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A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey

Trump has delivered on his promise to step up attacks on immigrant workers: A surge in arrests by ICE, targeting of immigrant activists like Ravi Ragbir in New York City, ending DACA protection for 700,000 young people, and threatening cities and states that offer even minimal protections to immigrants.

How do we respond? How do we fight back against Trump’s escalation of the war on immigrants and all workers? The answer from a network of activists in New Jersey is clear: Close ICE Jails Now! Taking a page from the abolitionists and their fight against the Fugitive Slave Act, the activists in the newly formed Resist the Deportation Machine (RDM) have launched a campaign to drive out the modern-day slave catchers and the key weapon in their war on immigrants: the detention centers that house immigrants seized by the Immigration and Custom Enforcement agency, ICE.

RDM initiated the campaign with protests aiming to shut down the ICE immigrant detention center housed at the Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark, NJ. But activists intend to spread the campaign to shut down similar facilities, and their contacts with ICE, throughout New Jersey and link up with others fighting to close detention centers everywhere. We call on activists everywhere, not only in the US, to join in this campaign.

Equally important, RDM has mobilized organizers from 25 groups, including not only immigrant rights organizations, but unions and groups concerned with worker rights, women’s rights, civil rights, environmental issues, and socialist organizations as well. RDM has built this broad coalition by making clear in its public statements that it is fighting to protect the rights of all.

To build the unity of all workers, and to counter the ruling class efforts to pit native-born against immigrant workers, the RDM network adopted in January, 2018 basic Points of Unity that state:

These detentions and deportation, as part of the whole system of mass incarceration, are assaults on the rights of all. All who live here, regardless of national origin, race, religion, sexual orientation or gender, have equal rights:  they have the right to quality free education, health care, transportation, housing and clean energy, and they have the right to good jobs at good wages.

1) All who live here have equal rights

End all deportations, end all detentions, end all violations of due process rights, end all limits on the right to vote, to unionize, to organize and to strike. Freedom of movement for all.

2) All who live here have the right to quality free education, health care, transportation, housing and clean energy

We will not be pitted against each other to fight for a share of inadequate public services. The government can and must provide quality services for all, paid for by taxing the rich and corporations slashing weapons spending and ending all US wars and occupations that force people to migrate.

3) All who live here have the right to good jobs at good wages.

We will not be pitted against each other to fight for a share of too few, underpaid jobs.  Providing quality free education, health care, transportation, housing and clean energy will also provide good jobs for all.

Pulling a network together

The RDM network originated out of an effort to pull together the many small immigrant-rights organizations in Northern NJ. On the initiative of one of these groups, Cosecha, the local branch of a national organization, two dozen activists met October 21, 2017 in Newark. At the meeting, Jay Arena, an ILN activist and member of the Movement for Socialism, emphasized the need to break groups out of single issue “silos” and come together on a program of broad demands, linked to concerted actions. As an example of such actions, Arena put forward the demand to close the immigrant detention center in Newark, which is run by the Essex County government in cooperation with ICE. A newly formed ad hoc committee, Stop Immigrant Detention in Essex county(SIDEC) was already organizing a rally behind this demand. A national campaign to cripple the detention system would be critical in developing the pressure needed to protect immigrants generally.

Other participants joined in advocating a broad moment, linking together the critical issues facing all immigrants and all workers. An activist from Anakbayan NJ described their efforts to redirect military funding to free education for all, and ending the military aggressions that increase forced migrations. A second concrete action advocated by activists from DIRE, a Central Jersey organization (as well as by others) was the expansion of rapid response networks to counter ICE raids.

The participants agreed to join together to form a Resist the Deportation Machine network and formulate joint goals and actions at future meetings.

