Turning the tide: inside a Texas city’s struggle to stop deportations

    An average of 19 people are deported from Austin each week. Here’s how one group is strategizing to bring that number down to zero.
    Austin residents blocked the Travis County jail as part of an ongoing effort to force the sheriff to stop complying with a federal program to speed deportations. (Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition)

    Months before they blocked the doors of the Travis County jail, members of the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition saw the writing on the wall. National organizations had been pushing them to fight for comprehensive immigration reform. But although members of the coalición, as the group is called in Austin, were conducting lobby visits, making phone calls and holding rallies as recommended, the bill wasn’t moving.

    Frustrated, they united with activists from around the state to build a human “border wall” in front of Sen. John Cornyn’s Austin office the day the immigration reform bill passed the Senate with amendments to militarize the border — a move that many agree would be sure to lead to increased deaths among those crossing. During the action, dozens of people lay in the street to symbolize dead migrants, and five were arrested.

    But it was too late to make an impact. Cornyn voted against the bill even though the border militarization amendments were inserted to appease him. Summer turned into fall. National immigrant justice organizations continued to instruct local groups to lobby lawmakers and rally at city halls. Meanwhile, the bill never made it to the floor of the House.

    So in the final months of 2013, undocumented activists in Austin quietly began planning their next move.

    ‘Can’t we stop this program?’

    Carmen Zuvieta’s husband, Roman, was deported February 19, 2013, a few months after he had been booked for a non-immigration offense at the Travis County jail.

    The day he was deported, Zuvieta became an activist.

    “It’s like a fire was lit, and it hasn’t gone out,” said Zuvieta. When people press her on why she spends so much time in meetings, she explains, “Organizing isn’t just the best way to defend our rights, it’s also great therapy.”

    Zuvieta and her two children became fixtures at the coalición meetings. Her home life was hard, since the family had depended on Roman’s income and her daughter had been battling depression. But the meetings made the separation more bearable, and she became committed to finding ways to protect other families from having to go through the same experience.

    The policy that had led to her husband’s deportation — and the deportation of tens of thousands of others across the country — was a national program called Secure Communities. Quietly rolled out by the Obama administration a few years earlier, the program requested that local law enforcement match all fingerprints taken at jails with ICE records, effectively deputizing every local policeman as an immigration agent. The Orwellian-titled Secure Communities program, better known as “s-comm,” also allows ICE agents to request that local police hold immigrants — whether or not they had been charged with a crime — for up to 48 hours until ICE could collect them and put them into deportation proceedings.

    Although the program is clearly worded as a “request,” the majority of police departments across the country automatically began complying, turning over tens of thousands of immigrants and helping Obama break all previous deportation records.

    “Can’t we stop this program from separating more families?” Zuvieta often asked at coalición strategy sessions. For months coalición leaders had been obligated by the terms of their funding and the fervent desire for reform to continue pressing the intractable Congress. But by the fall, just as the group was looking for a way forward beyond reform, affiliates of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network began a series of blockades of detention centers and ICE buses as part of their #Not1More campaign, building on a tactic engineered by youth activists out of Chicago. Emboldened by the national movement, coalición members spotted an opportunity to fight back against s-comm during the upcoming sheriff elections.

    A campaign is born

    As early as 2011, activists in some key cities had begun turning the tide against the Secure Communities program. In Chicago and San Francisco, groups successfully organized to prevent local police from complying with ICE requests except for convictions related to certain violent crimes. Cities like Newark, N.J., eventually went further, banning all coordination with ICE by any city agency for any reason. Twenty other cities have followed suit so far, including Washington, D.C., Miami and New Orleans. Last year, California and Connecticut passed Trust Acts, legislation designed to limit local coordination with immigration agents. Similar bills are now pending in Massachusetts and several other states. Just last week, Philadelphia became the most recent state to ban Secure Communities.

