This story is part of Sarah Jaffe’s series Interviews for Resistance, in which she speaks with organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who are doing the hard work of fighting back against America’s corporate and political powers.
Across the country last week, immigrants went on strike to demonstrate what the country would be like if Donald Trump actually followed through on his promised deportations. The actions kicked off in Wisconsin on Feb. 13, where Voces De La Frontera and partner organizations held a “day without Latinos, immigrants and refugees” to protest Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke’s plans to collaborate with the Trump administration to deport people. An estimated 30,000 people in Milwaukee participated and about 150 businesses closed as part of the event, according to organizers. Jaffe spoke with Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces De La Frontera, about the day of action, the successes of the movement so far and plans for a May 1 national day of protest. She also spoke with German Sanchez, a Wisconsin farmworker who went on strike and a volunteer organizer with Voces De La Frontera, United for a Better Future from Fox Cities, and ESTHER. This is an edited and condensed version of their conversations.
Sarah Jaffe: Voces de la Frontera had a massive “day without immigrants” rally last week. Can you tell us about it?
Christine Neumann-Ortiz: It was a statewide event where we called a community-wide general strike that involved work stoppage, small business closures, a consumer day of boycott and a mass protest that convened in Milwaukee. The reason was to demonstrate our deep opposition to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 287g program that Sheriff Clarke says he wants to enroll in. It’s a key piece of Trump’s executive order on immigration that sets up a mass deportation program and legalizes discrimination in the United States. This program would allow local law enforcement to do some of the same work as immigration agents. They would be able to profile someone without any basis and to stop and interrogate them and put them in deportation proceedings. It’s a program that was highly discredited, famously by Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County. It has been found to violate people’s constitutional rights and civil rights. It also was a mass protest against the executive order on the whole, really using our collective economic power to demonstrate the positive economic contributions immigrants make to our economy.
We have done similar actions in the past. The first “day without Latinos,” if people recall, was in 2006. At the time, the protests were directed against a pending bill by Congressman Sensenbrenner from Wisconsin. It was quickly moving through Congress and was going to be signed by President Bush — it would have turned an immigrant being undocumented into an aggravated felon and anyone who knew someone who didn’t turn them in would also face criminal charges. That first action really defeated that and brought us back to a discussion on immigration reform.
That was the first one, and this last one was our sixth general strike. It is something we don’t call all the time. There is great sacrifice that goes with this, including financial sacrifice and the potential threat of retaliation. You have moms who have children who depend on their paycheck who participate in these actions. What was unique this year was that we only organized it 10 days out from the time that Sheriff Clarke said that he was going to bring in 287g, because it is a program that can be set up so quickly.
We know that on Feb. 16, through a very spontaneous online call to action, we saw that strategy roll out in other cities. Immigrant workers have an inherent understanding of what their power is as part of the workforce and small immigrant business owners know how much they contribute to taxes and job creation. The way they are being characterized is discriminatory and it actually is a lie. Immigrants contribute more and should be treated with respect and be thanked for their contributions. We should be making life easier for them.
SJ: I want to actually go back to the Sensenbrenner bill because, of course, as you said, Sensenbrenner is from Wisconsin. That probably made it kind of personal.
CNO: In 2006, as part of that whole national wave of strikes and mass protests, the Sensenbrenner bill was defeated and he was demoted. Now in the Trump administration he has gotten promoted again to chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security. The defeat of the Sensenbrenner bill was a huge victory not just for immigrants, but for democracy itself. Undocumented workers have legal rights. If someone tries to cheat you out of your wages, under national labor law, it doesn’t matter if an employer tries to use your immigration status against you as a way to not pay you, because obviously that incentivizes hiring more undocumented people and taking advantage of them.
The second time where we also had a big impact was in 2011. It was in the context of Act 10, when there was a very spontaneous upswell of rank-and-file union members against the repeal of collective bargaining rights for public employees, including the sit-in at the capitol. Part of that whole attack on workers was directed at immigrants, too. That included a repeal of tuition equity and a bill that was introduced that would have been a copycat bill of the “Show me your papers” bill in Arizona.
Last year in [Madison], there was a “day without Latinos” organized in 11 days with thousands of people throughout the state converging at the state Capitol. Because of that, we were able to successfully defeat an anti-sanctuary city bill, which would have been very similar to 287g. It would have turned local law enforcement into an arm of ICE. That was defeated because of economic pressure, including a sector that is very much a part of the Republican Party base, which is the dairy industry and agriculture. Because of the leadership on the part of immigrant workers and their families and supporters, it created the political pressure to defeat that bill from being signed into law.
We realize that now it’s going to have to be more sustained and prolonged, but the strategy to go deeper and to use our collective economic power through boycotts and strikes is critical under the Trump administration to defeat the immigration executive order and to push back against this broader anti-civil rights, anti-worker agenda.
SJ: One of the conversations that happens a lot around politics in this country is this urban/rural split. But a lot of immigrant workers are working on farms in rural communities that are otherwise really white. Talk about organizing in rural parts of Wisconsin and how you can break down the divisions in those communities.
CNO: We were able to, really through social media and radio and then, just through local connections we have made as we have built chapters in different cities out of last year’s “day without Latinos.” We were able to use that as a foundation to quickly respond to the current threat. There has been a lot of self-organizing going on in numerous different workplaces, including the dairy farms.
