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The Immigrant Justice Movement in Grand Rapids Part II

April 10, 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.)

In Part I, we looked at the beginnings of an immigrant justice movement in Grand Rapids, specifically between 2005 and 2016.

The immigrant justice movement evolved significantly after the 2016 election, with the news that the new Trump administration would be escalating repressive measures against undocumented immigrants, with talk of building a wall along the US/Mexican border and adding 15,000 additional ICE agents across the country.

A group of people were invited to a meeting that was being hosted by the CRC’s office of Social Justice just weeks after the 2016 election. Some 40 people were at that meeting to discuss the possibility of doing sanctuary work, along with a whole range of ideas that would provide opportunities for solidarity with the undocumented community. However, there was one thing missing from this meeting……there was no one from the immigrant or the undocumented community.

However, people from this initial gathering continued to meet and form committees. The committee I was a part of, was a group that was looking to intervene when ICE agents were attempting to arrest and detain people.

There was a community forum held in January of 2017, at the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church to talk about what could be done to respond to the anticipated anti-immigrant rhetoric coming out of Washington. Some people met to talk about offering sanctuary, while others met to discuss the work of a group calling itself the GR Rapid Response to ICE project.

GR Rapid Response to ICE hosted its first training in February of 2017, with over 100 people attending, which did reflect that many people had a growing concern about the fate of immigrants under the Trump administration. In that same month, a march was organized by the immigrant community to draw attention to their concerns and fears about the increased repression they were feeling. Several thousand people showed up at that march in February, with a banner that read, Un Dia Sin Immigrantes – A Day Without Immigrants.

It was out of this immigrant-led march that Movimiento Coscha GR was born. Some of the organizers from that march traveled to Boston to participate in a training with the Cosecha national and came back determined to organize the immigrant community in Grand Rapids.

Cosecha GR continued its organizing work with other marches and an action at the local ICE office where three people were arrested to expose the bankrupt immigration policies of this country. 

One focus of Cosecha GR has been to use boycotts to address systemic problems around immigration, by making it clear that without immigrants the US economy would come to a stop. The boycott campaign saw several thousand people marching and refusing to buy anything on May 1st, an action at Walmart that exposed the wages of migrant workers and the current Turkey Boycott Campaign.

In October of 2017, there was also a powerful display of solidarity, where Movimiento Cosecha GR had decided to support a contract dispute with the bus drivers union in Grand Rapids and the union in turn supported Cosecha GR and their push to get an Equal Services policy adopted by the City of Grand Rapids, which would prevent city employees from asking people about their legal status. 

Unfortunately, the GRPD lobbied to not be included in the Equal Services policy and the City attorney revised the content to exclude them from the policy, which means the GRPD could ask people what their status is. 

GR Rapid Response to ICE and Movimiento Cosecha GR continued to organize and offer trainings at the beginning of 2018. The first major immigration action took place in January, when Congress was debating whether or not to continue the federal policy known as DACA. People from Grand Rapids went to DC to take part in actions and then organized an action on January 19, where protestors shut down traffic at an intersection by the Grand Rapids Federal Building.

At that January 19 action, police officers did not act when motorists forced their way through the protestors on the street. Movimiento Cosecha GR held a press conference in response to this form of state violence in February. The GRPD showed up to intimidate the immigrant-led group and then waited in the parking lot to make sure that they could talk to the news media that came to the press conference.

Then in March, a church which was working with the group GR Rapid Response to ICE, publicly declared themselves a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants.

Beginning in early April, Movimiento Cosecha GR began promoting their upcoming days of action, which would begin at the end of April. These four days of action were part of a larger strategy of getting to a seven day strike, where immigrants and allies would demonstrate the kind of economic power they have to force the country to come to terms with the unjust immigration policies that currently permeate the US.

Movimiento Cosecha GR also used these four days of action to kick-off their campaign to get drivers licenses for all in Michigan. On April 30th, the movement participated in an action at the Secretary of State’s office in Wyoming, MI.

On May 1st, an estimated 2,000 people marched in the streets of Grand Rapids to demonstrate the power of immigrants. The GRPD had increased their presence during the march and tried to dictated the route, but movement organizers would not comply, thus demonstrating their commitment to a truly grassroots politics that took its direction from the people most impacted by the unjust immigration policies.

There was an increase in the amount of calls that GR Rapid Response to ICE was getting, which led that group to look into the Kent County Sheriff Department’s relationship with ICE. It was discovered that Kent County had begun a contract with ICE in 2012. As GR Rapid Response to ICE was gearing up to protest the county’s contract with ICE, along with Movimiento Cosecha GR, the US was separating immigrant families near the US border and putting children in cages.

Capitalizing on the national outcry over the treatment of immigrants, GR Rapid Response to ICE and Movimiento Cosecha GR organized an action at the Kent County Commission meeting in late June of 2018, which turned out over 200 people on a Thursday morning. There were several people arrested during that action, but more importantly, that action led to a larger End the Contract campaign, where both Movimiento Cosecha GR and GR Rapid Response to ICE were calling for an end to the county’s contract with ICE.

Since the End the Contract campaign began in late June, Movimiento Cosecha GR and GR Rapid Response to ICE have participated in over a dozen actions on the contract, including actions at various ICE offices, a march and rally held outside of the Kent County Jail, various actions at the regular Kent County Commission meetings, a No Business with ICE Action Day and even a disruptive action during ArtPrize to draw attention to the fear and terror that immigrants were experiencing in Kent County.

In addition, once the End the Contract campaign had begun, there was the development of  Cosecha Allies trainings, as a way to bring more allies into the movement and to build capacity for the expanding struggle for immigrant justice. This was important, not just for working on the End the Contract campaign, but for the Movimiento Cosecha GR 5 day pilgrimage to Lansing for their drivers licenses for all campaign. 

In early January of 2019Kent County made national news with the revelation that Jimar Ramos-Gomez, a man born in the US, who later served in the US military in Afghanistan, was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

Shortly after this news went national, the Kent County Sheriff held a press conference, stating that the Sheriff’s Department, “will no longer honor federal immigration holds without an arrest warrant signed by a judge.” 

This was a major victory, which Movimiento Cosecha GR and GR Rapid Response to ICE celebrated, because it demonstrated that the End of the Contract campaign was effective, since they believe that the constant pressure put on by both groups resulted in the Sheriff Department’s change in policy

However, it was also discovered during the arrest and detainment of Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, that the GRPD was involved. The ACLU and MIRC had called for an investigation of the GRPD’s role in the Jilamr Ramos-Gomez case and in the process obtained numerous documents that clearly demonstrated that the GRPD acted in a racist manner in their collaboration with ICE. 

Movimiento Cosecha GR and GR Rapid Response to ICE had already begun to confront the City of Grand Rapids and make demands, but after they looked at the ACLU/MIRC documents they engaged in a larger action in late February of 2019, calling for Captain VanderKooi to be fired.

In addition to pressuring the City of Grand Rapids around immigrant justice issues, Movimiento Cosecha GR has been gearing up for the May 1st action, which again has Drivers Licenses for All as the main theme. For more information on the May 1st action, go to their Facebook event page linked here

Movimiento Cosecha GR and GR Rapid Response to ICE continue to do important work in building a strong immigrant justice movement. In many ways this movement has been the longest sustained movement in Grand Rapids, since the anti-Iraq War movement some 15 years ago, and their is no evidence that this movement is going away anytime soon. Hasta La Huelga!

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