Protests and advocacy seek to keep families together and pressure Obama to halt deportations.
For many years, Arizona immigrant rights activists were focused on the draconian state law SB 1070, which was partially struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012. Increasingly, advocates are shifting their focus to the mass deportation of people accused of being in the country illegally—a practice that destabilizes whole communities and splits up families.
“Hundreds of thousands of families are broken up every year,” said the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, lead minister of the UU Congregation of Phoenix. “Despite the national conversation about reform, the federal ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and the Department of Homeland Security continue to break up families every single day.”
The breaking up of families is a largely hidden issue, Frederick-Gray said, and one that often stems from the collaboration of ICE with local law enforcement in the Secure Communities program. “No reporters are present at the minor traffic stops that lead to ICE holds. Since it is not in the news, it is easy to forget that this remains a daily reality for hundreds of thousands of people, and millions live in fear of it happening to them.”
On October 11, Emrys Staton, a candidate for UU ministry and a member of the UU Church of Tucson, joined activists from the immigrant rights group Puente and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) in shutting down a federal “Operation Streamline” court proceeding in Tucson. The court tries and sentences about 70 people each day, usually in groups of 10 to 12 people at a time, for crossing the border outside a port of entry. Activists locked themselves to the front gate of the federal courthouse, preventing a busload of people from being brought before an immigration judge.
Staton was issued a ticket for disorderly conduct. He said most of the people whose hearings he helped disrupt were sent across the border to Mexico that night; however, their records will not reflect having gone through Operation Streamline. A record of having gone through Operation Streamline can make it very difficult if there is ever a pathway to citizenship, Staton said.
The Tucson protest was part of a string of actions to bring national attention to ICE, Staton said. “We want to bring attention to this particular part of immigration enforcement that we find to be pretty sinister. And we want to be an inspiration to folks around the country that when communities organize, we have enough power to have no deportations for a day,” he said.
Staton also works with the group No More Deaths, a ministry of the Tucson church, which places food and water in the desert for migrants crossing into Arizona from Mexico and assists them when they need medical care.
Staton is hopeful that UUs will continue to engage with immigration justice issues. “We had this peak and plateau of awareness and desire to be aware of immigrant issues at the Justice General Assembly two years ago in Phoenix,” he said. “I hope we can continue that momentum and follow through with commitments we made to stay engaged in this issue.”
Help is needed everywhere, not just in border communities, he noted. “In any community in the United States, there is a group of undocumented folk somewhere working in the shadows and hiding because the police and ICE could just kidnap them at any moment.”
Davier Rodriguez, a member of UUCP, was arrested in mid-November during a sit-in at the Arizona attorney general’s office. It was a protest to ask the state attorney general, Tom Horne, to revoke his lawsuit again Maricopa Community Colleges for granting students with deferred-action status resident tuition benefits. (President Obama in 2012 announced that his administration would stop deporting young undocumented people who met certain criteria under the proposed DREAM [Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors] Act.)
Frederick-Gray and members of UUCP were there to sing songs to Rodriguez and the other people risking arrest. “There continues to be this effort in Arizona by the governor and the attorney general to not allow federally recognized DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] students—who now have a legal status in this country—access and rights,” she said.
At the Valley UU Congregation in Chandler, the congregation continues to educate itself about immigration-related issues, said the Rev. Andy Burnette. He has been minister of the congregation for two years, after moving from Indiana, and he has found the learning curve steep, he said.
But he is committed to showing up when asked, particularly when families are at risk of being split up. He and members of the congregation recently marched in a rally in support of a mother threatened with deportation and separation from her husband and children. “It’s so important to keep families together,” Burnette said. “We’re deporting so many people every day, and needlessly. Unitarian Universalism cries out for us to make the case that families have to stay together.”
Frederick-Gray agreed that as a faith community grounded in love and justice, UUs must keep their attention focused on mass detentions and the 30,000 deportations that occur every month. That means pressuring Obama to end the deportations carried out by his administration, she said. “Obama has the authority to extend DACA to a larger number of people. He could set different policies and procedures for Homeland Security and ICE.”
The best way to act, Frederick-Gray said, is to send emails protesting people’s deportations, through groups such as NDLON. There are opportunities almost every day to write on behalf of a family that is being broken up, she said. “It’s an easy way to put pressure on the system.”
Photograph (above): An October protest outside the federal courthouse in Tucson, Ariz., sought to raise awareness about the thousands of families separated by deportations each year (Sandy Weir).
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Michelle Bates Deakin, a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington, Massachusetts, was a UU World contributing editor from 2006 to 2011 and a UU World senior editor from 2011 to 2014. She is the author of Social Action Heroes: Unitarian Universalists Who Are Changing the World (Skinner House, 2011) and Gay Marriage, Real Life: 10 Stories of Love and Family (Skinner House, 2006).