US: Mexican communities brace themselves for a Trump administration


Years of patient organising in the immigrant Mexican community of South Omaha, Nebraska, paid off this November, when all 18 precincts of Ward 4 voted against Donald Trump by a two-to-one margin. While the state of Nebraska went red (voting for Trump and the Republican Party ticket), working-class Omaha, Nebraska’s largest city, went blue (voting for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party).

Nevertheless, thanks to the Electoral College system, Trump will become president of the United States on 20 January 2017 even though he received almost two million fewer national votes than Clinton.

The Omaha results highlight both the achievements of years of organising in US immigrant communities, as well as the vulnerability of those same communities under a Trump administration.

“We have built institutions in which immigrants are winning power in the middle of a corporate culture,” says Sergio Sosa, director of Nebraska’s Heartland Workers Center.

He describes a 20-year history of community and workplace organising. “We resisted immigration raids in meatpacking plants under the Clinton and Bush administrations, and mounted marches and demonstrations for immigration reform. For eight years we’ve fought deportations while building a precinct-by-precinct power base under President Obama.”

Reaching beyond Omaha, the centre helped Latinos organise in Schuyler, one of many small Midwest towns where immigrants have become the bulk of the workforce in local meatpacking plants. In many towns they’re now a majority of the population.

“The reality, though, is that people in Schuyler are very scared of what a Trump victory will mean for them, as are people in South Omaha,” Sosa warns. “This is one of the big contradictions here - that we’ve achieved some degree of power on a local level while the danger from the national election results has increased dramatically.”


Policy more dangerous than rhetoric

During the US election campaign, Trump gained notoriety for referring to Mexican immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists”. He also won infamy for promising to build an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall” across the 2,000 mile-long US-Mexico border.

His policy proposals, however, are far more dangerous than his insults. His “100-day action plan to Make America Great Again” promises to “begin removing the more than two million criminal illegal immigrants from the country” on Trump’s first day of office.

While Trump says this action would be limited to “criminals,” it still raises the spectre of mass deportations. In a society with one of the world’s highest rates of incarceration, crimes are often defined very broadly. In the past, federal prosecutors have charged workers with felonies for giving a false social security number to an employer when being hired. Police accusations of gang membership have been grounds for arrest and deportation as well.

Some of the most extreme of the anti-immigrant politicians now advising President-elect Trump have claimed that being undocumented itself is a crime. In 2006, Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner even convinced the House of Representatives to pass a bill, HR 4437, which would have made it a federal felony simply to be in the US without legal immigration documents. That bill inspired huge national demonstrations, which prevented its enactment into law. Three thousand even marched in Schuyler - about half its entire population.

Furthermore, Trump’s immigration policy will be implemented by Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, who has been named as the Attorney General in the incoming administration. A climate change skeptic whose career has been dogged with allegations of racism, he takes a notoriously hard line on immigration: last year he proposed a five-year prison sentence for any undocumented immigrant caught in the country after having been previously deported, which is something Trump appears to support.

Under President Obama, the US has deported over two million people. Hundreds of thousands of these deportees have children and families in the US and have sought to return to them. Under this proposed law they would fill the prisons.

Another of Trump’s “first day” commitments is to “cancel every unconstitutional executive action, memorandum and order issued by President Obama.” This promise refers to the attacks by Trump, and especially the right-wing media ideologues now advising his transition team, on Obama’s executive order giving limited, temporary legal status to undocumented youth brought to the US by their parents (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA).

Young people who gained status under DACA – commonly known as “Dreamers” –have been one of the most active sections of the US immigrant rights movement.

Obama’s order itself was a product of their street demonstrations, their defense of young people detained for deportation, and even their occupation of his Chicago office during his 2012 reelection campaign.

In Omaha, many of the young organisers who have gone door-to-door registering voters in Ward 4 are DACA recipients from local colleges. Canceling “every unconstitutional executive action” would not only remove their legal status; because they’ve had to give their addresses and personal information to the government to get a deferment of deportation, these young people could become an easy target for a Trump enforcement effort.


An end to Sanctuary Cities

On his first day in office, Trump further announced, he will cancel all federal funding to Sanctuary Cities. Over 300 cities in the US have adopted policies saying that they will not arrest and prosecute people solely for being undocumented. Their actions respond to a federal policy for the past two decades, in which immigration authorities have sought to make police responsible for arresting and detaining people because of their immigration status.

Many cities, and even some states, have withdrawn from these federal schemes, notably the infamous ‘287.g program’. Trump’s proposed order would cancel the extensive federal funding for housing, medical care and other social services in cities that won’t cooperate in detention and deportation sweeps. As Attorney General, Sessions, who has criticised President Obama for not deporting enough people, can be expected to demand that local police cooperate with federal authorities in enforcing immigration laws.

After the election, city governments were quick to announce that they would not be intimidated by the threats. In San Francisco, which gets US$1.4 billion yearly in federal funds, Mayor Ed Lee said: “We’ll always be a sanctuary city”.

California Senate President pro Tempore [editor’s note: a senator who is chosen to preside over the Senate in the absence of the vice president] Kevin de León and California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon joined in a statement promising: “We are not going to allow one election to reverse generations of progress at the height of our historic diversity, scientific advancement, economic output, and sense of global responsibility.”

California, however, is a state where the Republican Party holds no statewide office, and has lost almost all power in its major cities. In Omaha, Sosa says, Trump’s victory has made Democratic politicians fearful. “The same groups that turned out the vote in South Omaha are now going to have to reconstruct the coalition that fought for measures like drivers’ licenses for undocumented people,” he says. They’ll have to meet with legislators to demand they actively defend immigrant communities against the federal attacks that seem imminent.

“People here have to remember the power they’ve built on a local level and use it,” Sosa says, “even in the face of a national defeat.”

Other groups, especially the dreamers, see direct action in the streets as an important part of defending communities. In the push for DACA, youth demonstrations around the country sought to stop deportations by sitting in front of buses carrying prisoners to detention centres. Even in detention centres themselves, detainees organised hunger strikes with the support of activists camping in front of the gates.

In Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio – who became notorious for ordering deputies to arrest people for being undocumented, and then parading prisoners through the streets to a detention camp – was finally defeated in his reelection bid this November. Carlos Garcia, executive director of Puente, a Phoenix immigrant rights organisation, declared that: “The people Arpaio targeted decided to target him. He lost his power when undocumented people lost their fear.”

Arpaio, who spoke for Trump at the Republican National Convention, tried to ride that support into reelection victory, but was defeated by a grassroots movement built through years of local organising.

One activist, Parris Wallace, told Alternet: “We reached out to Latinx neighborhoods all over the county. We talked to working-class white folks, college kids and people who are unlikely to turn out to vote. We reached out to the people who politicians don’t think it’s worth their time to engage.”

After the election, marches and demonstrations against Trump’s election victory have taken place in cities across the country, and students have walked out of high schools and colleges. Community support for people threatened with deportation has been a visible part of those actions, along with protests by undocumented immigrants themselves.

Maru Mora Villapando, one of the organisers of the hunger strikes and protests that have taken place over the last four years at the detention centre in Tacoma, Washington, says organisers have to start organising defense efforts immediately, instead of waiting for Trump to begin his attacks. That means pressuring the Obama administration to undo as much of the detention and deportation machinery as possible before leaving office. “We don’t want him just to hand over the keys to this machine as it is right now,” she warns.