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Downtown Boys on Immigrant Rights

With the most important election of this generation looming–and the conversation around the ethics, corruption, morality, and overt xenophobia associated with the presidential campaigns continuing to heighten–SPIN asked politically-minded musicians to speak on issues that matter. For November’s digital cover story, these artist op-eds will look at police brutality, racial profiling and identity, immigration, welfare reform, climate change, and more, to ask: What’s going on?

The following piece was taken from the Downtown Boys' own words, as told to SPIN writer Andy Cush.

A few years ago, we came to know a guy named Mauricio. He was about our age, and he’d come to the U.S. as a teenager to get away from gang violence in El Salvador, where he was born. He worked in a factory in Providence, where we live, but the factory eventually closed, and he moved to Baltimore, where he met his wife and had a child.

Later, Mauricio took his family on a short vacation back to Providence. He wanted them to see where he’d first settled and made a life in the States. The family figured that if they stayed in a nice hotel, Mauricio, who was undocumented, might evade the attention of law enforcement. But someone at the hotel called the police, claiming that they heard loud noises coming from Mauricio’s room, and suspected that there were too many people in there. He got arrested.

The criminal charges against Mauricio were eventually dropped, but the police ran his information against a federal database and found out that he was undocumented. They turned him over to federal immigration enforcement. Rhode Island has a contract with Massachusetts for holding immigration detainees, and he was shipped to a prison there.

Mauricio’s wife called the hotline for an activist organization that we worked with at the time, and that’s when we first heard his story. She was so scared. The arrest and the transfer to federal authorities all happened within 24 hours, and she didn’t know whether she’d see Mauricio again. We worked with her to help, and we made a few trips to see Mauricio in jail.

He wanted to fight the case at first, but eventually he gave up and resigned to the idea of being deported, because he couldn’t stand the horrible conditions of the jail any longer. Eventually, it became clear that there was nothing we could do. It was Mauricio’s first time going back to El Salvador. When he got here, he was a kid, and people extended their sympathy to him. As an adult, he didn’t get the same sympathy. He told us he was worried about returning and immediately being killed in gang warfare.

[caption id="attachment_id_214768"] Downtown Boys on Immigrant Rights Illustration by Tara Jacoby[/caption]

When you work on behalf of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., you pick up these little chestnut stories. But we need more than chestnut stories if things are ever going to get better here. We need institutional change.

The police in Providence turned Mauricio over to immigration authorities under a federal program called Secure Communities. The program empowered local law enforcement agencies to work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, running the fingerprints and other information of everyone who was booked into jail against an I.C.E. database of immigrants. Secure Communities meant that an ordinary, law-abiding person without documentation could be quickly forced out of the country over something as simple as a traffic stop.

Secure Communities was launched under the George W. Bush administration in 2008, and Barack Obama greatly expanded it. As activists, we saw how this policy, presided over by an ostensibly liberal president, ruined so many people’s lives. Statistics show that Obama deported more people during his presidency than any other previous president.

During his second term, Obama began shifting his policies for the better. He signed an executive order aimed at helping people who were brought to the U.S. as young children work legally, and another aimed at offering temporary legal status to a much larger group of immigrants, which was later blocked in the Supreme Court. In 2014, he ended the Secure Communities program for good.

That shift happened largely because of activists who showed up every day and put pressure on powerful people to push policy in the right direction. That’s why, no matter who is elected in November, we are going to continue to demand what we’ve always demanded. Clinton is not talking about doing anything for immigrants that goes beyond Obama’s plans, which resulted in so many deportations. Trump is terrifying, but he is only using harsher terms to describe the anti-immigration stance this country has always taken.

For us, the most exciting part of this election has been the Black Lives Matter movement. We’re so excited for the election to be over, and for the media to not have to report on the campaigns anymore, but to have to keep reporting on Black Lives Matter. Our immigration movement has to continue to build bonds with the Black Lives Matter movement. We have to recognize that the systems of violence that are being used against undocumented people are the same systems that are being used against all people of color, and other marginalized people. The identity of the immigrant in this country is that of a worker, so we’re not going to get true justice for immigrants if it is not also worker justice.

The country needs to continue rolling back the jurisdiction of local law enforcement agencies to deal with immigration, so that local cops aren’t acting as federal I.C.E. agents, and people like Mauricio aren’t taken away from their families. We need more waivers for undocumented people who are facing deportation. We need publicly funded representation for people in immigration court, just like we have public defenders on the criminal side. We need to stop relying on executive orders, and get these laws on the books.

Ultimately, the United States should not be thinking in terms of borders at all. This country has long meddled in the politics of Latin America, propping up dictators and enacting NAFTA--a disastrous trade deal that is responsible for a lot of the desperation that encourages people to come into this country to begin with. People need the ability to migrate and move freely, because that is what our economic and foreign policies are forcing them to do. As long as the U.S. continues to perpetrate violence and economic injustice abroad, borders are not a solution.

Downtown Boys are a punk band from Providence, Rhode Island. Their debut album, Full Communism, was released in 2015. The band’s Joey La Neve DeFrancesco and Victoria Ruiz also run Spark, an online music magazine.