Community not criminalization

Pub date October 1, 2013


By María Poblet

OPINION San Francisco is poised to break ground in defense of immigrants, an important step towards turning the tide against the criminalization of communities of color.

In a unanimous vote on September 24, the Board of Supervisors supported a due process ordinance that, after final approval, will reduce deportations by setting strict limits on collaboration between federal immigration enforcement and local authorities. Our city will make history by refusing to implement the federal Secure Communities program, which allows US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to request an immigration hold detention without cause, regardless of immigration status, at local expense.

This victory didn’t trickle down like fog from the “progressive Bay Area bubble.” It was hard fought, from the bottom up. Immigrant and undocumented people most impacted by the problems led the fight, and they built a movement too strong to ignore. Causa Justa::Just Cause helped organize the groundswell, as part of the San Francisco Immigrant Rights Defense Committee, a broad grassroots collaboration. We had support from progressive champions John Avalos, Eric Mar, David Campos, and five additional co-sponsors on the board.

This movement builds on the fights in the 1980s to make San Francisco a Sanctuary City, welcoming survivors of the wars in Central America. We build on the fights in the ’90s to re-commit to those values in the face of a new wave of migration, when economic refugees arrived, fleeing the hunger caused by US-imposed Free Trade Agreements. We build on the very personal fights of everyday people, like a woman we’ll call Silvia, a domestic violence survivor who met with the District Attorney repeatedly, demanded that he lead those meetings in Spanish so she could participate fully, advocated for herself and her community, and ultimately won his commitment of support for this ordinance. This victory belongs to the hundreds of community leaders who, like Silvia, overcame intimidation, organized their families and neighbors, and showed our elected officials the way forward.

In a national context, where states like Georgia, Alabama and Arizona hunt down immigrants, we in California, a majority immigrant, majority people of color state, have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to follow Silvia’s leadership. It’s time to reject criminalization, and build community.

Every time there’s a new way to label someone a “criminal,” more families and communities are torn apart. Millions of black and Latino people are behind bars already, thanks to criminalization policies like the war on drugs, structural unemployment, decades of divestment from working class communities, and racial discrimination. Creating new immigration violations only makes that problem worse, trapping whole new sectors of our society in the prison dragnet. This advance in San Francisco should inspire our state as a whole not only to reject S-Comm, but also to take bold action to address the profoundly problematic prison system, and challenge the racism and poverty it depends on.

But, for our state to stand up like that is going to take a serious transformation. Gov. Jerry Brown recently announced plans to expand the prison system with revenues from Prop. 30 — the grassroots progressive tax passed last year to support public schools and social services. Causa Justa::Just Cause, as part of California Calls, through SF Rising and Oakland Rising, was one of hundreds of community groups that helped pass this progressive tax. We are outraged to see the governor literally betting on the criminalization of the next generation, with money that was supposed to support their success.

Policies like S-Comm manufacture the need for more detention facilities, ultimately benefitting corporate interests like the GEO private prison group. Its lucrative business depends on criminalization, and a culture of fear. If politicians aren’t brave enough to survive the accusation that they are “soft on crime” in order to champion real change, then we the people will have to take it into our own hands. Immigrant communities, black communities, communities of color, and poor communities need to keep building the solidarity and the movement that will allow us to win, from San Francisco to Sacramento to DC. There is much more to be done, and we can only do it together.  

María Poblet is executive director of Causa Justa::Just Cause.