My Summer in the Storm
On April 23rd, Governor Jan Brewer signed a controversial immigration bill into effect: Arizona SB 1070. One month later, I was driving to Los Angeles for my first day at National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), a public interest organization that seeks to improve the lives of day laborers in the United States.
I drove through downtown Los Angeles traffic, walked past a MacArthur Park taco truck, into the UCLA Labor Center, down a wide set of stairs, and into a basement lined with colorful posters calling for worker and immigrant justice. I was soon greeted by Pablo Alvarado, the executive director of NDLON, a former day laborer, a member of the band Los Jornaleros del Norte, and a man that TIME Magazine has called the “The New Cesar Chavez.” He told me I had just entered “the eye of the storm.” Four days later, I was in the streets of Phoenix among tens of thousands of people from all over the country marching on the Arizona State Capitol, witnessing small children brave five miles of blistering sun yelling “Justicia!” at the top of their lungs.
The nine weeks that followed were a blur of equally powerful experiences. Every morning I would track custom Google News and Twitter feeds to find anything relating to Arizona. What I found was that local legislators were weighing in on the immigration debate in huge numbers. Hundreds of cities and counties passed boycott resolutions, condemnation resolutions, and resolutions in support of the bill. During that process, I read hundreds of alarming news stories, including reports of heavily armed vigilante groups shooting at immigrants in the desert and stories on Sheriff Joe Arpaio making sweeps with a 50 caliber machine gun. I also read thousands of hateful anti-immigrants tweets, lashing out against amicus briefs from Latin American countries, mocking the exodus of Latinos from Arizona, or plainly insulting immigrants with the utmost vulgarity. The difficulty was reconciling these news stories and microblogs with reality.
One morning, in the parking lot of a 7-11 in Redondo Beach, a group from NDLON and I were giving a short legal training to some day laborers. A man confronted us, asking: “What are you doing?” We replied, “Talking to them about their rights.” He responded, “You know, we need to look out for our own. Citizens. People who belong here.” Some moments later, he hired one of the day laborers and left. As they left, we all looked at each other and a laborer voiced the thought we were all sharing: “They want our work, but they don’t want us.”
Some weeks later, we heard about a day laborer who had been arrested at a donut shop in San Bernardino. Laborers at his corner said that he was targeted, followed from the labor site to the donut shop and arrested there. But after he was arrested no one could find him. So we looked for him at the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility. The facility is located in a large office building with dark windows. On the side of the building, there is a single door with an innocuous label. If you ring a buzzer, a gruff voice will ask you what you want. If you give him the right answer, a tall muscular man wearing sunglasses will come out with a clipboard and ask you for a name. We gave the man the name of our missing day laborer. He told us that the name was not on his list. Before we left, he asked us who we were and what we did. We told him that we taught immigrants about their rights. He responded: “What rights?”
In my ten weeks at NDLON, I learned about the importance of coalition building, new media, community organizing, framing and messaging. I learned that if you lose a Ninth Circuit case in Redondo Beach, it will affect a preliminary injunction hearing in Arizona. I learned that translating complex legal and procedural issues, like “preliminary injunction,” into another language and across cultural barriers is very difficult. But by far, the most important thing I learned is this: There are people in this country with vast resources who can fund private studies, conduct independent polls, lobby legislators, and get laws passed. These people need lawyers. Then there are people who are trying to work, raise families, go to school, or just survive. These people need advocates.