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Anticipating Trump: Deportation Fears Give Immigrant Advocates A Boost

Viridiana Martinez's parents brought her to the U.S. illegally when she was 7. But it wasn't until she was in her 20s, when she took the microphone at a rally in Durham, N.C., that she "came out" as being unauthorized herself. Martinez, now 30, has been on the front lines of the immigrant rights movement in North Carolina ever since.

She co-founded the North Carolina Dream Team, which advocated for immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. She was once arrested at a sit-in demonstration in Atlanta, risking being turned over to immigration agents for the sake of protest. A year ago, she helped launch Alerta Migratoria, a hotline that immigrants in North Carolina can call to report the presence of ICE agents in their communities (it forwards calls to her cellphone).

In other words, Martinez is just the kind of person you might expect to be terrified by Trump's ascension to the presidency, given his promise to deport millions of immigrants in the country illegally and repeal President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has granted Martinez and 730,000 young immigrants like her work permits and temporary protection from deportation.

And yet, sitting on a futon in her tidy apartment in Raleigh recently, Martinez said she wasn't upset by Trump's victory. In fact, quite the opposite.

"I'm actually happy that Donald Trump won," she said. "I am. I'm very happy, because this is an opportunity to take a new approach at immigrant rights organizing."

For Martinez and others advocating on behalf of immigrants, this election has surfaced some unexpected opportunities. In the battle over the fates of people in the country illegally, Trump's election may look like a victory for those who would have the federal government expel as many as possible. But people like Martinez are finding that the simple fear of that possibility has given their long-standing efforts a shot in the arm. Viewing Trump as a grave threat to their immigrant communities, many local lawmakers are reacting to his deportation proposals with the kind of defiance that grass-roots advocates have been asking of them for years.

"I mean, sure, it sucks that it took Donald Trump winning," Martinez said, "but it's already moving people to act."

Viridiana Martinez (right) discusses immigration activism in Durham, N.C., with young people hoping to become more involved in helping immigrants in the country illegally.
Adrian Florido / NPR
Viridiana Martinez (right) discusses immigration activism in Durham, N.C., with young people hoping to become more involved in helping immigrants in the country illegally.

She was referring to reports from across the country of mayors, police chiefs, city council members; dozens of public officials who have vowed to defy Trump should he try to enlist them to deport people. Though the president-elect has scaled back his most sweeping campaign promise to deport all 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, many local officials are taking no chances.

"If the federal government wants our police officers to tear immigrant families apart, we will refuse to do it," New York Mayor Bill De Blasio said in a speech days after the November election.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a $10 million fund to provide lawyers for immigrants facing deportation.

"We don't know how far the new administration will go when it comes to our nation's immigration policy," he said, "but we all heard the rhetoric."

In smaller cities and towns, from Arizona to Iowa to North Carolina, officials have taken a similar tone.

This is exciting for grass-roots activists like Martinez. During the past eight years, many efforts to advance immigrant rights in the absence of a federal immigration reform bill were aimed at persuading the Obama administration to act unilaterally through programs like DACA.

Now, in anticipation of Trump, the strategy appears to be shifting. Activists say they'll focus on persuading local officials to be more aggressive in protecting immigrants in the country illegally from the federal government.

"In the coming years you're going to see people fighting to establish new civil rights protections in cities by forging new ground with policies that might not have been deemed possible even as recently as two months ago," said Chris Newman, legal director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, a grass-roots immigrant advocacy group.

The public statements many local officials have made in recent weeks, he said, suggest that cities will be receptive to this strategy. Officials in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago have already started acting.

For activists like Martinez, there's a tinge of frustration over the fact that it took Trump's election to spur this response.

"Because the reality is, we just came out of a presidency where the administration has deported more immigrants than any other," she said. "And the only reason this is happening now is because our president-elect is Donald Trump."

It's hard to say for sure whether Obama outdeported all of his predecessors. Interpreting the statistics can be tricky because the government's method for tracking deportations has changed over time. Department of Homeland Security figures indicate the Obama administration will have deported about 3 million people by the time the president leaves office. The George W. Bush administration deported roughly 2 million.