    In Austin, where 35 percent of county is Latino, the fight against s-comm has increased significance. For the last four years, Austin has been the fastest growing city in the United States. The number of deportations has kept pace, and Austin currently has the third-highest rate in the country. Over 4,000 residents have been deported since 2009, all after being booked at the Travis County jail. Zuvieta’s husband was one of 19 people deported on average each week over the last five years.

    Although the current sheriff of Austin has defended his participation in the Secure Communities program, coalición members knew new county commissioners would be elected in 2014. Because the county votes heavily Democratic, they also knew the real election would be the primary in March. The group set their strategy: Make Travis County’s deportation crisis a central issue in the coming elections, setting the stage to end s-comm using creative direct action to shift the political narrative. The success of the #Not1More campaign nationwide pointed the way.

    After weeks of research to understand the issue and their targets, Zuvieta and other members began giving presentations on the issue in Latino churches and at gathering spaces in local trailer parks. While her son Amauri played with a toy train at her feet, Zuvieta and her colleagues spoke with community members about the fear many felt each time they left home to buy groceries, unsure whether they would return that same day or end up in immigration court. Her eyes sparkled when she spoke of what had been accomplished in other states and of their plan to defeat the sheriff.

    To build the campaign, coalición members helped start the #19TooMany Working Group, which — along with other local groups and civil rights attorneys — met with the sheriff two days before holding a community forum on deportations. He wouldn’t budge. So Zuvieta and others publicly launched the campaign on the day of the forum, while quietly spending the weekend preparing for the “real” launch: A blockade of the Travis County jail the following Monday morning.

    Shifting the narrative

    After a busy two days painting banners and rehearsing the plan, six activists, supported by dozens of others, locked themselves together with PVC pipes in front of the Travis County jail. They blocked the door through which undocumented immigrants are remanded to federal custody as a way to symbolically stand in the way of all deportations. The action drew coverage from every local news station and the national Telemundo broadcasts, thanks in part to press support from the National Day Laborers Organizing Network.

    The following week, coalición members held a public vigil to remember deported family members at the sheriff’s headquarters — and to remind him that they wouldn’t shy away from confrontation. Family members built elaborate altars stacked with photos and candles, around which they huddled in the cold to hear the stories of those left behind and of their determination to end the county’s deportation program.

    Next came a Valentine’s Day protest: a surprise “Thank You for Having a Heart” flashmob on the second floor of the Commissioners Court. As they delivered Valentine’s Day cards written by children whose parents are in deportation proceedings, undocumented spokespeople thanked confused staffers “because we know the commissioners will take action to stop these deportations.” Commissioners later told reporters that although they were against the program, they had no direct control over the sheriff.

    Finally, two weeks before the primary election, the group held a #19TooMany candidate forum, which drew candidates for all the competitive races. Language justice has been a coalición priority throughout the campaign, and simultaneous interpreters made it possible for all 200 people present to participate in English and Spanish. Responding to pointed questions from undocumented coalición members, the candidates tried to outdo each other, with most promising to cut the sheriff’s funding if he couldn’t be persuaded to stop complying with Secure Communities. Local reporters began asking why Travis County can’t take the same steps as Miami and San Francisco.

    Moving into phase two

    Coalición members like Zuvieta know that blocking Secure Communities in Austin is only one fight of many to advance the group’s mission of securing human rights for all county residents, and they know they’ll need to unite with many others locally. That’s why, before setting a strategy for the next stage, coalición members and allies are focusing on expanding the community by bringing more families together who have pending detention cases and strategizing how to reach out to African American organizations and others that experience discriminatory policing. The coalición is also taking the time to reflect on the work that has already been done.

    At a recent debrief meeting, Zuvieta rushed in with Amauri in tow, having just picked him up from daycare. She had suggested the group spend time appreciating each other’s contributions over the preceding two months. She also took some time to reflect on the changes she had experienced in exactly one year and one week as an organizer.

    “I used to believe I needed to follow someone,” she began. “I always looked to other people for the answers. But after the last year I’ve begun to realize that I had the answers too, that I’ve been learning and growing as a person, and that we can rely on each other, rather than look to other people or politicians to have the answers for us.”

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