Challenging Us to Change the Lens Through Which We View Immigration Activism

By Tyna Ek, Seattle Indivisible

Wednesday night’s unvarnished look at the real, human impact of current U.S. immigration protocols inspired passion, tears, anger, disillusionment, discomfort, hope, and eventual commitments to act as firsthand stories and experiences were shared at Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network’s MIGRATION: An Act of Courage.

Calpulli Mitotilistli Centeotl perform Blessing to the Four Directions

Calpulli Mitotilistli Centeotl perform Blessing to the Four Directions

From the soulful pan-flute music of Sin Fronteras to the high-energy dance and drumbeat of Calpulli Mitotilistli Centeotl in full native Aztec warrior regalia, it was instantly clear to the 150-or-so people gathered at First Church in north Seattle that this was unlike any “progressive” immigration event they’d been to lately. There were no pleas for pity for kids in cages; no myths that any particular candidate, political party or dedicated activist will be migrants’ savior. The focus Wednesday night centered on hardworking families steeped in rich culture and tradition who, despite their historic and on-going mistreatment, courageously refuse to surrender their fate to circumstances beyond their control.

The main takeaway of the evening was that we cannot rely on our elected officials or government institutions to fix our dehumanizing immigration system—we need to do it. Our systems are broken. Our government lost its moral compass when Obama started locking refugee families up in private detention centers, and Trump has escalated these abuses. Refugees can be treated with dignity and respect. We can set up humane immigration systems. But this will only happen when the people of this country collectively reject the propaganda that says refugees are scary and dangerous and need to be locked up.  

What’s really happening at the border. . .

Local activists Palmira Figueroa (WAISN, Social Justice Fund NW) and Alex Fayer (Seattle Indivisible, WAISN) set up the border discussion, explaining why they traveled to El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico in late July. They visited Mexican migrant shelters and U.S. nonprofits; interviewed asylum seekers, attorneys, and activists. They asked them all—What do you need, and how can we help?

Palmira and Alex brought award-winning filmmaker Moema Umann with them. Moema’s short film brought the audience to the border to hear firsthand why families are willing to risk their lives to travel to the United States, and what happens to them when they arrive.

MIGRATION - AN ACT OF COURAGE YouTube video_Moment Rosemary Rojas BD Pres Centro Sin Fronteras.jpg

 “When people say well, how could these women expose their children to danger? They were exposed to danger from the time they took their first breath where they lived in Honduras, Guatemala and San Salvador. . . These women had no other choice but to survive”

We learned from lawyers and activists on the ground that our government has essentially closed our southern border to asylum seekers since implementation of the new Migrant Protection Protocols that allow asylum seekers to be forced back across the Mexican border to wait—indefinitely—to assert their asylum claims.

A scene from Moema Umann’s film showing what the team saw in Juarez, Mexico, where immigrants, in makeshift shelters, wait for months hoping they will be called up to apply for asylum

A scene from Moema Umann’s film showing what the team saw in Juarez, Mexico, where immigrants, in makeshift shelters, wait for months hoping they will be called up to apply for asylum

Ian Philabaum (Innovation Law Lab, Program Director)

Ian Philabaum (Innovation Law Lab, Program Director)

Guest speaker and border activist Ian Philabaum described what he called the “feeding frenzy” that occurs on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande Valley since the new Remain in Mexico protocols took effect. Migrants fleeing violence arrive at the border and the U.S. government buses them back to the Rio Grande Valley, where they are met and picked up by the Mexican cartels that have their own buses.

Facilitator Aneelah Afzali asked Ian to explain how the CARA Pro Bono Project Ian worked with in 2016 was able to achieve such unprecedented success—99% of the women and children detained at Dilley Detention Center who saw a CARA volunteer were released to their

Graphic from Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.,  “One Year of CARA Pro Bono Project, thousands helped.”

Graphic from Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., “One Year of CARA Pro Bono Project, thousands helped.”

loved ones to await their asylum hearings. Ian said a group of people who morally rejected the premise that migrant families should be locked up, banded together and, for an entire year, volunteered massive hours to support refugees, help them fill out forms, get them pro bono representation and help advocate for their release. The success of these efforts proves the power ordinary people have to make real change that lawyers and politicians alone, have been unable or unwilling to make.

