid Justice Center, "we always were thinking about the national level."
Their efforts paid off at that meeting in late September, when the five Arlington County Board members unanimously approved the resolution asking ICE to allow the county to opt out of the program. Meanwhile, a similar process was taking place on the other side of the country. Less than an hour before the Arlington meeting, the Board of County Supervisors in Santa Clara, California, also voted to withdraw from S-Comm. The resolutions in Arlington and Santa Clara, in turn, followed earlier efforts by San Francisco and the District of Columbia to withdraw.
Even though DC remains the only jurisdiction to have successfully opted out, these coalitions inspired other localities and states to raise concerns about S-Comm. The flurry of resolutions revealed the emergence of a diffuse network of immigrant rights advocates, faith communities, local law enforcement and elected officials across the United States joined in opposition to S-Comm. As Garces is fond of saying, "The best thing you can do in the absence of [federal] immigration reform, when you know that the possibilities are very much close to zero, is to act locally to have national impact."