While standing next to a large wreath of white carnations in front of Ground Zero on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Simeón Yañez was reminded that one can be both an advocate for and a threat to freedom. “Our friends are not recognized,” said Yañez, speaking of the undocumented workers who perished in the Twin Towers but have not been counted among the dead. “We’re the only ones making sure they’re not forgotten.”
As he gazed up at the gigantic Stars and Stripes on a building next to the “Tribute in Light”–two rays of light piercing the dusk-hour clouds from the ground he and thousands of other immigrants helped to clean immediately following 9/11–his contemplation was interrupted by a woman who walked past and said, “F–ing immigrants.” The 48-year-old Yañez, who survived death threats from death-squad operatives claiming to defend freedom in wartime El Salvador, kept his cool.
“She’s ignorant and doesn’t know what she’s doing. I have to deal with this a lot,” said the brawny, soft-spoken immigrant-rights activist, who organized hundreds of other Long Islanders to join the historic marches earlier this year. Only minutes later, a bald man wearing a corduroy sport coat with a US flag pinned on the lapel pushed through the small crowd of candle-bearing immigrants, many of whom bore flags of their native countries as well as the flag of their new home. As he got to the front, the man yelled, “You should not be here! You’re here illegally! You’re a threat to our security!” A calm Yañez countered, “We’re here to remember our dead, our injured,” as he stepped between the man and agitated Ecuadoreans, Dominicans and other men and women standing in front of the wreath. “They should have come through the front door!” screamed the man before being escorted away by nearby Port Authority Police.
Lowering and then shaking his head in disbelief, Yañez said, “Some of us have lived terrorismo here–and in our countries. This hatred only gives us more reason to keep organizing.”
This dynamic, of immigrant activism and native backlash, mirrors a larger pattern that has emerged in the past year. While the Republicans (and Democrats) have de-emphasized immigration and re-emphasized national security, immigrants themselves have been not so subtly linked to the terrorist threat. There is little doubt that 2006 will be remembered not only for some of the most massive marches in US history but as the year marking the Al Qaeda-ization of immigrants.
In this context, the Bush Administration’s immigration policies have become increasingly militarized. Halliburton/KBR was awarded $385 million in government contracts for the construction of migrant detention centers along the US-Mexico border. The Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security just handed major contracts to Boeing, General Electric and other military-industrial companies for the production of drones, ground-based sensors, virtual fences and other surveillance technology for use in the Arizona desert that were originally designed for war zones like the deserts of Iraq. In May the Administration announced the deployment of 6,000 additional National Guard troops to the US-Mexico border. That same month, and under the radar of most people outside the immigrant community, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE, now “the largest arms-bearing branch of the U.S. government, excluding the military,” according to a Cato Institute report) along with the FBI carried out hundreds of raids in neighborhoods and workplaces across the country. The ICE’s “Operation Return to Sender” program captured more than 8,400 immigrants between late May and August in what DHS officials hail as “the largest operation of its kind in U.S. history.” It is no coincidence that this same historical moment has witnessed the passage of the Military Commissions Act, which denies the habeas corpus rights of even legal residents who are suspected of providing “material support” to terrorist groups.
The immigrant-rights movement, meanwhile, has been declared all but dead by the mainstream media. In fact, it is regrouping in response to the national security panic gripping the country. The strategy questions raised by this climate dominated recent meetings in Chicago, Juarez (Mexico), Washington and the National Latino Congreso in Los Angeles, where more than 2,000 leaders gathered in early September. Historians like Eric Foner draw parallels between the national security pressures that shaped (and divided) the civil rights movement during the cold war in the 1950s and the situation facing movimiento leaders at the front end of the war on terror. “The danger is that criticism of American society will be taken as aiding an outside enemy, and that the range of allowable discussion will be sharply narrowed,” says Foner. “Another danger is the splintering of a movement as one group turns on another, to prove its patriotism.”
Today, as many black leaders did in the 1960s, a number of movimiento leaders attack the politics of national security fear with their ultimate weapons: faith and familia.
