Groundswell Organizing and Obama’s Executive Action on Immigration

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After President Obama signed his executive action on immigration last November, immigrant activists commended the president for his decision, which might help up to 4 million undocumented immigrants normalize their status, and at the same time emphasized that this action is not enough because it leaves another 7 million behind.  This new executive action follows a similar action in 2012 that protected “DREAMers”, or undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children, which is estimated to benefit 1 million residents.

With these actions the president is trying to rebrand himself as an advocate of immigrants. And while his executive action will clearly benefit many families and communities, it does not erase his track-record of fracturing families through 2.3 million deportations, more than any other president in US history.  This record has rightly earned Obama the title of “Deporter-in-Chief.”

The majority of deportations over the past 5 years have been processed through a program with the Orwellian title of “Secure Communities.” Far from protecting local communities, it has led to the fragmentation of immigrant families, and in large measure contributed to 3 million children orphaned by deportations. “Secure Communities,” or “S-Comm”, was designed during the Bush administration but implemented under Obama.  With his recent executive action, the president has now discontinued “Secure Communities,” and he replaced it with a program he claims will protect most immigrants (that is yet to be seen).

Obama’s Mixed Record

The national media is now caught up with the question of Obama’s legacy: will he be remembered as the “Deporter-in-Chief” or as the president who helped 5 million undocumented immigrants?  Is he a friend or a foe of immigrant families?

Personally, I think this is the wrong question to ask.  President Obama is a political actor, and as such, he responds to political pressures based on how he thinks it will affect him politically.

Obama’s policy record on immigration, like his record on the many other issues of our time–perpetual war, mass surveillance, the criminalization of communities of color–is mixed at best.  Yes, in some ways his policies have curbed Bush era policies. And at the same time other Obama policies have entrenched and even expanded upon Bush. With his executive actions, Obama’s policies will help immigrants, and through “Secure Communities” he has broken up millions of families. Given the totality of his record, there is no reason to give the president much credit.

The real issue is not whether President Obama is a defender of immigrant families or not. The story of the day is how immigrant activists successfully pressured the president to be in a position where he had no other option but to take decisive steps.  As Arturo Carmona, Executive Director of the immigrant advocacy organization Presente, said, “this was not a victory for President Obama and the Democrats. This was a resounding victory for the grassroots, for immigrants and Latino families.” And I might add: this was also a victory for immigrants and allies in our own community.

Grassroots Power

In 2010, I began organizing with local leaders, undocumented students and allies at UIUC, immigrant families and advocates, and together we founded the group that is now known as the “C-U Immigration Forum”.   Through this campaign I met and learned from activists, such as Andrea Rosales, an undocumented student leader at UIUC who was part of the student group La Colectiva, and who in 2011 participated in a civil disobedience action in Atlanta.  She and seven other undocumented youth from around the country sat down in the middle of the street to block traffic.  They were protesting the failure of Congress to pass the DREAM Act, as well as national and state policies that criminalized undocumented students.  They were arrested and held for possible deportation, but then released due to a well-organized pressure campaign.  The bold actions of Andrea and other immigrant youth activists, who risked being torn apart from their families and friends through deportation, was what eventually forced Obama to grant administrative relief to undocumented youth in 2012.

I also met and worked with another student member of La Colectiva, Jesse Hoyt.  Jesse was interested in expanding the work of La Colectiva beyond campus, and these initiatives helped give rise to the Immigration Forum. Later, in 2013, Jesse organized a community coalition of mostly black and Latino residents to stop the construction of a for-profit immigrant detention facility in Joliet, Illinois.  And more recently, Jesse was the Field Director on Carol Ammons’ successful campaign for State Representative (IL-103), which was similarly a bottom-up campaign of grassroots coalition-building and community power.

Starting in 2010 and with the members of the “C-U Immigration Forum”, I designed and organized a campaign to pressure the Champaign County government to opt-out of “Secure Communities”. While “S-Comm” was a federal initiative, it relied on local authorities to hold immigrants without a warrant in county jails.  Under “Secure Communities”, the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office began holding hundreds of immigrants per year.  Through Freedom of Information Act requests, we learned about this practice and brought it to broader attention.  We also organized mass know-your-rights trainings and town hall meetings to pressure local officials, and specifically Sheriff Dan Walsh, to sever ties with federal deportation agents. And in 2012, after an ongoing campaign of shaming the Sheriff’s Office, and community organizing drives designed to build our collective power, Walsh eventually caved and agreed to stop holding immigrants.

Because of our successful campaign, an estimated 200 immigrant families per year in Champaign County have escaped the ordeal of being torn apart because of a held or deported family member.   Our local campaign was actually a national pioneer. With our 2012 victory, our county became the 7th nationwide to opt-out of “Secure Communities”. Since then, local campaigns around the country have succeeded as well, and an additional 257 localities stopped enforcing the program. Now this movement has reached the White House. “S-Comm”, which was originally touted as a more “humane” deportation policy, intended only to target criminals (a thoroughly debunked claim), is now a source of shame for the administration.

Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and hence the nation’s highest-level deportation authority, wrote in conjunction with Obama’s executive action: “The goal of Secure Communities was to more effectively identify and facilitate the removal of criminal aliens… But the reality is the program has attracted a great deal of criticism, is widely misunderstood, and is embroiled in litigation… Governors, mayors, and state and local law enforcement officials around the country have increasingly refused to cooperate…”

Of course, immigrant and ally activists did not “misunderstand” the so-called “Secure Communities” program. Through its effects on our families, our friends, and our neighbors, we became keenly aware of the violence and tragedy that it brought to our communities. But Secretary Johnson did get something right: it was not Obama or the Democrats that won this victory, it was our own communities that stood up against it, spoke truth to power, forced local authorities to discontinue cooperation with the federal government, and by extension forced the Obama administration to finally act, and to grant administrative relief to 5 million immigrants and to discontinue the disastrous and shameful “Secure Communities” program.

And yet, there is still much organizing to do… La lucha sigue!

Aaron Johnson-Ortiz has worked as a labor and community organizer in Champaign-Urbana since 2010.






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