Why We’re Fighting for a World Without ICE
Under the cover of post-9/11 antiterrorism, the Department of Homeland Security has unleashed a carceral assault on immigrant families and children
This article is part of Abolition for the People, a series brought to you by a partnership between Kaepernick Publishing and LEVEL, a Medium publication for and about the lives of Black and Brown men. The series, which comprises 30 essays and conversations over four weeks, points to the crucial conclusion that policing and prisons are not solutions for the issues and people the state deems social problems — and calls for a future that puts justice and the needs of the community first.
By Cristina Jiménez Moreta and Cynthia Garcia
Immigrant youth and our families courageously left everything behind in our countries of origin to move to the United States. Some of us fled poverty, military coups, violence, and wars, while others simply wanted to go after a better life. While adapting to a new place, we’ve experienced some of the worst this country has to offer: workplace exploitation, wage theft, racial profiling, fear of deportation, and police violence. But as part of the immigrant youth movement at United We Dream (UWD), we’ve also experienced the power of people coming together, taking action, and winning change.
The seeds of our movement began with the idea that we have to protect and defend our families from deportation and fight for our right to access higher education. In the early 2000s, tens of thousands of undocumented students were graduating from high school each year. All of us lived with the fear of deportation and the looming possibility that our families could be torn apart, while simultaneously facing barriers to college education, exploitation at work, and a future filled with uncertainty.
This fear of deportation was heightened after September 11, 2001, as we witnessed how immigration enforcement and national security were being conflated in new and troubling ways. In the name of fighting terrorism, President George W. Bush created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2002, within which immigration and immigrants were considered matters of national security. This not only led to increased racial profiling and xenophobia, but as a result, local and federal law enforcement were targeting Muslims, Black immigrants, and non-Muslim immigrants of color at higher rates, often leading to detention and/or deportation.
Nationwide, thousands would be implicated by the post-9/11 enforcement regime, which produced an expanding infrastructure that supported local and federal law enforcement efforts to criminalize, target, detain, and deport immigrants. Within this infrastructure, we saw the increase in racial profiling, greater policing of Black and Brown communities, enhanced militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, and the implementation of racist federal policies, such as the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, which targeted immigrants from 25 countries.
Among the thousands who were affected by the post-9/11 regime were Kamal Essaheb and Walter Barrientos in New York and Marie Gonzalez in Missouri — three young undocumented immigrants who were threatened with deportation.
Their deportation cases spurred some of our first advocacy efforts that would eventually carry us forward in later forming UWD in 2008. Together, along with activists and organizers from across the country, we mobilized people to write letters and telephone elected officials to demand that the government allow Kamal, Walter, and Marie to stay in the United States, winning extensive media attention. Although Marie’s parents were deported, our organizing efforts stopped the deportations of Marie, Walter, and Kamal. This was a bittersweet moment in our fight to protect immigrants, as it further exposed the human impact of the enforcement regime in not only deporting immigrants but also tearing apart families.
In the early 2000s, tens of thousands of undocumented students were graduating from high school each year. All of us lived with the fear of deportation and the looming possibility that our families could be torn apart, while simultaneously facing barriers to college education, exploitation at work, and a future filled with uncertainty.
This moment also taught us that people closest to the pain are closest to the solutions our communities need. At the time, undocumented immigrants publicly fighting against deportations were unheard of. Yet, in defiance of conventional wisdom, undocumented youth and their families launched campaigns to share their stories, pressure those with decision-making power, and win deportation relief. It was clear that our movement had the power to create real change.
This was even more evident in 2012, when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was created as a direct result of our organizing efforts. Under the Obama administration, enforcement programs and collaboration between ICE and local police were aggressively expanded, leading to an increase in the number of immigrants being detained and deported even for minor violations, such as traffic infractions. Under the political calculation that ramping up enforcement would bring members of Congress from both parties to the negotiating table, the Obama administration deported a record number of immigrants from the United States. During Obama’s eight years in office, more than 3 million individuals and families were deported and separated from their loved ones. His administration failed to pass legislative immigration reforms, while the enforcement regime steadily grew in resources and power.
As organizers and directly affected people, we recognized this as a moment of leverage: By sharing our stories, we could pressure President Obama to take action. Our movement successfully created the conditions that led President Obama to implement DACA, which protected close to 800,000 young immigrants from deportation. The program continues to be the most significant policy breakthrough and victory on immigration in almost three decades. By sharing our stories and leading direct action and civil disobedience to get ICE agents out of our communities, we recognized the power we had in winning protection from deportation through policy changes.
This and other victories have strengthened our movement and brought hope to our communities — but as we have seen, mass detention and deportation have not stopped. ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the two agencies primarily responsible for immigration enforcement, have continued to carry out a racist and white supremacist agenda, targeting immigrants — particularly Black and Brown immigrants — for detention and deportation with little oversight or accountability. Clearly our fight is not over.