Targeting the County

On Nov.9, two dozen activists organized by SIDEC and other groups rallied outside the Essex County government offices in downtown Newark, demanding that the county immediately end the contract to hold 800 immigrant detainees for ICE. In a follow-up letter to the Board of Chosen Freeholders and County executive Joseph DiVincenzo, better known as “Joe D”, the organizers said “Without ICE’s ability to hold up to 41,000 immigrants in detention, it would be impossible for it to deport the 400,000 or more immigrants per year it is now expelling. Most of the 100 detention facilities are, like the Essex County Correctional Center, leased from local authorities. Shutting down one of these centers will inspire other campaigns throughout the country. Multiple shut-downs will impede ICE’s entire deportation operation. The fewer places available to hold detainees, the fewer deportations.” The rally was widely covered in the local press and TV, giving visibility and momentum to the new campaign.

The Board and DiVincenzo, all Democrats, are caught in their own contradictions. Like other Democrats, in words, they support immigrants, such as the resolution the freeholders passed  in September condemning Trump for his many anti-immigrant attacks. But, also like other Democrats, in deeds they cooperate with ICE, with DiVincenzo in particular defending the ICE contract as needed for Essex County’s income. County Executive DiVincenzo has pointed to the profits generated by Essex County immigrant detention program. “Shame on Essex County for profiting off people who have no legal recourse,” replied Karin Vanoppen, an activist with RDM. “We can’t have a sanctuary city and county who fills budget gaps and creates jobs jailing innocent people and breaking up families,” says Alejandro Jaramillo of Cosecha NJ.  “It is time for city and county governments to stand in true solidarity with immigrants and stop partnering with ICE.”

Agreeing on the Goals

In December, the RDM agreed that the campaign to close the detention centers would be its first joint action. Essex would be the first target, but organizer intended that the campaign will rapidly spread to nearby Hudson and Bergen counties, and inspire similar campaigns throughout the country. A larger rally was targeted for outside the Essex County detention center on Jan.27, 2018.

In the context of common actions, the new network debated what were their common goals. Through debate on the internet and in a series of meeting, activists clarified that the points of unity are intended to say what we were for, what our vision is. They counter the divisive narrative that claims that anything won for immigrants must be at the expense of the native-born. The points of unity instead make clear that we are fighting for the rights of all, for an expansion of the resources available to all, not for a re-distribution of the crumbs left to us by the billionaires. Once these points were clarified in the exact wording, the points of unity were overwhelmingly adopted.

The unity strategy scored its first success when more than 100 activists from a broad coalition of over 25 groups demonstrated January 27 at the Essex County Correctional Facility (ECCF) in Newark, demanding to shut down immigrant detention there. The rally concluded with a brief, symbolic blocking of the guards’ entrance to the jail, as the demonstrators chanted “shut it down, we’ll be back!” Again there was local news coverage.

RDM intends to escalate the campaign, starting with confronting DiVincenzo at campaign and other events. Other steps under discussion are a possible independent candidacy against him, a ballot initiative to end the contract with ICE and direct action to close the detention facility. One possibility is to link the issue of how to replace the blood money in the ICE contract to the savings that could be made by replacing the county’s dozens of profitable contractors with direct government employment, a “deprivatization” campaign that would strike at the heart of Joe D’s power base and link the interests of immigrants and government workers.

In addition to continuing to broaden the campaign locally, RDM activists believe that spreading the campaign is key to its success. We think that the campaign to close the detention facilities is the most direct way to throw a wrench in the deportation machine. We clearly can’t wait for Congress to act. Shutting down this whole machine is the best way to protect the rights of all now threatened with deportation—the DACA youth, Salvadorans, Haitians, Hondurans and other losing their Temporary Protected Status (TPS), everyone who lives here. We urge those who fight this campaign locally to get in touch with us, so we can support and coordinate with each others work.

At the same time, we are urging groups everywhere to adopt the “points of unity” as the best way to rally broad support. This broad statement of basic rights applies everywhere, not just in the US, but with trivial changes anywhere in the world where capitalists try to pit workers against each other. They are a concise statement of the common interests of the entire working class.  To the extent that we can build our unity behind these common interests, and link them to concrete struggles, like those one against the detention centers, we can build the movement needed to win.

Eric Lerner and Jay Arena are members of Movement for Socialism and the International Luxemburgist Network.

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