“With God as my witness, I am not a criminal. I am not a terrorist. I am a mother who doesn’t want to be separated from her son,” said Mexican immigrant Elvira Arellano from the makeshift room she calls home and shares with her 7-year-old US-citizen son, Saul, on the second floor of her church on Chicago’s West Side. Arellano, who made national headlines after taking refuge in Adalberto United Methodist Church instead of reporting to the DHS for deportation, provides moral, spiritual and political inspiration to a movimiento trying to redefine itself. “What is most important is that we, the inmigrantes, lead the struggle; we have to ask pastors, churches and other citizens to support us as we find a way to stop deportations and struggle for legalization,” said Arellano.
The 31-year-old mother says she drew her own inspiration from the Central American immigrants she recently met during visits to California and Boston. They shared with her, she said, their experiences in building the sanctuary movement of the 1980s, when refugees who were denied political asylum after fleeing US-backed governments in Guatemala and El Salvador persuaded US citizens of many denominations to declare their churches sanctuaries. Elected officials in places like Los Angeles and Madison, Wisconsin, made their cities sanctuaries, prohibiting law enforcement cooperation with immigration officials, and many of these sanctuary ordinances are still in force. Arellano has had to face numerous death threats, hate letters and anti-immigrant protesters who believe she is a lawbreaker and should be deported. But this has only strengthened her resolve.
“We’re watching the birth of a new sanctuary movement, and many are drawing inspiration from Elvira,” says Angela Sanbrano, president of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (NALACC), a network of more than seventy-five immigrant-led organizations in twelve states. “A lot of the repressive local and national policies against immigrants use a national security and anti-terrorist framework,” adds Sanbrano, who herself received death threats from Salvadoran paramilitary operatives and whose offices were infiltrated by FBI agents during the Central America sanctuary movement. “They use these strategies to develop fear, to create a chilling effect.”
In such a climate, says Sanbrano, who is also a leader in several national coalitions, including the Latino Congreso and the We Are America Coalition, “priority number one is challenging this fear by helping people understand their rights, by letting them know about this thing called the Constitution that says we can speak out and question immoral laws. Priority two is changing those laws.” Sanbrano attends weekly meetings with church and other Los Angeles groups planning to continue the sanctuary tradition started in churches like the late Father Luis Olivares’s La Placita church, where immigrants received food, housing and protection from immigration officials. During her travels across the country, Sanbrano says, she has encountered numerous church and community members who are preparing for the possibility that, rather than reform laws and legalize the more than 12 million undocumented immigrants like Arellano, Congress will create laws that further facilitate their exploitation. And some believe even worse things may transpire.
Nativo Lopez, head of Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana, a California-based association engaged in advocacy and organizing as well as legal and social services, says he already sees the effects of the more repressive immigration policies. “Since the marches, our offices are getting calls daily from people whose homes have been raided, from the families of workers who’ve been captured,” says Lopez, who is also one of the key members of the recently formed National Alliance for Immigrant Rights, a grouping of more than 400 organizations calling for an end to deportations and roundups and for full legalization of all immigrants.
Lopez has several fears about what may happen if the crackdown intensifies. The DHS is poised to implement new regulations for so-called “no match” letters, which are sent to employers by the Social Security Administration, or the DHS informing them of inconsistencies between government records and the information provided by workers. These letters are commonly used by employers as grounds for dismissal or to deny workers their rights. Lopez and Hermandad have started laying the groundwork for workplace committees to defend against the threats posed by the new regulations.
Echoing concerns about the melding of migration and national security in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, activistas in the United States are cognizant of the unique problems posed to the movimiento by the rise of a national security state here. And like the millions of Mexicans organizing against what they consider fraudulent elections and increased government repression just a stone’s throw across the militarized border, activistas here face colossal challenges. But rather than succumb to what they consider repression disguised as the defense of freedom since 9/11, Yañez, Arellano and many other leaders in the movimiento respond by opting to use hope, faith and good strategy in their own defense–in the process translating and defining “freedom” into and on their own terms.