Immigrant Organizing

The recent wave of immigrant demonstrations throughout the country indicates a level of political engagement that seems to have caught many people by surprise.

However, leaders of immigrant organizations in New York City are far less shocked, having dealt for years with the realities that produced the anger and vitality behind those demonstrations. Over the past decade, immigrants in the city have been forced to adjust to a new reality that has left them increasingly vulnerable.

Ana Maria Archila, the executive director of the Latin American Integration Center, recalls the story of an impoverished single mother of three who came to her organization to learn English. But while a student, “she was trying to get a job and couldn’t find a job and so she tried to get a fake ID,” Archila says. “And there are businesses on Roosevelt Avenue that sell them, and she was engaged in buying one…” The woman was detained and put into deportation proceedings.

“We found ourselves as an organization not really knowing how to support her,” Archila said. “We were missing the sense of urgency until it came knocking on our door through increased enforcement in our neighborhoods.” That is why the Latin American Integration Center, which serves Latino communities in Staten Island and Northwestern Queens, now has a “two-pronged strategy” — “direct service programs” such as English as a Second Language classes, and also “community organizing projects” such as those focused on increasing civic engagement.

To Archila, the fact that there is often a separation between community organizing and providing community services is something peculiar to the United States; this is not the way it works, she says, in Latin America. Given current pressures among the city’s immigrants, community organizations like hers need to “create flexible organizations,” Archila argues, that combine “services that meet people’s needs and political engagement.”

The Latin American Integration Center is not alone in this approach.

The multi-ethnic network of detainees, Families For Freedom , is a group with about 120 members that has developed a model combining both organizing and direct assistance to people in detention or facing deportation.

“We are really only committed to doing casework because of organizing,” says cofounder Aarti Shahani, one of four staff members (who is the author of this month’s immigrant topic page on Gotham Gazette, Legalization and De-Legalization). But direct assistance to detainees is essential to their political efforts.

Prince Brown knows about this firsthand. He himself was a detainee for five years, as the result of a charge for possession of a controlled substance. At first, Brown conducted his own legal work, but says the law library in the facility in which he was held was outdated. Benita Jain, then at NYU Law and now a staff attorney at the New York State Defenders Association’s Immigrant Defense Project, sent him information to help him, and on March 2005 he was freed from jail.

Upon release, Brown became a member of Families for Freedom, attending monthly meetings in Manhattan and Washington Heights, and quarterly meetings in the Bronx and Brooklyn. These meetings serve as a social support network for those facing deportation and their family and friends on the outside, a space for political education to “change the laws,” and a place to plan tactics and strategies

Brown went from being a member of the group to becoming one of its two part-time organizers. Still facing deportation to Jamaica, he says, “I’ve been on both sides; I’m been in looking out and out looking in. The things I received from Families For Freedom, I’m sending to people [in] jail.”

When DRUM (which stands for Desis Rising Up & Moving) began in the year 2000, its executive director Monami Maulik says, the idea was not to provide social services nor even to do advocacy, but rather to build up membership as a way of strengthening the community of South Asians in New York City. But that same year DRUM began working on police harassment in and around Jackson Heights. And the next year was 9/11, when more and more South Asians were being detained. “We had to take on a high level of direct advocacy and casework.”

Over the past two years, Maulik says, the crisis has stabilized, and DRUM has been able to “take it back to community base building.” But they have not stopped providing services, hoping some can become in effect organizing tools. Among the programs Maulik cites are a legal referral network, a “South Asian immigrant resource center” culled from DRUM’s past work on “immigration, housing, education”, and the Immigrant Justice Project, which has monthly meetings and workshops to “discuss what’s happening in terms of immigration and migrant rights and decisions about what’s happening,” including to learn “how laws are changed in the U.S.”

Immigrant lives are constantly being reinvented, and many immigrant organizations have been adjusting to those changes. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance has used financial assistance and legal clinics to support its immigrant labor organizing work. The Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights has begun to integrate community organizing into its immigration casework. Across ethnicities and issues, the realities of low-wage immigrant communities are forcing organizers and service providers to re-envision what “services” and “organizing” really mean.