Featured guest speaker Allegra Love, an activist/immigration attorney who works on the border, said when she began this work in 2014, she did not think it was possible for the system to be less humane. The Obama administration was locking up migrant families seeking asylum and, Ian interjected, there is a reason immigrants began calling President Obama the Deporter-In-Chief. Two million immigrants were deported while Obama was president. But as a lawyer, Allegra thought justice was to be found in the courts. She learned from experience that the system is broken and immigration laws are “all made up.” Officials just keep making up and revising laws to keep control of black and brown people, she said. There’s a reason Ebony Miranda (Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County) helped frame this event, by explaining that the Black community shares a deep, personal understanding of this country’s use of incarceration to control and keep down people of color.

Allegra Love, immigration attorney and Executive Director of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project.

Allegra Love, immigration attorney and Executive Director of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project.

Allegra Love offered a poignant example of how the system is broken. She was observing immigration court hearings the other day when the case of a two-year-old was called. The toddler, unrepresented by counsel, had to be lifted up by an adult so he could reach the microphone to answer the judge’s questions in his immigration hearing. Yet as a legal observer, and Executive Director of a nonprofit dedicated to providing legal services to immigrants, there was nothing Allegra or her organization could do to intervene and stop this mockery of justice—for everything that happened was “legal” under current immigration policy.


A two-year-old, unrepresented by counsel, had to be lifted up to the microphone to answer the judge’s questions at his immigration hearing—and this was “legal” under current U.S. policy.


Our legal system is not the only U.S. institution failing immigrants. Allegra said the claim that immigrants are receiving proper medical care is untrue. She intervened as an advocate for a woman in detention who stated she had a medical condition for which she required specific medication but ICE ignored her pleas for medical attention and medication—at one point telling her to just take an aspirin. Advocates were able to get the attention of a Senator who sought to intervene, but by the time these wheels were in motion it was too late—the woman died. This isn’t an isolated example, Allegra said. There are some dedicated doctors who want to help, but ICE frequently denies immigrants the medical attention they need.

“This is happening on our watch, on our dime, and in our name.”

—Allegra Love

Institutions are collapsing, Allegra said. Our government, elected officials, the courts—none of them are working. Lawyers and volunteers are “working our asses off,” but we’re failing. It’s like “trying to hold water in your hand.” But there is hope, because if institutions can’t address these problems then you don’t have to be a person with access to politicians or systems of power—you don’t have to be a lawyer or even a Spanish speaker—to work toward a solution. “It’s time for us to all take responsibility--we need to democratize the solutions,” Allegra said to thundering applause.

Mississippi workers arrested in largest ICE raid in U.S. history. . .

WAISN Coordinator and featured speaker Monserrat Padilla returned home to Seattle just two days before this event—she’d returned from leading a team of WAISN volunteers to Mississippi to meet with the families impacted by the largest ICE raids in U.S. history.

Monserrat Padilla, WAISN Coordinator, immigration rights and LGBTQIA activist, co-founder of the Washington Dream Coalition and instrumental in advocating for the Washington State Dream Act.

Monserrat Padilla, WAISN Coordinator, immigration rights and LGBTQIA activist, co-founder of the Washington Dream Coalition and instrumental in advocating for the Washington State Dream Act.

Wait a minute, let’s take a beat and let that sink in. . . 

For all of us exhausted by the chaos of the current administration, who think we just can’t take any more, let’s pause a sec to put this in perspective. Monserrat Padilla, an undocumented, transgender, Latinx woman from Seattle who co-founded the Washington Dream Coalition, coordinates a statewide immigrant rights network and sheroically juggles the busiest activist schedule known to womankind, just went to Mississippi to see if she could help.

 Allegra Love put it best when she said “I don’t look for moral leadership in government” anymore. Then she turned to Monserrat and added—“this woman is moral leadership.”


Monserrat began her talk by calling out the names of people she met in Mississippi, saying she wanted to “shine a light” on these courageous immigrants who had left a lasting impression. She reminded us that on August 7, 2019, 680 workers were arrested in the largest ICE raid in U.S. history. These arrests immediately impacted 1500+ children as families were separated, traumatized and pushed into economic crisis.

Mississippi graphic piece.JPG

Some of those arrested have been criminally charged. Many are in detention centers and are moved daily, creating additional chaos and further confusing and frustrating lawyers trying to help. 

Monserrat shared the story of a mother and daughter she met in Mississippi. She saw her younger self in the 12-year-old girl translating for her mother, trying to navigate a very complicated process, and not really being able to process her own trauma. After listening to the girl, Monserrat said “I see you” and asked if she could give her a hug—the girl’s face just lit up.

Many immigrants the team met in Mississippi were originally from Guatemala and did not speak English or Spanish when they arrived. They spoke local dialects. These families, traumatized by separation and loss of income, now are forced to find a way to feed their family while navigating an extremely complex legal process with little or no help.

