Building a Rapid-Response Network to Defend Immigrant Workers
As the Trump administration cracks down on undocumented immigrants, it’s urgent for worker centers and unions to organize to defend immigrant members.
In Western Massachusetts, the Pioneer Valley Workers Center has created a rapid-response network it calls “Sanctuary in the Streets” (SiS). The worker center, founded in 2014, organizes restaurant workers and farmworkers in the area. Worker committees set the network's priorities.
The rapid-response network consists of a 24-hour emergency hotline, 2,000 members, and 20 religious congregations. Forty bilingual responders are trained to manage the hotline, where they instruct callers in their constitutional rights, connect them to services, and activate the response team if necessary.
Since November 2016, members of the network have supported 35 families and individuals facing deportation and workplace abuse, including wage theft and sexual harassment.
The network has trained 800 Rapid Responders to document and peacefully denounce a deportation or raid as it is taking place, and is currently training to accompany immigrants to court hearings. It’s also defending two immigrants who have taken sanctuary in local churches after facing threats of deportation.
Here’s some advice from Pioneer Valley Workers Center organizers on setting up a rapid-response network:
1. Make sure it’s led by immigrant workers.
The volunteers in the network include many non-immigrant supporters from all walks of life. But “what makes our model strong is that we have an existing worker committee, and the Sanctuary in the Streets network is accountable to the worker committee,” says Diana Sierra, an organizer with the Center.
In a series of forums, members of the worker center identified the most urgent issues affecting their community: workplace abuse; detentions, raids, and deportations; and hate crimes. These became the network’s priorities to organize against.
Without a base among immigrant workers, it can be hard to know the community’s real needs. For example, some activists in Western Massachusetts have called for shutting down the ICE detention center in Greenfield, which houses 100 immigrants. But there's a debate within the worker center and the immigrant community around this approach. “For immigrants here that detention center means that they’re not shipped off far away without access to legal aid or their families being able to see them,” says Rose Bookbinder, another Center organizer. So the group is proceeding cautiously around this issue, while focusing energy on others that its immigrant members have identified as top priorities.
2. Divide up into groups with defined assignments.
Sanctuary in the Streets has seven volunteer-led subcommittees: education and research; media; fundraising; solidarity, which includes rides and food; events; childcare; and hotline and technology.
Each subcommittee was created to answer a need. “When we started Sanctuary in the Streets,” says Bookbinder, “we had direct asks from our immigrant members: free legal support; a 24-hour line to call in emergency situations; childcare support for organizing or in case of deportation; and ways to research all that.” Other subcommittees were added over time.
3. Push specific demands with local politicians and businesses.
“Sanctuary in the Streets isn’t just reactive,” says Sierra. Instead, the network is fighting for concrete reforms.
In anticipation of this year’s May Day demonstration, the worker committee asked researchers on the education subcommittee to look for victories that immigrant rights groups had won in other cities. They put the best ones forward as demands to elected officials in local municipalities.
As a result, in Northampton, Sanctuary in the Streets has won a number of commitments from the mayor’s office: to warn the community of potential immigrant raids; to support sanctuary congregations; to organize trainings where employers and workers learn how to interact with immigration officials; and to allow non-citizens to vote in city elections. The group is now working to enforce these commitments.
4. Pounce on opportunities to recruit more volunteers.
In the immediate wake of Donald Trump’s election in 2016, many people were searching for meaningful forms of activism and organizing that extended beyond electoral politics.
“People were incredibly motivated to take action, and we took advantage of that whirlwind moment,” says Bookbinder. Sanctuary in the Streets was launched in the weeks following the election. Eighteen hundred people signed up to participate, and 100 packed the group’s meetings.
The lesson? “Prepare all the infrastructure you need,” says Bookbinder, “and the next time Trump or ICE screws up, launch it, and you can capture these people into your organization.”
5. Build for the long term by prioritizing organizing.
This worker center prioritizes providing aid to immigrants who are involved in organizing—meaning that they are participating in collective action to improve their workplaces or defend their communities, such as by coming to meetings or events or participating in campaigns.
The group has raised $10,000 for a solidarity fund specifically to support people who are organizing, with needs ranging from bond money to rent. It has had to turn down requests from those who aren’t, though it still helps connect them to free legal services.
“We’ve gotten criticism from some people who think you should provide services to everyone, but we have limited time and resources,” says Sierra. “It’s a careful balance—when someone’s in crisis, and asks you to accompany them to court, you don’t say, ‘Can you come to a meeting?’
“But you might talk to them about how there are a number of other immigrants going through the same thing.” And that might help them start thinking about organizing.
Parts of this article are taken from 'Building Working Power: The Organizing Model of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center'; for a copy, visit the website: pvworkerscenter.org