Martinez said that for years, she has been watching families get torn apart by Obama's deportation policies. So, while Trump's rhetoric has been alarming, she said she sees little substantive difference between his most recent proposal — to deport 2 to 3 million immigrants he says have criminal records — and what Obama has already done.

It's like a guy who tells you you're ugly to your face versus a guy who tells you you're pretty, but then turns around and tells his friend, 'Damn, she's ugly!'

"It's like a guy who tells you you're ugly to your face versus a guy who tells you you're pretty, but then turns around and tells his friend, 'Damn, she's ugly!' " Martinez said.

Martinez said the problem is that for the past eight years, many local officials were convinced by the "you're pretty" guy — Obama, in this case — and didn't feel the need to take as forceful a stance against his deportations as they now are taking against Trump.

"I think people were conformed, complacent," she said, "and they felt that under a Democratic presidency things could not be bad; that President Obama was a friend of immigrants, even though that was far from the truth."

Obama, critics like Newman and Martinez say, believed that to gain Republican support for an immigration reform bill that included legalization for millions, he also had to prove he could be tough on enforcement.

It was a strategic gambit that failed, Newman said. Obama deported millions while Republicans blocked immigration reform efforts that might have made it possible for immigrants in the country illegally to gain legal status.

"And he was able to, on a certain level, get away with it" among his allies, Newman said, "as long as people believed that he was also in favor of something that might not have ever been possible — namely, comprehensive immigration reform."

Kevin De Leon, the Democratic leader of the California state Senate, represents a heavily immigrant district in Los Angeles. Earlier this month, he introduced a bill he calls the California Values Act. It would prohibit police departments from devoting resources to enforcing federal immigration laws.

Addressing unauthorized immigrants in a statement announcing the bill, De Leon said "the state of California will be your wall of justice."

This is the sort of thing activists in California have been asking for for years, through a campaign called "ICE Out of California." The campaign's goal has been to persuade local and state officials to kick Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents out of local jails to make it harder for them to take immigrants into federal custody when they're arrested by local police.

Asked to consider the argument that a lot of these new pre-emptive measures should have been put in place years ago, given Obama's deportation record, De Leon said he understands why many activists might feel that way.

It's a very pernicious, mean-spirited type of campaigning that we have yet to ever see. And I think that is the major difference.

"But this is very different," he said. He called Trump's deportation promises during the campaign unprecedented. "It's a very pernicious, mean-spirited type of campaigning that we have yet to ever see. And I think that is the major difference."

De Leon said part of what concerns him about Trump is his unpredictability. The president-elect promised so many things, has changed his posture on major issues so many times, that it's impossible to know exactly what he'll do, De Leon said. Because of that, he said, California has to "prepare for the worst."

Martinez is skeptical that it will get any worse. Trump is a businessman, she said, and he understands the value of immigrant labor. Still, she said she appreciates the steps officials are taking to enshrine into law protections for immigrants at the local level. She and fellow activists in Durham have a list of proposals they plan to bring to the City Council, which has proved to be immigrant-friendly. Two-thirds of Durham's recent population growth has come from immigration, both legal and illegal.

Newman, of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said that as justified as many immigrant advocates are in fearing a Trump presidency, there's also reason to believe some good will come of it. In the past, liberal leaders have held out hope for an immigration reform bill, he said. Now they seem to agree that a sensible bill is unlikely under a government controlled by conservatives.

"And the absence of that possibility has in some ways been liberating for local policymakers," he said.

Now, Newman said, he expects local leaders and activists will start to "experiment with a range of decentralized tactics" that will make cities the locus for policies aimed at better treatment of immigrants. "Legalization from below," he called it.

In some cities it's already started, with initiatives like the legal defense fund in LA and the refusal by many cities to put their law enforcement officers at the disposal of federal immigration agents. Officials in other cities have said they will look into becoming so-called sanctuary cities, jurisdictions with policies to protect immigrants who are in the country illegally. The city of Santa Ana, Calif., took that step in December. Newman said that activists in other cities are organizing to push their local leaders to follow suit.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.
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