Resisting ICE fear in North Carolina
A wave of workplace and neighborhood raids across North Carolina by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has resulted in a surge of detentions. This has sent shock waves through the immigrant community as ICE officials declare that this will be the “new normal” in the state. But this new wave of horror for the immigrant community has also been met with resistance. Immigrant rights groups across the state established rapid response networks, held protests at hotels where ICE officials are lodged and, just this past weekend, organized a large contingent at North Carolina’s annual “Historic Thousands on Jones Street” protest march.
ICE HAS ramped up activity across the state in a major way. What’s been going on?
OVER THE past couple weeks, we’ve seen increased ICE activity in various counties across North Carolina. ICE announced during a press conference on February 8 that they’d detained at least 227 people in the past week, mostly men from Mexico and Guatemala. Most were detained in work raids or neighborhood raids.
ICE explicitly expressed that this is in part retaliation to a wave of sheriffs, mostly Black, who were elected across the state last year who made commitments to end intergovernmental programs like 287(g), that basically deputize local law enforcement for ICE purposes.
WHY DO you think they’re acting so aggressively right now?
ONE THING we’ve been telling people is that ICE has been doing this for a while. This is certainly an escalated period of activity, but on average, 50 people get picked up by ICE in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia every single day.
The truth of the matter is that 70 percent of the people who get picked up by immigration officials are picked up in the jails. In many counties, ICE has intergovernmental agreements where they can deport people directly from the jails.
This past election, there was a wave of predominantly Black sheriffs who got elected in large part because they promised to end these intergovernmental agreements. Some have already done this, and others are in the process of doing so. The regional director for ICE, Sean Gallagher, announced that if ICE can’t run its operations through the jails, they were ready to hit the streets, and that this is going to be the “new normal.”
This is exactly what we’ve seen over the past couple weeks: undercover agents waiting in neighborhoods and trailer parks early in the morning to pick people up on their way to work or on their way back from taking their children to school. We know their goal is to instill fear into our communities and discourage any organizing, but we also know that they don’t need an excuse to rip our families apart.
ICE has been terrorizing our communities and will continue to do so — and we will continue to resist their attacks while building a movement capable of abolishing it.
WHAT HAS the response been from immigrant rights organizations?
THERE HAVE been a range of responses. From dismissing what has been happening as “only criminals are being targeted” to blaming sheriffs for bringing attention. Obviously, these are ridiculous claims.
ICE itself has claimed that nearly a third of the people picked up were “collateral”: people with no criminal background, but who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and with the wrong skin color.
We have also seen an amazing and courageous response from mostly grassroots organizations that have been determined to resist these attacks.
With the organization I work for, Siembra N.C., we’ve worked over the past couple of years to build a rapid response network made up thousands of people who can report the potential presence of ICE to a hotline, and trained responders can quickly move to verify and, if needed, disrupt ICE operations.
We have a very explicit vision of how this work needs to happen: We want to stop all deportations of all people, but also ensure that our communities can live without fear. We know that in moments of crisis, rumors can spread very quickly, and people panic. The purpose of the hotline is to verify whether or not ICE is present. That way, we report to our communities whether rumors are true or false, so that they can go on about their day.
The response has been truly amazing. We’ve been able to dispatch over 200 verifiers to five counties across the state, with volunteers waking up super early in the morning and following ICE vehicles around. We know we’ve thwarted at least a handful of deportations, and we’ve made ICE’s job a lot more difficult.
Of the families who have been facing detention, we’re now working with 34 across the Central Piedmont Region to provide them with support and encourage them to come forward and share their stories.
When detentions happen, there’s a lot of shame associated with it, and we want to assure families who have had relatives detained that there is nothing wrong with being in this country without documents, and that they have all the right to fight and make sure they can stay here.
HOW EFFECTIVE has this response been?
I THINK that we’ve been as effective as we can be. For the most part, immigrant rights organizations like ours remain underresourced, and there’s a limit to what we’re able to do as a result.
Another factor is that, as is only natural, most folks only react in times of crisis, and it’s difficult to convince people — volunteers and immigrant families alike — that we need to prepare ahead of crisis moments so that we’re ready to go when they emerge.
It’s not the most popular strategy, but we think it’s necessary so that when we’re faced with situations like the past week, we’re ready. Taking all this into account, we’ve been able to build an infrastructure that’s effectively stopped a number of deportations, and enabled us to respond to hundreds of calls reporting ICE activity.
We know we have a long way to go, and that we’ll need more resources to be able to provide this model to other counties around the state as well.
CAN YOU talk a bit about what immigrant-led resistance to ICE has looked like in North Carolina over the years?
I THINK it has been very similar in many ways to the national picture. There have been a number of organizations that have come and gone, mostly nonprofits that have sought reforms via closed-door meetings and/or electoral work. There have been also many examples of impressive grassroots organizing efforts across the state led by directly affected communities.
However, there hasn’t been much cohesion between those larger organizations with resources and those smaller groups working to build the leadership of undocumented folks.
Moreover, a lot of the work has often focused on particular segments of the immigrant population, whether it’s DREAMers, people with Temporary Protected Status or other groups. I think this is indicative of a weakness we’ve seen across the country where we haven’t been able to solidify a truly grassroots movement that stands with all immigrants.
This is something we’re really forefronting in our organizing these days — that in order for one group of immigrants to be safe, we all need to be safe, no matter whether people are deemed “worthy” of being here or not.
As tragic as this week has been, we’re really seeing the potential for this vision taking hold and seeing the willingness of people to come together to ensure that we can build a movement that unapologetically affirms that no human being is illegal
WHAT ARE the next steps you see for building and sustaining resistance to ICE in North Carolina?
I THINK that we have a very challenging task ahead of us. Since 70 percent of detentions happen within jails, we can’t avoid the question of how to break the link between ICE and local law enforcement.
Like I was saying earlier, there are new sheriffs in five of the most populous parts of North Carolina, all of whom are the first-ever Black sheriffs in their counties. Many of them have been coming under vicious attacks from the right wing, but most of them won in part due their plans to leave intergovernmental programs that allow ICE to pick people up from county jails.
So, we’re in this interesting position where we’re having to throw weight behind these sheriffs to first counteract the racist vitriol coming their way, and also to make sure that they break these harmful links between ICE and local law enforcement.
In addition to this, we’re going to need to keep providing relief, education and training to mobilize our immigrant communities. Many people simply don’t know their rights and that they can fight to stay here, so they simply sign voluntary departures.
We want to encourage people to fight — and to know that when they do fight, they make their fights public and bring more and more folks into the movement. This is how we can begin to cohere a layer of immigrant leaders to fight back against the deportation machine.
We know that we have to continue building and organizing around them, because that is the only way we can keep each other safe.
At the same time, we need to continue arguing that the only way we will eventually end these attacks is by building a mass, broad, intersectional movement powerful enough to win our bigger demands to Abolish ICE, along with all white supremacist institutions created to oppress us.