Undocumented young activists risk arrest to block a deportation bus and call for immigration reform
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."
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.
That's when it hit him that he wasn't the only one whose life was potentially about to be upended due to deportation. The realization eventually fueled his activism, he said. He was inspired to participate in the undocumented youth movement to call for just and inclusive immigration reform, and he'd joined the ICE blockade as a member of ASPIRE and the Asian Pacific Islanders Undocumented Youth Group.
In just a short time, the scene outside the ICE building had become zoo-like. Television news crews appeared, police cars raced up with lights flashing, and a few young ICE guards, sporting thick black vests and belts with holstered weapons, stood by the bus in wide defensive stances.
More than 100 supporters formed a procession and encircled the vehicle, waving signs and chanting as they went round and round. "Down, down with deportation! Up, up with liberation!" Some chants were in Spanish: "Obama, escucha, estamos en la lucha!" (Obama, listen, we're in the struggle.)
Obama delivered comments that very day, as the federal government was reopening after being shut down by Congress, signaling that immigration reform was the next major agenda item.
"We should finish the job of fixing our broken immigration system," the president said in a televised address from the Rose Garden. "There's already a broad coalition across America that's behind this effort — from business leaders to faith leaders to law enforcement. The Senate has already passed a bill with strong bipartisan support. Now the House should, too. It can and should get done by the end of this year."
California has the largest immigrant population of any other state, with an estimated 2.8 million undocumented Californians. Advocates are calling for the creation of a path to citizenship that isn't overly burdensome, and for immigration policy that doesn't rely on detention and deportation as cornerstones of immigration enforcement.
"We were really hoping immigration reform would pass and reduce deportations," Asian Law Caucus staff attorney Anoop Prasad told the Bay Guardian just before the protest got underway. Instead, "Obama is closing in on his two millionth deportation since becoming president," he said, a higher number than those carried out under President George H.W. Bush when he'd been in office for the same duration.
Much of that steep increase has to do with technological capability and information sharing under Secure Communities (S-Comm), which has resulted in an estimated 90,000 deportations of undocumented people in California alone.
Prasad said he had reviewed the roster of detainees loaded onto the bus earlier that day. They'd been taken into ICE custody in various Northern California cities, including San Francisco, and they had origins in Russia, Mexico, Ethiopia, Vietnam, El Salvador, India, and other countries. Some had children, and a few were minors themselves.
"One guy has been here since he was 11 months old," Prasad said. "Now he's in his 40s."
There are three immigration courts inside 630 Sansome. Undocumented detainees are transported there from ICE facilities in Richmond, Bakersfield, Sacramento, and Yuba County, often roused around 3am. They aren't allowed any books or personal property when they're locked up awaiting court appearances, Prasad said/
"In court," he said, "a lot of times people have their legs and hands shackled."
Sometimes the early-morning departures and daytime detentions can disrupt medication routines, he added. That's a problem for people taking medication to combat mental illness — especially when they're headed for anxiety-inducing appearances in court.
Around 5:30pm at the ICE bus blockade, the SFPD closed off the intersection and told activists they would risk arrest if they didn't move out of the way. The larger group of supporters squeezed onto the sidewalk, but those who had set out to perform civil disobedience stayed planted where they were.
It seemed the SFPD would arrest them at any time. A police officer crouched down and spoke with them in a conversational tone as they sat with their hands clasped. "I know what you guys are trying to do," he said, adding that he wasn't trying to stop them from speaking out about their cause. But he asked them to stand up and let the bus get on its way. They refused.
San Francisco has been a Sanctuary City since 1989, which means city employees are prohibited from helping Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with immigration investigations or arrests except in cases where it's required by federal or state law, or a warrant.
If they were taken into custody by the SFPD and charged with misdemeanors, the activists had reason to believe they would be spared from deportation. Added protection for undocumented San Francisco residents will soon take effect under legislation recently approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Authored by Sup. John Avalos, it prohibits local law enforcement from honoring ICE requests to hold detainees for an additional 48 hours, except in very narrow circumstances. Federal authorities issue those requests to allow enough time to take those undocumented individuals into custody — even if they lack probable cause showing that the person was involved in criminal activity. Their status is detected via S-Comm, an information-sharing program between federal agencies that links fingerprint databases.
But a debate had apparently started between the two agencies over whether the protesters were under SFPD's jurisdiction, or ICE's. Prasad said federal agents threatened the activists with charges of felony false imprisonment if they did not end their protest immediately. That charge essentially means holding someone against his or her will, but "they're not blocking the door," he pointed out. (Some armed ICE agents, meanwhile, did happen to be standing in front of the bus door.)
The prospect of facing federal felony charges carried potentially grave consequences. Just before the start of the protest, Santos described what his own ICE bus trip had been like. He'd boarded it with about 35 other passengers, mostly men. As they crossed the Bay Bridge, he felt a pit in his stomach as he looked back at the Ferry Building, wondering if he was going to be separated from his family for good.
Santos and the other detainees were transported to Oakland International Airport, brought through a special security area, and led onto a plane. The flight stopped in Bakersfield, Los Angeles, and San Bernardino, picking up more detainees at each location. Then the flight touched down in San Diego, where some were taken off the plane and sent across the border to Tijuana.
Santos' journey ended at an ICE detention center in Florence, Ariz. He said there were 14 bunks in a room with a single toilet, which was not well maintained. He had no idea how long he was going to remain there, but it ultimately turned out to be two weeks.
Extended family on the East Coast helped his parents locate a lawyer in Arizona, and the lawyer helped him qualify for bail, which his parents posted. He was released, and finally returned to San Francisco after 16 hours on a Greyhound bus.
Eventually, the whole matter was dropped because he benefitted from prosecutorial discretion under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, federal policy enacted in June 2012 directing ICE to give special consideration to individuals who immigrated illegally to the US as children.
Protesters at the blockade were having an intense consultation with Prasad, the Asian Law Caucus attorney, as he explained what was potentially at stake. Heads together and eyes wide as they talked it out, they ultimately opted to hold firm.
"We will do whatever is necessary for our community!" Alex Aldana bellowed into a megaphone while the supporters cheered. The group erupted into wild chanting: "Undocumented, unafraid!"
Not long after that, all were brought to their feet and led away from the bus by men in uniforms — it was federal ICE officers who escorted them away, not SFPD officers.
They brought them past the crime tape and around the corner from where the bus was parked. Then they lined them up, wrote out tickets, and let them go. Prasad said he guessed that the agency was worried about the backlash it might receive had it gone through with taking them into custody and pressing charges. Energy was high as it dawned on the activists that they were getting Certificates of Release instead of handcuffs. Still in the line police had arranged them, they jumped up and down on the sidewalk, still chanting, while a federal officer filled out the forms and placed them into their hands. As evening fell, the bus passengers remained shackled in their seats, invisible to all but the driver. Once the activists had been cleared from the scene and the authorities regained control of the situation, the bus backed up and left.