If and when Donald Trump’s administration executes on his deportation strategy, immigration advocates are starting to formulate a plan.
The resistance movement in Austin, Texas, centers on a diminutive reverend ready to create a physical barrier between undocumented migrants and immigration enforcement agents.
When agents arrive at the door, undocumented immigrants can call for help and one or more US citizens will quickly arrive to stand in front of the door, watching, challenging and filming law enforcement with the goal of ensuring constitutional rights are respected and encouraging a media spotlight.
“We have kind of a canned spiel that one person just keeps repeating,” said Babs Miller, a minister at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin: “‘I am a trained and certified immigration observer, notice has been given that there’s an incident to be observed, do you have a search warrant, may I see it please?’”
Miller is part of the Sanctuary in the Streets initiative, which aims to frustrate immigration raids – an enforcement strategy that was used to target Central American families by the Obama administration last year and is expected to be a feature of the next president’s term.
Activists in Austin and elsewhere are seeking to publicise and expand on methods that were developed in recent years during the White House tenure of the man activists derisively dubbed “deporter-in-chief”.
“We’re trying to respond now to the threat of the Trump administration and the possibility that it will get even more severe than it has been,” said Sofia Casini, immigration programmes coordinator for Grassroots Leadership, an anti-mass incarceration group that announced its upcoming plans at a press conference in Austin on Monday.
Trump has pledged to remove up to 3 million undocumented immigrantsquickly. “I think that we should take him at face value; everything that he says we should believe,” Carmen Zuvieta, of the ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] Out of Austin group, said through a translator. A mother of three, her husband was deported to Mexico four years ago.
Unless they have a warrant signed by a judge, ICE employees are not allowed to enter homes without permission.
Last January’s high-profile sweeps in several states including Texas prompted advocate groups to urge undocumented immigrants to know their rights and not to open their doors to federal officials.
Miller said that there are more than 100 volunteers trained so far, organised according to city council district to make response times quicker. Training takes four hours. “Our goal is to train at least 500 in the next month or so,” she said.
The intent is to extend the hotline from four to eight hours a day and cards are being handed out – one side in Spanish, the other in English. They advise: “NO ABRA LA PUERTA” (Don’t open the door) and provide migrants with a spiel if agents arrive: “I do not wish to speak with you, answer your questions, or sign or hand you any documents based on my fifth amendment rights under the United States constitution”.
On average, according to Grassroots Leadership, 19 Austin-based immigrants are deported per week. With an estimated 1.5 million undocumented immigrants, Texas has the second-largest such population in the country, behind California, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Most have lived in the state for more than a decade.
Miller’s interest in the cause grew when her church gave sanctuary last February to two Guatemalans, Hilda Ramirez and her son, Ivan. They are still living there but gained relief from deportation in October, which allows them to leave the building without fear of being detained. A growing number of US churches are expected to open their doors to undocumented immigrants in the coming months in the knowledge that ICE policy discourages enforcement operations in “sensitive locations” such as places of worship.
“People of privilege have a responsibility and obligation to do this for folks who don’t have that privilege, and I know what it’s like to not have that privilege because I am a lesbian and there was a time when I could not wear this collar. So I understand,” Miller said. “And it was because of people who could wear the collar and their allies that I can, and I have a responsibility to pay that back; to pay it forward.”
Families in Austin are also being encouraged to prepare binders with personal information such as forms of identification, marriage certificates, power of attorney letters and character references. If someone is detained, family members can then quickly provide attorneys with details that could speed a release on bond and may help gain quicker access to financial assets if the main breadwinner is in custody.
City leaders have offered some encouragement. In common with several otherDemocratic-leaning cities, Austin intends to use tax dollars to help fund legal defences for immigrants.
And the new sheriff of Travis County (which includes Austin), Sally Hernandez, is a Democrat who ran on a platform of ending compliance with ICE requests to hold people who have been detained by local law enforcement for an extra 48 hours so they can be picked up by federal immigration authorities.
But politicians in Texas’s Republican-dominated legislature are set to debate a bill that would eliminate “sanctuary cities” that do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement. The proposal has the support of the governor, Greg Abbott.