Year after year, failure at the immigration-policy negotiation table has been followed by near-silent acceptance of growing annual budgets and authority for ICE and CBP. Together, the two agencies employ more than 80,000 people, with a massive budget of $25.3 billion in 2020 ($8.4 billion for ICE and $16.9 billion for CBP), which is more than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined. Yet, while resources for the deportation force have grown, schools and hospitals in our communities often remain underfunded and suffer from a lack of federal support.
The deportation force of ICE and CBP, built by administrations on both sides of the aisle, has been completely unleashed under the Trump administration. ICE and CBP have carried out a list of attacks against immigrant communities, including putting children in cages; targeting immigrants in their workplaces, schools, places of worship, hospitals, and homes; and breaking down doors and abducting parents from their children. But the Trump administration hasn’t stopped there.
Throughout his four years in office, Trump consistently tried to dismantle DACA, reduce refugee programs, and detain and deport an increasing number of immigrants. Under his administration, we have seen 57 immigrants, including children, die in detention camps, the deportation of a woman who served as a key witness into reports of sexual assault and harassment inside ICE facilities, reports of forced hysterectomies being performed on immigrant women, and eight immigrants who have died as a result of Covid-19 while in ICE custody.
Facing these and a number of other attacks, UWD has fought tirelessly to protect and demand justice for immigrant communities. Over the past decade, UWD alone fought on behalf of more than 1,000 people threatened by deportation. Facing hundreds of calls per week on our community “Migra Watch” free hotline, UWD community organizers responded to immigrant families reporting interactions with ICE and CBP agents and needing help when their friends and loved ones faced detention and deportation.
In one instance, Tania, a cancer survivor in Georgia, was taken to a detention camp after a traffic stop. ICE agents kept Tania locked away for four months, away from her children and the cancer treatment she needed to live. UWD has fought on behalf of individuals like Hector, who was taken away after being stopped for expired tags on his license plate, and high school students like Dennis, who was dragged away by ICE agents after reporting being bullied at school.
Our history and the present moment have shown us that the risk of harm, detention, and deportation will always exist wherever police and federal law enforcement do. Our vision is for all people in this country, regardless of immigration status, to be able to live freely, with full dignity, and thrive. To get there, we must unite in the larger struggle against white supremacy and racism, which are rooted in interlocking systems of policing, mass incarceration, and immigration enforcement that, by design, target and further dehumanize immigrants, especially people of color.
At the same time, we must also acknowledge the historic erasure of Black and Indigenous people from immigration conversations and center these communities in our fight for immigrant justice. The United States’ legacy of genocide and colonialism cannot be ignored, as the impact of this continues to be felt today. We have seen indigenous immigrants die as a direct result of the U.S. immigration system’s failure to provide interpretation and translation services to immigrants who speak indigenous languages. In 2018, two children from indigenous Maya communities in Guatemala died in CBP custody after not receiving proper medical attention, as medical services were not translated in Q’eqchi’ and Chuj, the two indigenous languages that the children and their families spoke.
This is why, over the past decade, UWD leaders have made the demand of abolition and justice for all central to our vision, work, and movement strategy. Grounded in our lived experience, we know that ICE and local police work together to racially profile immigrants. For many in our communities, a traffic stop or any other contact with local police is the first entry point into the deportation pipeline.
Thus, when we call for the abolition of ICE, we are also calling for the abolition of enforcement on all levels and the systems that support it, from detention facilities to prisons. The abolition of ICE is inherently tied to the abolition of all other forms of enforcement and incarceration. Hence, UWD stands unequivocally with the Movement for Black Lives and its demands to defund the police, because we know that the police, ICE, and CBP work together to disproportionately target Black and Brown immigrants. We also know that the same people who profit from the mass incarceration of U.S.-born Black and Brown people also profit from immigrant detention and deportation.
We are engaged in a lifelong journey toward racial, gender, and economic justice. With each victory, our sense of what is possible should grow and our understanding of the vulnerabilities of our adversaries should deepen. A world where our communities do not have to live with the fear of deportation and detention is possible. A world in which we and others in the movement have abolished ICE — and where the safety, health, education, and well-being of our communities is a priority. We have witnessed and participated in a movement of undocumented people who have transformed the politics and policy of immigration with a bold vision of freedom and dignity for all people, regardless of immigration status. That movement has proven that when we follow the leadership and vision of those closest to the pain and injustice, a new world is possible.
Cynthia Garcia is an out, queer, undocumented womxn living in Oklahoma City. She serves as the national campaigns manager for community protection at United We Dream, where she runs a nationwide hotline of support for immigrants whose family members have been abducted by ICE agents and teaches them how to organize and fight back. Cynthia is herself protected from deportation because of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Cristina Jiménez Moreta is a community organizer, strategist, and freedom fighter who is a co-founder of United We Dream (UWD). Cristina migrated to Queens, New York, from Ecuador with her family at the age of 13 seeking a better life and grew up undocumented. She is the former executive director of UWD. Under her leadership, UWD grew into a powerful grassroots network of 800,000 members across 28 states.