It's a Thursday, outside of the U.S. Capitol. Around 100 women are blockading a major intersection. Traveling from 20 states across the country, these women were prepared for the risk of arrest in this act of nonviolent civil disobedience. They represented the National Domestic Workers Alliance, CHIRLA, NOW, UltraViolet, America's Voice, The Black Institute, 9 to 5 Working Women, and the Tennessee State Conference of NAACP. Some of these women were undocumented immigrant workers and organizers. They all wore red shirts that read "Women for Fair Immigration Reform," and together, they took over the streets in front of the House of Representatives calling for long-overdue comprehensive immigration reform.
Rocio Inclan, the director of human and civil rights at the National Education Association, spoke: "We cannot build a strong country when children and families do not even know what tomorrow will bring. ... The time is now for fair immigration reform that treats women, children, and families fairly."
This wasn't one of the Families Belong Together rallies from last week or the Women's March of 2017. This rally took place in September 2013. About a year later, during a surge of unaccompanied minors arriving from Central America, the Obama administration considered revisiting practices of separating children from their parents, but instead proceeded with a mass expansion of family detention centers for asylum seekers. Not so long after, Hillary Clinton said that Central American refugee unaccompanied minors should be deported.
Fast forward to today, and — well, we all know. The Trump administration, with some help from the groundwork laid out by past Democratic and Republican administrations, is restructuring the U.S. immigration system, piece by piece.
Many of these changes happen under the radar and through various government agencies that are not highlighted in major news reports. Unless you are directly affected, or know someone who is, or do your part in learning about the process, you are typically unaware that these changes are even happening or are connected.
What many could not ignore this time, however, were the images, videos, and audio recordings of children separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border as a result of the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" policy. This sparked more than 700 Families Belong Together rallies in June calling for an end to family separations and family detention, as well as the abolishment of ICE.
In 2013, I could not have imagined the #AbolishICE movement would have the coverage it does today. Back in 2013, most folks outside of black and brown immigrant-organizing communities didn't recognize "ICE" as an acronym, much less an aggressive threat to communities.
ICE was created in 2003 under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) along with the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The former Immigration and Naturalization Service essentially had all three roles prior to 2003, but expanding the work to multiple agencies made room for Congress to funnel significantly more funds to immigration enforcement.
In 1996, two major legislations set the stage for the expansion of the use of detention and further criminalization of migration. Under these laws, asylums became much harder to apply for and receive. Opal Tometi, executive director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration and co-founder of Black Lives Matter, explained this legislation also meant immigrants, even those with legal residence, could be deported for "non-violent offenses, including relatively minor ones, such as marijuana possession, jumping a subway turnstile, or selling bootlegged DVDs." Today, as Congress green-lights anti-immigration bills, DHS is signing contracts with private prison corporations that lack proper regulation and have a history of inadequate health services, sexual abuse, exploitation of labor, and inhuman living conditions. Some may refer to these places as processing or detention centers, but we're going to call them what they are — prisons. These private prison corporations, the largest two being CoreCivic, Inc. and GEO Group, Inc., contribute millions of dollars in lobbying and campaign contributions in support of strict immigration enforcement policy because they depend on immigrant detainees to fill their prisons in order to make a profit.
If you have a prison but no people to put inside, what do you do? Fabricate the crime, create the "criminals," and pay for your rules to be enforced. We've heard of supply and demand? These private prisons are acting as both. People detained and put in these prisons are exposed to human rights violations. As Tometi has commented, the 1996 laws and the more that followed also targeted black immigrants at higher rates. Undocumented immigrants of African descent would be targeted by local police for being black and then be sent to ICE for deportation for not having papers.
These are some of the narratives often pushed to the margins. Our conversations need to expand to include these those voices. "Abolish ICE" is not a message for politicians to now co-opt for votes and then water down. It is a call to make evident those connections between immigration justice and matters including reproductive justice, racial justice, LGBTQ+ justice, criminal justice, and health care access. Alyen Mercado is a brown, queer, Latinx chingona and Memphian pursuing an Urban Studies and Latin American and Latinx Studies degree at Rhodes College.