Blurring the Border
Immigration Enforcement and Solidarity in Ohio
“Toledo: Stay safe! Border Patrol spotted on South and Broadway today!” Just days after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested 114 immigrant workers at a gardening center in Sandusky, Ohio,1and 146 more at a meat plant in Salem, Ohio,2 this alert was sent out over social media in English and Spanish, warning residents about alleged Customs and Border Patrol activity in Toledo, Ohio, over 150 miles away. Anyone who lives, works, or visits the region near the Mexico-U.S. border is familiar with white and green Border Patrol vehicles; the legacy of border checkpoints is well documented in Supreme Court decisions,3 academic research,4 and the phenomenon of “checkpoint refusal videos” on YouTube.5 But the growth of immigration enforcement farther north has led many within the immigrant and refugee communities to feel that they, too, live on the border. As a result, many immigrants are avoiding public spaces and regulating their social visibility, while others are bringing the nationwide fight for immigrant rights home to the Midwest.
Over the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to observe the growth of immigration enforcement in Ohio by studying the network of courts, detention centers, and enforcement agencies that coordinate deportations, and to witness the various responses by the immigrant community and their allies. Deportation is a technology that is used to regulate the viability of certain social groups to live and thrive in society.6 The deportation of allegedly “illegal” immigrant groups is racially uneven, both in terms of who has been illegalized at different points in U.S. history7 and in terms of who is targeted by ICE officers in the field.8 In the current immigration frenzy, Latinx immigrants have become the ethno-racial target of Far Right rhetoric about immigration. Like the Jim Crow era in the South or the Jewish exclusion laws of the 1930s, it is no accident that the legal exclusion of immigrant workers reflects the racial prejudice against Latinx9 and African immigrants.
Ohio may seem like an unlikely place to conduct fieldwork on immigration enforcement. But over the past decade, Ohio has encouraged the expansion of immigration enforcement, detention, and deportation infrastructure. In 2006, the Department of Justice recognized the growth of cases coming from Ohio and the Midwest and established an immigration court in Cleveland. In 2008, Sheriff Richard Jones of Butler County, just north of Cincinnati, signed one of the first immigration enforcement agreements with ICE in the country, empowering his deputies to screen for immigration status in the local jail and hold immigrant detainees for the federal agency.10 Jones, recently described by a local newspaper as a “mini-Trump,”11 is a fourth-term sheriff who’s become well known for his racially-motivated policing and anti-immigrant antics, including once sending a letter to the president of Mexico demanding payment for “dealing with your criminals.”12 In the intervening years, immigrant detention facilities in the state expanded to include several county jails throughout rural Ohio. In 2016, CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America), a for-profit prison company, converted one wing of its Youngstown federal correctional facility into a for-profit detention center for immigrants from across the eastern United States.13 When combined with the unapologetically anti-immigrant rhetoric of President Trump as well as the explicit racism of his White supremacist supporters,14 the immigration enforcement infrastructure is leading not only to an increase of immigrants being arrested and detained,15 but also leading immigrants to avoid using basic social and educational services.
Immigrants across Ohio feel the connection between ICE raids and their own everyday social existence along racial lines. One health professional who works with Spanish-speaking clients recently told me, “I had three separate families cancel their child’s appointment with me today because they are afraid to leave the house because of ICE.” One immigrant who gained temporary lawful status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program told me that although her parents work in the same location, they had recently begun to drive to work separately so that should one of them be arrested in a traffic stop, the other could go home and take care of their two minor children. A friend and colleague, herself a daughter of recent Mexican immigrants, recently moved abroad to live with her husband who was deported from Ohio just months ago. These seemingly minor forms of self-regulation are not of secondary concern in immigration enforcement. When public space becomes hostile to immigrants, immigrants retreat from public spaces, creating the illusion of the kind of immigrant-free, ethno-racial state that White supremacists imagine the U.S. to be.16 The consequences of the Trump administration’s policies are highly racialized and have the effect of exposing immigrant minorities to an embedded system of racial controls.17
The surge in immigration enforcement is generating a counter-surge in creative strategies and tactics among immigrants and immigrant allies to challenge immigrant social control. In response to the immigration raids in June in Ohio, labor unions,18 social workers, teachers, and churches organized to provide direct support for immigrant families that lost one or both parents to the ICE raids. Communities across the state organized public vigils and rallies outside of detention facilities and elected officials’ offices.19 Residents in Ohio and Michigan set up sustained encampments outside of ICE field offices to protest their involvement in the recent raids calling the actions Occupy ICE.20 An estimated 2,000 people participated in a rally for immigrant families in Columbus on June 30 as part of a national day of action.21 Columbus is also home to two churches that are providing sanctuary for immigrants who are at risk of deportation: the Columbus Mennonite Church, which extended sanctuary to Edith Espinal in the fall of 2017,22 and First English Lutheran Church, which offered sanctuary to Miriam Vargas this July.23 Other organizations provide more ongoing community support. The Central Ohio Worker Center conducted deportation defense trainings for college students, social workers, and grassroots organizers across Ohio.24 Avanza Together, an organization created by local immigrants after the 2016 election, provides direct social support for families with one or more family member going through the deportation process.25
What do these immigrant rights strategies teach us? On the one hand, many of these responses are survival strategies designed to cope with the community effects of aggressive immigration enforcement. From ICE’s worksite raids to Sheriff Jones’ aggressive policing, immigrants are under attack every day, and are forced to create new networks of resilience. Trump’s policies not only put more families at risk of separation and deportation, they also have the potential to drive immigrants underground. On the other hand, these resistance strategies also send another message that by working together, immigrants and citizens in America’s heartland are building the social networks needed to resist the anti-immigrant politics of the Trump administration. Protests, rallies, and vigils put immigrant’s faces and narratives back into circulation through social and traditional media, thereby challenging the pressure to remain invisible. Sustained forms of resistance through the labor movement, grassroots organizations, and sanctuary churches are creating longer-lasting networks that cross lines of citizen/non-citizen, immigrant/non-immigrant, and documented/undocumented.
In his well-known book, Imagined Communities, the late Benedict Anderson argues that although nationalism and citizenship has always relied on a notion of “horizontal comradeship,” in reality nationalism has historically depended on the violent exclusion of people who don’t conform to the specific racial and ethnic national ideal. Through grassroots action, Ohioans—and indeed others across the United States—are imagining a new American community that responds to anti-immigrant injustice through coordinated action that is motivated by solidarity and a refusal to allow Trump’s vision for America to become reality.⬛