Immigrants and Immigrant Allies: Making Justice Visible

Note: The below blog post was written by Lucy Duncan, but with contributions and editorial support by Gabriela Flora, Jenn Piper, and M'Annette Ruddell.

“That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.” – Ralph Ellison

Refusing to be invisible when people are conditioned not to see is a revolutionary act. Seeing and recognizing those whom we are not supposed to acknowledge is also a powerful act of resistance. Both small and large acts of such courage are being taken by immigrants and immigrant allies every day.  I had the privilege of seeing such powerful witness when I visited AFSC’s Denver office in November.

Jenn Piper, AFSC’s Colorado Interfaith Organizing Director, invited me to go with her to a deportation hearing. Piper organizes an interfaith clergy witness network, the members of which serve as immigrant allies, and one service they offer is being prayerful presences at deportation hearings, offering spiritual support to the immigrants in the courtroom and afterwards.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) courtroom in Denver is in the Bank of the West building, which seemed both strange and fitting to me. We waited in the marble lobby for Alma,* the young woman whom we were there to support, along with Kelly, a Unitarian minister.  Alma, a slight woman with round brown eyes, arrived with her cousins. She had left her daughter, who is sixteen-months-old and a citizen, at home with family.   Not to be able to converse without interpretation with Alma felt uncomfortable to me, I felt my being monolingual as a disability that day.

An elevator took us to the courtroom level where we cleared the metal detectors before meeting with Alma’s lawyer in a small room off to the side. He didn’t know Spanish, so Liz and Piper translated. The lawyer said that, despite the fact that she had no criminal record, Alma’s legal options had been exhausted, and he recommended that she agree to voluntary departure. Alma asked questions about what this would mean and learned that she would have until March to report to the US embassy in Mexico City.  If she did not prove that she had left the United States, she would be subject to detention and immediate removal.

With exasperation, the lawyer said, “In August, President Obama announced that he would be prioritizing those with criminal records in deportation proceedings, but that hasn’t happened.  There has been no executive order, and the deportation of those with no record have continued or speeded up.”  It was hard not to feel that there must be something more we could do. But really, there is no legal pathway to permanent resident status for the vast majority of people who are undocumented.

Alma looked scared and shaken as we went into the courtroom which was smaller than I expected.  Hearings were scheduled for a number of people, not just Alma, and we watched as one man got a year extension to his visa.  When Alma was called to the front, she put on headphones so that she could hear the court translator. 

There wasn’t much ceremony. The lawyer said that Alma was willing to accept voluntary departure, the ICE prosecutor agreed, and the judge affirmed the decision.   The Department of Justice insignia behind the judge struck me as ironic. Piper told me later that one judge presiding over deportation hearings of men in shackles acknowledged that what he was doing wasn’t justice; he was merely applying the law.

The whole process took just a few minutes.  I wanted someone to yell, “No,” to reflect on what happened.  How many families does that judge rend apart each day? How many does the prosecutor? It all seemed so perfunctory, so banal, while hearts were breaking.

We left the courtroom while Alma quietly wept. She’s young, maybe twenty. She’s been in the country for eight years, hasn’t been back to Mexico.  Her partner is a citizen of Ecuador. If she leaves, will they ever be reunited? The choices all seemed untenable – to stay here and risk detention, then forced deportation, to go to a place without her partner that is no longer her home, to leave her child here with family and go to Mexico on her own. 

Back in the lobby, we gathered in a little circle as Kelly offered a prayer about hardship and trusting in Jesus. Liz and Piper translated. We each hugged Alma, encircling her with our concern and compassion. What else could we do?

After Alma left, we drank tea together and talked about what we had witnessed, how helpless it made us feel, how senseless it seemed. Who would it hurt for Alma to be allowed to stay? Who is being protected? We talked about collusion and how each time we buy raspberries or strawberries or tomatoes we are participating in the exploitation of migrant labor. 

That night, I joined AFSC staff and about sixty others for the monthly vigil held at the Aurora Detention Center, a for-profit detention center owned by the Geo Corporation (“one of the world’s largest corrections and detention organizations,” which is traded on the NYSE). It was early November and really cold. The detention center detains undocumented people indefinitely, without due process. 

We gathered on the wide road nearby with candles, signs, noisemakers, and then proceeded to the detention center entrance for a ceremony.  The group was mixed – immigrant allies and people without documents. The people without papers were brave to be there, to come out of the shadows and insist on being visible.  To commemorate The Day of the Dead, culturally important to many of those gathered, they  had brought pictures of their loved ones who had died, but whose graves they could not travel to visit. Jordan Garcia, AFSC’s Immigrant Ally Organizing Director, set out scarves and candles on the ground, and one by one those who had photos placed them on the improvised shrine. A thin man talked about being without papers for fifteen years and how he felt invisible as part of an underground and vulnerable work force. His assertion was that labeling him as “illegal” was intentional so that his wages would never be fair.   

We shouted and banged on things, hoping those inside could hear us. Jordan told me the old detention center had windows and during vigils, those inside could hold signs against the glass to thank the protesters for being there.  In addition to the monthly vigil, those detained are remembered by a huge pile of handmade cards Jordan delivers on Valentine's Day. These signs of support from outside may seem slight, but they matter. Any indication that we see and haven’t forgotten them makes some difference.

Earlier the day of the vigil, a reporter had called Gabriela Flora, AFSC Regional Project Voice Organizer, and asked about the status of comprehensive federal immigration reform.  She replied that, with the current Congress, there isn’t much likelihood of reform any time soon. With the help of “Secure Communities,”** the administration will have deported more people in Obama’s first term than Bush did in the eight years of his presidency. Accompanying Alma and others to deportation hearings and holding these monthly vigils are acts of faith, the impacts of which are felt deep within the communities most affected. People without papers feel less alone, less invisible. Piper and AFSC’s work with citizen allies is critical to help people understand the depth of the trauma current immigration policies cause. What does it mean to live in the shadows of the US economy, cleaning houses, harvesting food, making do? Or working professionally with a secret fear? Now every time I even think of buying raspberries or tomatoes, I think of Alma.

I think of Alma and take heart that immigrants are organizing in Colorado and across the country.  People are refusing to be invisible, coming forward with courage and determination, like those at the vigil.  They bravely share their stories and how the for-profit system of detention dehumanizes them and tears their families apart.  Allies are listening to their stories and using their privilege to work for change, side by side with immigrants. 

For true change to happen, it must be defined by those directly affected.  The policy changes necessary to undo the damage done over the last 25 years (really the last 500) will not happen quickly. Real change takes time and takes commitment by everyday people like you and me.  In bearing witness to the reality that people like Alma face, by standing with them and understanding how we are a part of the system that renders them invisible, we are working to create a just society where illegal will no longer be a noun, and law is based on respecting the humanity of all those in our society.

By accompanying immigrants in this resistance, we have the opportunity to see with our hearts. Immigrants refusing to be invisible, as well as allies willing to really see and accompany those affected by these policies, can help us to make manifest the invisible, the unseen but palpable, world which recognizes the innate worth and brilliance of every person.


*Alma is not this woman’s real name, I changed it to protect her.

** Secure Communities involves local and state authorities in immigration and customs enforcement.   The program has encouraged racial profiling, divided families, and eroded basic community trust in law enforcement where implemented.