The owners and managers of the poultry processing plants who built their businesses on the backs of immigrant workers, did nothing to assist their employees following these raids. We learned these employers had a history of wage theft and abusive employment practices. Some of the workers had tried to unionize; they’d made a recent unfair labor complaint and won. While these employers have not been held accountable, the employees were targeted by ICE, arrested, and separated from their families who suddenly found themselves hungry with no means of support. Monserrat stressed the critical importance of supporting local Mississippi food banks.

Q & A session made some uncomfortable—but that’s OK. . .

After the feature presentations, Allegra Love, Ian Philabaum and Monserrat Padilla participated in a panel discussion, responding to questions facilitated by Aneelah Afzali, Executive Director of MAPS-AMEN.

Left to Right: Aneelah Afzali, Monserrat Padilla, Allegra Love and Ian Philabaum

Left to Right: Aneelah Afzali, Monserrat Padilla, Allegra Love and Ian Philabaum

Multiple questions asked panelists to compare how refugees are treated now, to how they were treated during the Obama administration. Some audience members seemed surprised, and others uncomfortable, with the answers they received.

Allegra Love, Executive Director of the  Santa Fe Dreamers Project ; Ian Philabaum, Program Director of  Innovation Law Lab  Centers of Excellence and manager of BorderX

Allegra Love, Executive Director of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project; Ian Philabaum, Program Director of Innovation Law Lab Centers of Excellence and manager of BorderX

 Allegra and Ian started working on the border in 2014, and both explained through words, examples, and finally an awkward attempt at a sports metaphor, how inhumanely they saw immigrants treated under the Obama administration. The dehumanizing treatment they witness every day will not go away if Trump loses the 2020 election, Allegra cautioned. Obama established the policies of locking up migrant families in private, for-profit detention centers, and unprecedented mass deportations.

Yes, it’s all worse under Trump they both acknowledged. But it’s as if Obama ran the football down to the 20 yard line, then Trump picked up the ball and ran it to goal.

Allegra is not impressed by immigration positions coming from Democratic presidential candidates either. Ask whichever candidate you support to commit to a specific plan to stop locking up migrants who come to our southern border in search of refuge, she suggested. If they don’t give you that commitment, then tell them you won’t vote for them—even if that means another four years of Trump. At that point the discomfort in the room was palpable, as one woman from the audience called out: “I disagree with that.”


Monserrat interjected patiently, saying she understands why many people felt comfortable while Obama was president and uncomfortable now. Monserrat initially felt comfortable too, even hopeful, when Obama was elected president. For she believed the “hope and change” message of his campaign, and she believed Obama when he said he’d pass the Dream Act during his first 100 days in office. Looking back, she realizes that as a young Dreamer attracted to the hopeful future Obama promised, she too enjoyed some privilege that initially obscured her recognition of the harm Obama was causing her community. Monserrat described her startled disillusionment, and the discomfort that set in, when none of those promises materialized. But that’s OK, Monserrat said. It’s OK to feel uncomfortable, and to realize we’re not as amazing as we thought we were. “Unlearning things is a journey.” Discomfort can be a good thing. For those of us just feeling uncomfortable now, after Trump’s election, Monserrat said, simply, “Welcome!”

So what can we do, how can we help?

So, are you ready to work on immigrant rights? Good, because it will take all of us, exercising our collective power, to reject the injustices woven into our current network of immigration systems. We must reject the premise that migrant families seeking refuge should be locked up. We should reject the assumption that U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE)—an agency that did not exist until 2003—or the Dept. of Homeland Security (est. 2002) must be funded or all hell will break loose.  As Allegra Love said: “I don’t know why we continue to bet on an agency that kills children.”

 So how can you help?

  •  Connect to trusted resources so you have accurate information

  • Volunteer your time to protect and support immigrants

  •   Advocate to policy makers

  •   Protest and participate in direction action

  •   Donate: All presenters suggested giving to local organizations advocating, organizing and directly supporting immigrants in our communities.

Specific recommendations and suggested resources for these five ways to help were handed out at the event and can be found here.

Allegra Love also challenged us to expand our idea of what it means to work on immigrant rights. We’re not all lawyers, we don’t all speak Spanish, and even if we all were able to drop everything and relocate to the border—not everyone we need in this fight would fit in El Paso, Allegra said. So go to School Board meetings, stay on top of City Hall, and work for local affordable housing—for all this directly impacts immigrant communities.

The evening ended with paired off discussions, then written commitments, about what each attendee planned to do next, followed by the lighting of candles for the hope and love we all share for our immigrant brothers and sisters.