Can protest make a difference?
On the last Tuesday of November, I found myself in Hinds Plaza looking for a spot to sit and enjoy the unusually warm weather. A large crowd was dispersing as I arrived, and I guessed there had been a rally. However, only when encountering a disturbing headline later on did I learn why this crowd had assembled: “ICE Arrests Came Hours Before Immigration Rally in Princeton.” As it turned out, federal Immigration Customs Enforcement had swept up four people along Witherspoon not long before nearly 200 of their neighbors rallied around the block to call on Congress to pass a clean DREAM Act by Dec. 8. The aim of this legislaiton would be to protect the recipients of the now-terminated Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
That Tuesday afternoon, as I was walking from Hinds Plaza to Dickinson Hall and the crowd of protesters was casually chatting and heading home, the lives of four Princeton community members were being completely overturned. It would be impossible to find out exactly where these individuals are now, but if unable to pay a bond they are most likely being detained while they await removal hearings. The article from the Princeton Patch did not make it clear whether the arrests inspired the rally.
The everyday violence of immigrant detention and deportation might be hard to grasp in abstract terms, especially since this system takes in hundreds of thousands of individuals each year and has only grown since Trump’s election. But the evidence of harmful, substandard conditions and frequent deaths in detention centers, where detainees are often cut off from access to family and legal representation, and the immediate danger that many deportees face, should compel us to grapple with the concrete, devastating human costs of detention and deportation.
We cannot forget that human rights violations are occurring not only in distant war zones but right here in our own state. New Jersey ranks among the top five states with the largest number of people in immigrant detention. For example, a report on the Hudson County Jail in New Jersey, a county jail used by ICE to hold immigrant detainees, revealed a lack of outdoor space, nutritional food, and adequate access to family and legal representation.
The arrests by ICE of our own neighbors are a clear reminder that our town is vulnerable to the everyday violence of our country’s immigration system. Four of our neighbors were torn from their communities, homes, families, friends, jobs. Reflecting on the events of Nov. 28, it’s difficult knowing how little distance and time separated the ICE arrests and the gathering of sign-waving protestors.
I don’t bring this up to shame those who participated in the Hines Plaza rally — I agree that the passage of the DREAM Act is incredibly urgent, and I wish that I had heard about the rally beforehand so that I could have attended myself. DACA was an incredibly important opportunity for 788,000 young immigrants, and its termination is a truly devastating blow for these individuals who have since feared that the information they provided to the government about their immigration status could now endanger them. As a community, we should lend our unequivocal support to efforts to preserve protections for DACA recipients — a struggle that is being led by one of our peers, María Perales '18, in a legal suit.
However, let the ICE arrests serve as a reminder that if we are ever going to truly “show up” for all the undocumented members of our community, we must do more than speak up for the rights of DACA recipients. Unless the four individuals detained were DREAMers, the DREAM Act would have done nothing for them even if it had already been passed.
We must, then, resoundingly assert that ICE, detention, and deportation should not exist whatsoever. We must welcome all immigrants, including students, childhood arrivals, older family members, people with criminal records, queer and trans immigrants. This position, which refuses to make distinctions between “good” or “bad” immigrants, should serve as the basis for networks of direct action. We should not only express support for the DREAM Act but also pressure our University to divest from the corporations that detain undocumented people of all different backgrounds in dehumanized conditions.
Can we imagine a mode of collective action in which, rather than rallying several hours after a string of ICE arrests, community members were somehow immediately notified that federal immigration authorities were in town and began forming a crowd on the street as ICE agents were in the midst of knocking on doors and terrorizing families? What if, instead of simply carrying signs, protesters filmed and chanted down ICE agents until they left the community? It may sound unrealistic in the quiet and picturesque town of Princeton, but there have been plenty of cases of in which protesters have disrupted the work of ICE agents.
Organizations like the DREAM Team have done much to build action networks, but there is only so much that small groups of activists can do alone. It’s up to every community member to commit, unconditionally, to defending their undocumented neighbors and peers.
Max Grear ’18 is a senior columnist as well as a lead organizer of the Princeton Private Prison Divest Coalition.