Immigrant Organizing in the Face of Threat

By Dina G. Okamoto

Immigrants in the U.S. are currently facing a challenging environment, as Trump has continued to espouse anti-immigrant sentiments and implement restrictive policies at an unrelenting pace.  These policy efforts include the lowest ceiling for refugee admits in U.S. history, expanded deportation of undocumented immigrants in the interior and along the border, the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border, attempts to dismantle DACA and eliminate Temporary Protected Status for hundreds of thousands of immigrants, and most recently, the deportations of Cambodian and Vietnamese Americans who legally arrived in the U.S. as refugee children.

In this blog post, I reflect upon research that I have conducted with Kim Ebert and Melanie Gast on immigrant civic and political action.  How do immigrant communities respond to threat?  We studied patterns of collective action in 52 metropolitan areas in the U.S., which varied by state, region, size of foreign-born population, economic stability, political leanings, and racial diversity, and found that when faced with anti-immigrant activity and restrictive policies, immigrants respond by engaging in public protests.  Across different areas such as Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Louisville, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Sacramento, and Orlando, immigrants participated in marches, rallies, and sit-ins when they experienced threats from the larger public and the state.  Such protests focused on amnesty, deportation, and refugee or immigration policy, as well as labor disputes, police brutality, and bilingual education as it related to the broader immigrant community.

But how might this help us to understand what is happening in today’s environment?  Our analysis makes the assumption that state and local contexts are important for shaping the dynamics of protest, whereas today, many of the attacks on immigrant communities are coming from federal policies and from Trump himself.  That said, states and local communities may be emboldened by the anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies at the national level, allowing states to pass restrictive ordinances and members of local communities to engage in anti-immigrant activity.  At the same time, immigrants and their allies may use threats as ammunition to build new coalitions and movements.

But how do immigrants get involved in protests and other kinds of collective public action, especially those who are the most vulnerable?  Community-based advocacy and social movement organizations play a key role in helping immigrants to know their rights and how to utilize their voices to make claims of public officials and the state Bloemraad and Terriquez 2011).  For example, progressive organizations such as Asian Americans Advancing Justice/Asian Law Caucus are working with communities to provide up-to-date information about changes in immigration policy, build multi-ethnic coalitions and campaigns, and bring forth lawsuits to challenge current immigration practices.

Importantly, advocacy and movement organizations have filled the gap over the past decades as the federal government has moved away from fulfilling the basic needs of the most vulnerable.  What is new is that these organizations are emerging as even more vital to low-income immigrant communities because they provide social services, information about local issues that affect underserved populations, and train the next generation of leaders and advocates.  These community-based organizations also help immigrants to develop a sense of self-worth and a critical understanding of social inequality as it relates to race, ethnicity, and citizenship and legal status.  In particular, we found that advocacy organizations in San Francisco encouraged low-income, undocumented immigrants to see themselves as part of a larger group who is deserving of public assistance.  Additionally, regardless of race, ethnicity, or legal status, organizations helped immigrants to translate their individual problems into collective ones.  Newcomers from different countries who were once fearful of contact with public agencies began to voice their needs and interests to local officials as a collective group.  As one of our interviewees explained, “We are all immigrants. We are the same.”

Not only are immigrants fighting back, but their allies are continuing to speak out and organize against unjust and discriminatory policies and practices.  Local residents are engaging in civic and political action to extend benefits, knowledge, and rights to newcomer immigrant populations, and to protest restrictive policies toward immigrants.  Our research shows that local residents are engaging in these kinds of collective efforts in places where the foreign-born population is moderate in size and growing, and where visible immigrant protests have taken place.  This is in contrast to the idea that a growing immigrant population operates as a threat to local communities. The increasing numerical and political presence of immigrants is part of a legitimation process, where local stakeholders begin to publicly recognize that newcomers are economic contributors, future voters, and neighbors who are here to stay.  In turn, elites and community members take civic and political action to support immigrant inclusion.  This process is likely to continue to operate in the current era, even as anti-immigrant rhetoric continues.

Organizations, community members, and political officials are also creating alternative narratives around immigrants and refugees, which emphasize empathy, equality, social justice, and economic progress.  In Clarkston, Atlanta, considered the most diverse square mile in the U.S., refugees who have been resettled there from Afghanistan, Burma, Eritrea, Syria, Tanzania, and other parts of the world, are being embraced and supported.  Key members of the community, including the mayor, are making compassion, diversity, and welcoming a central part of the city’s identity. In places like Baltimore, Louisville, Indianapolis, and Dayton, city officials have stepped up efforts to welcome and attract immigrants to offset population loss and revitalize the local economy.  City agencies and local officials have adopted a number of welcoming policies and practices, including the provision of language interpreters, community outreach efforts, free English classes, and help with certifications for professionals (Williams 2015).  Across the nation, a number of cities have also adopted sanctuary policies, which limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities.  Trump threatened to withhold federal funds from states and jurisdictions that adopt such policies, and some cities are moving toward other designations such as “safe cities”, “freedom cities”, and “welcoming cities.”  No matter what they are called, these towns, cities, municipalities, and even police departments and other public agencies are adopting practices that treat immigrants as equal members of the community, and foster environments that encourage their full participation in social, civic, and economic life.

While anti-immigrant sentiments and policies will likely continue into the 21st century, it is important to recognize that local communities comprised of immigrants and their allies are continuing to work to change the narrative, policies, and social environment one step at a time, and surprisingly, threats can operate as motivating forces.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Immigrants Rights Activism

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