Christine Neumann-Ortiz
September 6, 2023

One of my strongest memories in the last 20 years of my work as an immigration rights activist, was cohosting a visit by a tribal elder, Ophelia Rivas from the Tohono O’odham Nation, from Southwestern Arizona who came for a tour of Wisconsin’s indigenous tribes. The Tohono O’odham is the second largest tribal nation in the US, with people on both sides of the border. She described how their community faced harassment by border agents who would break into their homes and question them about their immigration status. In response they had to organize a Know Your Rights campaign that included posting signs outside of their homes saying agents did not have authorization to enter without a warrant signed by a judge. 

She also shared how one day she was driving her truck with her 5-year-old grandson, Behr Garcia, when a US border patrol agent stopped her and said,” Are you Mexican or US Citizen? “She responded, “I am a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation and I am on my land”. He said, “What do you mean this is your land?”  He continued to insist that she choose between “Mexican or US Citizen” pointing a pistol directly at her head, terrifying her grandson who was sitting next to her. He continued to harass her but ultimately left.

As she reflected, “of course, I am for immigrant rights. The people that come north are distant relatives that migrated south, and they have the right to come north. When border patrol agents tell us to not to feed or give water to people crossing the border in the dessert that goes against our values. Of course, we will give them water and bandage their wounds, because they are our relatives”

The hatred and violence on the part of the US border agent is a telling reminder of the legacy of conquest that used white supremacy as a justification to exploit land and labor for economic gain.

As a founding member of Voces de la Frontera, a member led statewide organization in Wisconsin, I have had the honor to work with immigrants and nonimmigrant people to protect and advance the rights of immigrants and build alliances. Many of our members are immigrant workers who have mixed immigration status families and who live with the stress, fear and uncertainty of deportation. Many of these families have been here for decades but without the hope of adjusting their status because of our immigration system. 

Our immigration system has been intentionally broken by Congress trapping close to 11 million people who are unable to work and live legally in the US. Yet they are an essential part of the workforce and the backbone of many industries, such as agriculture, dairy, construction and service. They are legally required to report their tax contributions with an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN) and 18-year-old undocumented immigrant men are required to sign up for Select Service in the event of an emergency war draft. Yet, here in Wisconsin, they cannot get a drivers license or state ID.

More recently asylum seekers, fleeing violence, from Latin America, Haiti, Africa and Asia have had their plight politicized and face an escalation of human rights abuses. At the border they are vulnerable to cartels and once they arrive in the US they are becoming part of a new vulnerable workforce.

Under the Trump administration asylum was stopped for blatantly racist reasons. While Trump’s defeat did bring about some reforms, immigration reform has stalled yet again and the immigrant rights movement has had to build pressure to honor human rights laws, even under the Biden Administration.

The US government has a responsibility to receive people fleeing violence. The history of US intervention -both militarily and economically-in Latin America has been to favor the interests of US corporations through trade agreements and supporting dictatorships that guaranteed access to cheap labor, resources and deregulation of environmental and health and safety laws. This legacy has contributed to more corruption, violence, poverty and forced migration to the US. 

Yet, throughout history there has always been a legacy of resistance and change rooted in a movement from below. Voces de la Frontera is organizing in different ways to build power to a growing white supremacist threat that has been emboldened since the Trump candidacy and goes beyond Trump himself. 

We believe that it is critical to forge alliances - among people of color and progressives - to turn out for elections to defeat far right extremists, recruit and support more progressive candidates, and organize in our schools, workplaces and community to make a difference in people’s lives at a local and state level, and build a stronger movement for national reforms. The urgency for national reforms including immigration reform, climate justice, and women’s rights are like a dam that, when we choose to work together, can break through.

For more information: info vdlf.org