No Papers, No Fear

Activists lock down, blocking a New Jersey detention center in December of 2013 during a snowstorm.

UPDATE: The National Day Labor Organizing Network predicts that by April the Obama Administration will have deported two million people. NDLON is calling for a national day of action April 5 under the banner "2 Million 2 Many!"

A few years ago I was giving “Know Your Rights” workshops for young immigrants in Maryland. They told me story after story about run-ins with police and immigration officers, who were regularly detaining and deporting their friends and family.

All I could offer was some hope they could protect themselves with their right to remain silent.

Today, young immigrants are taking brave steps to do more than protect themselves as individuals. They are calling out the whole broken immigration system, demanding to keep families together, putting themselves at risk for the cause.

Organized labor could learn a thing or two.


In 2010, young undocumented immigrants held a rally in Chicago’s Federal Plaza. Staring down the local immigration office, eight “came out” as “undocumented and unafraid.”

Teenagers and young adults took the stage one by one. “I refuse to think of what another ten years of frustration, sadness, and fear will feel like,” one said. “My name is Reyna, and I am undocumented.”

The action hit a nerve, inspiring similar events around the country, including a “No Papers No Fear” bus that traveled the South carrying immigrants speaking out. The ride ended with civil disobedience at the Democratic National Convention, where 10 were arrested.

This March, Chicago’s Immigrant Youth Justice League celebrated its fourth annual “Coming Out of the Shadows Day.”

The daring act has put undocumented immigrants in a political spotlight. It has allowed young people to take the lead, demanding that politicians listen.

Similar “coming outs” have led to successes in some union campaigns. When supposedly hated public sector workers in Wisconsin rallied in 2011, the community was quick to support them. Fast food workers demanding a decent wage have gotten wide support, too.




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“Coming out” isn’t the only inspiring action immigrant activists are taking. They’re putting direct action behind their big demand.

The term “direct action” has been diluted over time, often referring to anything more active than lobbying. But immigrant youth are using direct action in the traditional sense: taking action that stops business as usual, creates a crisis, and demands change.

Under the slogan “Not One More,” immigrants calling for President Obama to end record-high deportations have locked down immigration offices and deportation facilities. They have blockaded and chained themselves to deportation buses.

Immigrants in detention facilities have waged hunger strikes calling for a stop to deportations, which now average more than 1,000 every day.

And after their organizing won a policy directive that defers the possibility of deportation for some, immigrant youth are pioneering an incredibly daring strategy: getting themselves arrested on purpose to infiltrate detention centers, gather and publicize the stories of other detainees, and organize from within.

These forceful actions say better than any speech that the prized “pathway to citizenship” is not enough.

There’s a reason the labor movement came up with the adage “direct action gets the goods.” In New York, when 40 angry Cablevision workers jammed into the vice president’s office over a firing, the worker was rehired the next day.

When the CEO of Interfaith Medical Center in Brooklyn threatened to close the hospital, nurses occupied his office, refusing to leave. The CEO was fired and the hospital remains open.

Last year a lackluster immigration reform bill, which didn’t even address the flood of deportations, got stalled in Congress. Rather than follow the bill, I’m keeping my eyes on the young activists dreaming big and making demands.

As far as I can see, they’re the ones who could changes the lives of millions.

Meet Reyna and other members of the Immigrant Youth Justice League, Cablevision activists, and nurses from Interfaith Medical Center at the Labor Notes Conference.

Julia Kann is a staff writer for Labor