Photo Credit: Athens for Everyone
Athens Immigrant Rights Coalition Coordinator Beto Mendoza (right) leads a town hall meeting at the Pinewoods library.
Editor's note: The Athens Immigrant Rights Coalition will gather at the corner of Prince Avenue and Pulaski Street Monday, May 1 (May Day) for a No More Deportations Rally and March.
The sun is setting on a balmy spring day a little over two years ago. We turn off Highway 29 into the neighborhood that has welcomed us so many times before, for soccer matches, Latino Fest or just to visit and share a meal. As we pull into the small driveway, the Mendoza brothers are bringing in folding chairs from the yard. A few others have already arrived. There are chips, pico, and pitchers of water and juice waiting for us. We catch up. Hugs are shared. Greetings exchanged.
This is my first meeting, joining a core group of immigrant rights organizers who have been working in this region for years. The members make up AIRC (Athens Immigrant Rights Coalition) and DIA (Dignidad Inmigrante en Athens). Unfortunately, this meeting was called in urgent response to a round of ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement) raids in several neighborhoods throughout Athens-Clarke County. We hear of at least 15 detentions.
Beto, one of the main organizers, gets calls and texts on his flip phone, sometimes in the middle of the night, from families who are frantically scrambling for help, as a loved one has just been picked up by ICE agents, removed from their home or workplace. We devise a “buddy” system to work closely with the families who remain, relying on volunteers and donations from the greater Athens community. This usually involves putting families in touch with immigration lawyers, assisting with bills to cover a small portion of income the detained family member provided, and connecting new families with others who have survived this brutal separation of their family through immigration enforcement. Over the next two years, all the detainment and deportation cases we work with leave behind many family members, and most leave behind a wife and children.
“No one is illegal.”
The words are simple, direct, and yet there is so much controversy around this issue, of illegality, of immigration and ultimately of what it means to be human. Immigration is debated in the news, in our classrooms, in our neighborhoods, as we hear of the Trump administration’s efforts to increase the hiring of border patrol agents, plans to start building the wall, bans against Muslim immigrants, ICE (Immigration Customs and Enforcement) raids across the country and threats to end Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Most of the people we worked with who were deported had charges based on the criminality of being undocumented. They were made into “criminals” based solely on their being in the country. The anti-immigrant sentiment we see currently emboldened by a Trump presidency has been politically active in Georgia long before his campaign.
Unfortunately, the state I was proudly born and raised in, has supported several forms of anti-immigrant legislation. In 2010, the Georgia Board of Regents established a ban to prevent undocumented students from attending the top 5 public universities. This ban works to explicitly maintain an ‘uneducated’ workforce, in an attempt to limit immigrant youth work options and entire futures.
In 2011, the state legislature passed an anti-immigrant law, HB87, mimicking Arizona’s notorious SB 1070. This law made it a crime to work under false papers, prohibited the transportation of undocumented persons (which has since been struck down), and mandated e-verify for private employers. Georgia’s SB 350, made driving without a license 3 times a felony offense. Yet, undocumented people can’t get a license in the first place. This law disproportionately targets communities of color and has been used across the state as a dragnet to meet ICE quotas.
More recently, laws like HB 37 have been drafted to prohibit private colleges, like Emory University, from creating “sanctuary policies,” while the University System of Georgia, which includes UGA, staunchly stands against the creation of Sanctuary Campuses. Currently, SB 1 is being proposed to the House, a bill that would expand the definition of “domestic terrorism” to target political dissent and attack protest rights throughout the state. These laws criminalize undocumented people and become grounds for deportation. They also limit people’s mobility and create a culture of fear for undocumented people, their often mixed-status families (in Athens 40% of immigrant families live in a mixed-status household) and allies protesting unjust laws and actions.
“Not One More!” “¡Ni Una Mas!”
The group’s work has remained steady over the past two years. This is to recognize the increasing number and rate of deportations under Obama, but also to place this anti-immigrant stance among a longer trend that began before his presidency and looks to escalate under Trump.
Within the first few weeks of Trump’s inauguration, the country saw a wave of 680 detentions, within Georgia this number reached 87 accounted detentions from as far north as Hall county, mostly in the Gainesville area, down to Savannah.
Through anti-immigrant legislation, human beings are made disposable, families torn apart, and divisions are secured between people who have great potential to unite and fight for justice and equity. Groups like AIRC and DIA, with support from other grassroots organizations like the Economic Justice Coalition and Athens for Everyone, continue to stand on the right side of justice, and are leading the fight against the criminalization and deportation of undocumented immigrants. While responding to detentions and deportations, these groups are also building a broad base of support.
Only through organizing collective power can these groups begin to push for legislative change, to do more than respond after people are forcibly removed and families are separated. This May 1, International Workers’ Day, these groups will gather together to march against deportations. They have chosen May Day for its historical significance, to recall the 300,000 workers across the US who walked off their jobs and went on strike for the eight-hour working day over a century ago.
In more recent memory, we can recall May Day mobilizations for immigrant rights in 2006, where millions of immigrants across the country walked out of their classrooms and off their jobs to declare “A Day Without Immigrants.” Let us stand with these groups, in honor of International Workers’ Day, to build a collective, bottom-up movement that connects these struggles for immigrant rights to those broader demands for racial, economic, and gender justice.
I’ll end on the oft-quoted, but powerful words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Let’s keep these words in mind as we move forward and continue building together.