On the line

Undocumented young activists risk arrest to block a deportation bus and call for immigration reform

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Activists block an ICE bus filled with detainees bound for deportation.
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY REBECCA BOWE

rebecca@sfbg.com

Nobody knew exactly when the bus would leave. It was the afternoon of Oct. 17, and a group of about 60 immigrant rights activists were gathered in the shade of some tall trees in a park by the TransAmerica Pyramid in downtown San Francisco.

Many were young, Latino or Asian Pacific Islander, dressed in hooded sweatshirts, baseball caps, and slim-fitting jeans. They chatted and milled about, perhaps trying to ease a gnawing sense of anticipation over what was about to happen.

Half a block away and out of view, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers were leading passengers onto a white bus, parked at the ICE building at 630 Sansome St., with a "Homeland Security" label inscribed on the front. All the passengers were ICE detainees; some were about to embark on long deportation journeys, while others were being sent to detention centers where they would remain in limbo until either being deported or exonerated.

Back at the park, organizer Jen Low was peering at her phone every 10 minutes. "They're locking the bus!" she exclaimed after reading a text sent by someone on the lookout. That meant it was almost time to go. The activists started organizing themselves into two groups: Those willing to risk arrest, and those planning to rally in support.

The ones facing arrest were planning to engage in peaceful civil disobedience, by placing their bodies in front of the bus to prevent it from going anywhere. "About half of the people who will be blocking the bus are undocumented," Low told the Guardian as they prepared to exit the park. "That's why some of us are so on edge right now."

They headed toward the ICE building en masse, slowly at first and then quickening their pace, some hastily peeling off top layers to reveal handmade T-shirts underneath proclaiming, "Not one more." Others were already stationed at the bus, and as 10 protesters linked arms and settled onto the street in front of it, someone had already started up a chorus of "We Shall Not Be Moved."

 

INTO ICE CUSTODY

They'd been inspired by a recent ICE bus blockade carried out by Arizona activists, organizer Jon Rodney said, and the civil disobedience was meant to send a message to President Barack Obama that it's unfair to continue deporting undocumented people as long as a resolution on federal immigration reform remains stalled in Congress. Rodney's organization, the California Immigrant Policy Center, has emphasized family unity as a guiding principle that should inform immigration reform efforts.

A variety of organizations had been involved in planning the action, including the California Immigrant Policy Center, Causa Justa/Just Cause, POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), ASPIRE (Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education), and the Asian Law Caucus.

Among the protesters was Dean Santos, a 23-year-old originally from the Philippines who had been brought to the US when he was 12. Not so long ago, he'd been transported out of San Francisco on a white deportation bus leaving from that very building. Faced with a trumped-up felony that was later downgraded to a misdemeanor, Santos was taken into federal custody in late 2010 because the initial serious charge triggered ICE involvement.

He was given the choice of voluntary deportation or indefinite detention while he fought his case. Santos chose the latter. He called his mother in San Bruno, where they lived, and apologized for what had happened.

Locked in a cramped cell in the San Francisco ICE building, he started to feel overcome with fear, but an elder man he was detained with offered comforting words. "He told me he had also decided to stay and fight, and he said he was doing it for the sake of his daughters," Santos recalled.