One thing that has been very helpful for us is that we had also established a relationship at a different level with different employer associations. We have been engaging the Dairy Business Association (DBA) over the years on different initiatives like trying to secure driver’s licenses in Wisconsin, which is something that is very important in rural areas when there is even less public transportation and driving is a necessity. Or, more recently, around communicating with DBA to coordinate communication with farmers so we could figure out ways that farmers could support their workforce in advocating against these bad bills. For the dairy industry, which is a key industry in Wisconsin, if you eliminate the immigrant workforce, that whole industry collapses and with it, there’s a domino effect, meaning a whole series of jobs would also be lost. But in farms where it is not like a factory, where you can’t just stop the work, because you would actually kill the cows. To avoid this, people were able to coordinate to make sure there was a skeleton crew available. Farmers, in turn, were an important voice within the Republican Party to call for the defeat of these bad bills.
SJ: Obviously, deportations and attacks on immigrants are not a new problem, but a lot of people are really waking up to the scale of this problem now. How would you say that people who are not in danger of being deported can get involved and support immigrant workers in their communities?
CNO: We have an online petition directed to Sheriff Clarke that we are asking people to sign that says we do not want Milwaukee County to become Maricopa County. We don’t want to normalize these politics. Sheriff Clarke is someone of equal temperament to Trump or Arpaio. In the case of Clarke, despite being African-American he has become a mouthpiece for white nationalists, characterizing African-Americans as ISIS, calling them sub-human. In the city of Milwaukee, the majority of the residents are African-Americans. He has characterized, for many years now, all immigrants as targets for deportation.
We ask for people at a national level to help make contributions to Voces, because one of our goals is to engage similar-minded organizations who want to go deeper on economic strategy, using that as a way to fight back against the policies that are being implemented or that they are trying to implement under the Trump administration. Lastly, there are local coalitions that can be formed in the build-up to the May 1 protests. May 1 will be not just a national protest, but another national day of strike. There are already conversations going on with larger networks to see if there is potential for folding in this action under a broader platform with different groups (climate change, women’s rights and immigrant rights).
There are ways to support immigrant rights organizing that are tied around preventing local programs from being implemented — “Does your local sheriff want to implement this 287g program or not?” [Editor’s note: A list of 38 law enforcement agencies in 16 states taking part.] It is good to have the community come out and say, “We don’t want that in our community. We want you to take a public stance and say, ‘As a local law enforcement official, we do not want 287g.’” The more people that stand up and say that, the more marginal those politics become.
SJ: This was a local issue, but can you talk about how things have changed with Donald Trump as president?
German Sanchez (GS): As a farmworker, the work is the same, the same hard work, but right now we have this motor out there for executive orders and political issues… Some TV channels use different information and it’s not clear for the community [what’s happening]. So right now, it’s really hard, and I’m not talking about the job, I’m talking about emotions you can feel, you can smell.
SJ: Tell me about last Monday’s action. How long did that take to come together?
GS: Maybe eight or nine days. I use social media to educate my community about what’s wrong, spread out the message and try to be as clear as we can so they understand the consequences.
SJ: Talk a bit more about the organizing you do on the farms.
GS: It’s hard — of course I have to do my work too. On my lunch break I make emails or text messages, when I’m done with my day I make a video. A lot of people don’t know how the capital in Madison works, a lot of people don’t know how the law works, even some American people don’t know. I educate myself, I talk to some lawyers and I talk to people about [proposed legislation]. All those things that I’m learning about it I send out in Spanish for my community, so they understand how a law moves on in the capital, what our options are against those bills as immigrants. This is the hard part, to educate people and understand those bills… Of course a lot of people are concerned about the consequences if they don’t go to work. With these anti-immigrant bills moving, [the thinking] is easy — You can miss one day of work [to protest], but if those bills move forward you can lose everything.
SJ: What are some lessons that other people can take from the work you’ve been doing under Gov. Scott Walker?
GS: Obviously the politicians, they do their job. So if you do not agree with something you have to organize, you have to show whatever is in your hands to ask for a change and make a difference. A lot of people are not able to be really part of politics but that doesn’t mean that I’m not able to educate myself on political issues. I live in Wisconsin; I’ve lived here for the last 10 years. I love this state, I love my neighbors, and I love what I’m doing on the farm. The 10 years I have been here I’ve been working on the same farm, so that should tell you something.
SJ: People are now planning for a nationwide “a day without immigrants” on May 1. Can you tell us about the organizing you are doing going forward?
GS: We have to show our power in the economy. We are unable to make a difference in politicians’ deals but we live here, we make money here and we spend money here. So we are going to spread out the message for the community and be ready in the best way possible. We are not going to go out and make noises for nothing, no, we’ve got ideas, we’ve got the logistics… We’re hard workers, we’re family-oriented too, we share a lot of the same values as Americans. This is our big challenge, to let people know that we are part of the community.
SJ: Anything else that you want people to know?
GS: Just know that every time you drink milk, if it comes from Wisconsin, any people working on those farms, they’re working happy and they love what they do but that doesn’t mean they are not organizing. That doesn’t mean we are not really concerned about what’s wrong with the country. We are concerned about it. We take care of our families as best as we can and we appreciate our neighbors and we’ll keep working on it!
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.