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The Immigrant Justice Movement in Grand Rapids Part I

April 7, 2019

(Editor’s note: I am currently working on a book, tentatively entitled, A People’s History of Grand Rapids, which is related to this article.)

I have been in Grand Rapids since 1982. During the past 37 years I have been involved in a variety of activist work and organizing efforts. However, it is important to state up front that activism is often not organizing work.

One thing that differentiates organizing from activism is that, activism is often done singularly and rarely does it have a larger goal. Organizing, on the other hand, is well thought out, with tactics, strategies and goals, especially when it is part of a larger social movement.

Activism can be part of organizing work, but activism by itself is insufficient for the long term goals of social movements. People can be motivated by a singular event or moment in history, like the moment last June when people became aware that the US government was detaining and separating immigrant families just inside the US border. People were outraged when they saw children in cages, and rightfully so. People maybe signed an online petition, donated to a group or attended a rally calling for the end of immigrant family separation.

However, many people didn’t know what to do to sustain their anger and eventually lost interest in what was happening or did not seek out organizations or movements that were addressing the issue of immigrant family separation. 

I have participated in several social movements in the Grand Rapids area since the early 1980s, including the Central American Solidarity Movement, the Sanctuary Movement, the Disarmament Movement, the Anti-Globalization Movement, the Anti-Iraq War/Occupation Movement and the Food Justice Movement. I have learned a great deal from the people in those movement and it is what has inspired me to want to write A People’s History of Grand Rapids.

Immigrant Justice Movement

The roots of the current immigrant justice movement really began in 2005. Wisconsin Representative Sensenbrenner had introduced a bill, the the Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005. This bill would criminalize undocumented immigrants and even punish those who offered them any assistance. The proposed bill mobilized people all across the US, including in Grand Rapids.

There were meetings that were being held at the Burton Heights United Methodist Church (which has since been demolished), with 200 – 400 people coming to each meeting over the next several months to discuss what actions to take. In conjunction with a national effort, it was decided by the immigrant community to turn out in large numbers in opposition to the Sensenbrenner bill.

On March 26th, 2006 an estimate 10,000 people marched in Grand Rapids from Garfield Park to downtown Grand Rapids to protest the anti-immigration legislation. Some observers say that this was one of the largest marches in the history of the city, if not the largest. What is more important is that this march was made up of mostly people from the immigrant and undocumented community.

I was at that march in 2006 and wrote about it for an indymedia blog called Media Mouse. The story I wrote at the time, along with how the Grand Rapids Press covered it, is documented in a post on the Grand Rapids People’s History Project site.

There was another action organized as a follow up to this march, which took place on May 1st of 2006. This action also took place at Garfield Park, but it was much smaller, did not involve a march, but was being called Un Dia Sin Imigrantes – A Day Without Immigrants, which I also wrote about for Media Mouse. Unfortunately, after the May Day action, the moment was gone and organizers did not capitalize on the energy and numbers of those who took over the streets 5 weeks earlier.

There were still some meetings that were being organized, but primarily by those in the non-profit sector, religious people and immigration lawyers. These meetings took place primarily at the Hispanic Center and focused on policy rather than organizing the affected community.

By 2007, people began to rally around the idea of Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 and the 2008 Presidential Elections. There was a big push within the immigrant community to register people to vote. When it was clear that Barack Obama was going to get the Democratic nomination and if elected, he would make Comprehensive Immigration Reform a priority, which motivated a lot of people.

Barack Obama did become the President and promised to pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform within the first 100 days. This however, did not happen and in fact, it never happened during the 8 years he was in office.

Many people in the immigrant community were disappointed by this outcome and many became disillusioned by electoral politics, especially when the Obama administration escalated the war against the undocumented community, deporting an estimated 3 million during those eight years.

A group that came together during the time, called the West Michigan Coalition for Immigration Reform, began to meet monthly. One of their main goals was to get Comprehensive Immigration Reform passed in Congress. They held a Press Conference in early September of 2009, to kickoff a new campaign to push politicians to embrace Comprehensive Immigration Reform. 

The month before, GRIID agreed to conduct a series of interviews from people directly impacted from ICE raids and arrests or those who worked with people impacted, such as lawyers and social workers. Here is one of those interviews with an ALCU lawyer who shared her research on detention center across the US.

A week after their September Press Conference, the West Michigan Coalition for Immigration Reform held a public forum to kickoff their campaign to get Comprehensive Immigration Reform passed and in the minds of millions of Americans. The forum was held at GVSU’s downtown campus and co-sponsored by the Latin American Studies Department. The following month there was another rally held at Garfield Park, just prior to people traveling to DC to lobby Congress on Comprehensive Immigration Reform.

There was limited activity for a few years, until the 2012 Presidential Election, when the argument was made that “people needed to re-elect President Obama in order to achieve Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” However, at the same time there was increased ICE activity in West Michigan and more and more people were being arrested, detained and deported. At the monthly meetings of the West Michigan Coalition for Immigration Reform we kept hearing of arrests, raids and the growing fear that the immigrant community was feeling. There was even an attempt to create a Rapid Response to ICE project, but for a variety of reasons it never got off the ground.

However, in late 2012, there was also dissatisfaction with what was happening at the national level. In November of 2012, about 250 people went to Lansing to demand immigrant rights and Drivers Licenses for All

In December of 2012, over 200 people showed up at a Grand Rapids City Commission meeting, mostly those from the immigrant community. Again, those who spoke were demanding that the city support their effort to get Drivers Licenses for the undocumented community.  A Latino pastor addressed the Grand Rapids City Commission with a passionate plea for Drivers Licenses for All.

Young immigrants were especially disillusioned at this time and began organizing efforts to gain protections for themselves, which eventually lead to the Dream Act. Young immigrants were showing up all over the country whenever President Obama was scheduled to speak. They engaged in action that were disruptive and directly called out the President on his failure to push legislation that would be beneficial to undocumented immigrants.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform was eventually voted on in 2013, but it narrowly lost and there hasn’t been any attempt since then to get something like it passed.

However, there was a valuable lesson learned by these young immigrant organizers. They learned that putting their hopes into an electoral campaign was useless, unless there was a social movement that was organized by those who were most vulnerable to arrest, detention and deportation.

It was in 2014-2015, that immigrant organizers met to discuss and strategize around the importance of creating an immigrant-led movement that was calling for immigrant justice.

In Part II of this article, we will look at what has happened in Grand Rapids around immigrant justice, since Donald Trump was elected in November of 2016 and up until the present.

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