In the middle of a sweltering heat wave, about 200 people gathered Saturday afternoon in the auditorium of the Nancy DeBenedittis Public School for a town hall hosted by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The gathering, which centered on immigration, illustrated how the junior politician is balancing her newfound national prominence with the goals of the grassroots movement that elected her and the needs of her constituents—47 percent of whom are immigrants.
Planned in February, the town hall had since taken on added significance thanks to the Trump administration’s announcement that it would be deploying Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to conduct raids in 10 cities across the country starting July 14. The operation was intended to target an estimated 2,000 immigrants the administration claimed had ignored final deportation orders. But the mass raids Trump promised have not yet taken place. And while ICE agents were spotted across New York City, their attempts were thwarted. Thanks to immigrant rights organizations and their allies, who in the lead-up to the planned raids, passed out information to people on the streets, in bodegas and at subway stops, and across social media, immigrants and their families knew not to open their doors to ICE agents knocking.
Many of the people distributing know-your-rights pamphlets in the Bronx and Queens last weekend were staffers from Ocasio-Cortez’s office and volunteers who were mobilized by an e-mail push from her campaign. While Democratic politicians were tweeting advice about what to do in the event of the raid, Ocasio-Cortez was one of the few who actually leveraged her campaign infrastructure to organize on the ground.
This willingness to dedicate resources and time to her community showed that her election, as a field-team leader for her campaign said in 2018, represents “a new kind of relationship between an elected representative and [their] constituency—one founded not on favor trading and machine politics, but instead on movement building and radical power sharing.”
“What does it mean to hold her accountable and have her address the specifics of this densely immigration based district?” asked Jackie Orr, a volunteer with the Jackson Heights Immigrant Solidarity Network who attended the town hall. “Our local needs that aren’t the same as Democrats.”
Before the meeting began, in a humid hallway outside the auditorium, grassroots organizations were setting out literature on plastic tables. One group had printed copies of what a judicial warrant looks like, for reference in the event of a raid. Another, the New York Immigration Coalition, had displayed stacks of colorful pamphlets, which a man in a blue shirt was flipping through as he talked to the manager of community engagement, Lovelie Tejada, who was wearing an AOC pin on her lapel.
Switching between Spanish and English, the man explained that his mother worked as a seamstress in the basement of their house. People were often coming and going, he said, but one day, local police walked into the building, claiming they were looking for someone who lived there. It made him worry that ICE could do the same. “Does the public have any protections over the police lying?” he asked.
“No, we don’t,” Tejada said. “That’s just the hard truth.”
She handed him a blue-and-orange card that had know-your-rights information in English, Spanish and Chinese. He promptly put the card into his wallet. “None of this ever happened with Joe Crowley, I swear to God,” he said, laughing and shaking the organizer’s hand.
Inside the auditorium, as staffers from Ocasio-Cortez’s office were setting up microphones and ushering press to the back, constituents and attendees slowly took their seats. The diversity of the district was evident in who showed up—from members of Adhikaar, a Nepali workers center, in matching blue shirts to the organizers with African Communities Together (ACT) in Ghanaian kente cloth—and reflected Ocasio-Cortez’s organizing strategy. During her primary election, Ocasio-Cortez and her supporters knocked on over 120,000 doors, sent 170,000 text messages and made 120,000 phone calls. “I was always focused on organizing people, building a coalition, and deepening that coalition with other organizers,” she said in an interview last year.
Instead of corporate donations, her campaign was powered by first-time electoral organizers and buoyed by local radical and working-class organizations like NYC DSA, Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, and Muslims for Progress. But it was Ocasio-Cortez’s pledge to abolish ICE that initially defined her campaign: It showed she was willing to stand up to establishment orthodoxy, and galvanized progressive coalitions to support her candidacy.
Now that she’s in office, those same organizations are watching to see if she’s keeping the promises she made—namely, taking the fight to abolish ICE to the Capitol. Many activists present at the town hall said they felt Ocasio-Cortez was sticking to her roots. “The congresswoman has a tremendous platform, and she’s used that platform to articulate a challenge to the kind of xenophobic discourse of both Trump and the right wing of Congress,” said Ahana Kassa, the director of ACT. “And it’s been both important, politically, but also for our community members just to know you’re not alone. It makes them feel courageous, it makes them feel supported.”
The congresswoman discussed the work she was doing in Washington to support grassroots organizing: specifically her vote against a $4.6 billion border-funding package that ultimately made it past Congress in late June. “You do not have to put a kid in a cage, and you do not have to ask for more money to put kids and families in cages,” she said on Saturday. “An enormous amount of this money was going to agencies that were not treating people humanely.”
She also went beyond policy to talk about how her office could advocate for constituents navigating the immigration system or facing deportation. Fifty percent of the casework handled by her office is related to immigration, she said. “I’m turning inward to our community where first and foremost we are protecting ourselves no matter what this president does,” she added.
Around 10 grassroots organizations tabled or spoke about the work they were doing on the ground. They were also supportive of Ocasio-Cortez’s work in Washington. But some organizers are still trying to square Ocasio-Cortez’s national reach with her responsibility to the community, where the local needs don’t always jive with Democratic Party policy. “We felt that contradiction really clearly,” said Orr, the volunteer with the Jackson Heights Immigrant Solidarity Network. “Do we want [AOC)] to lobby for national immigration policy or do we want to pull her close? We don’t always have total harmony.”
Replacing the current immigration system with a more humane one is one of Ocasio-Cortez’s stated priorities. During the Q&A portion of the town hall, she discussed a number of policies she hopes to pursue in office. Among these proposals are the introduction of a work-authorization act for asylum seekers, the creation of what she called a “9/11-style commission” to look into the Trump administration’s separation of families at the border, and the abolition of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
The congresswoman argued against the consolidation of power under DHS, adding that ICE and the Federal Emergency Management Agency should not both be housed under a single umbrella. “Maybe it’s not radical to say that George Bush wasn’t right,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
After the event was over, as people queued for a picture with Ocasio-Cortez, Jonathan Bailey, a member of Queens DSA, pulled up a WhatsApp chat on his phone named Ocasio2020. “This is literally the people that made the campaign go,” he said. “We’re all still here.”
Bailey said he thought the work she was doing was “essential” to reforming the Democratic Party. “It sets a precedent that congressional members can and should be using their campaign funds they could use to get themselves reelected and put that toward base-building in the community and creating new networks of solidarity,” he said. “That’s a really big deal.”