Immigrants Rights Groups Reviving 1960s Civil Rights Strategies To Fight SB 1070

The sun sets over a small trailer park in central Phoenix as families walk into a neighborhood community center. They started meeting a year ago in this neighborhood, which has been hit with traffic stops and worksite raids by Maricopa County sheriff's deputies looking for undocumented immigrants.


The Repeal Coalition began last year as a group of mostly Anglo student volunteers who wanted to help immigrants. Now those immigrants are leading the charge to help others.

“Repeal switched from being university-connected people to neighborhood-connected people,” explains Luis Fernández, one of the founding volunteers.

The change took place just before the passage of SB 1070, a law that made it a state crime to be an undocumented immigrant. And, he says, it meant that many of the people involved with the group decided to hold their ground rather than leave the state out of fear.

This new neighborhood-based model of organizing is sprouting up across Arizona out of a necessity to help unite communities impacted by a series of harsh immigration policies.

The Repeal Coalition, which plans to help others open up similar efforts in nearby neighborhoods, goes beyond simply providing information. It provides a network of support at a time when politicians in the state are seeking to push people into the shadows or to get them to self-deport.

The coalition has been involved in everything from going to court hearings with immigrant families affected by the raids to organizing car washes to raise funds for attorneys’ fees.

It’s those little things that can make a difference, according to Chris Griffin, another volunteer.

“The anti-immigrant movement wants to create a world where people are afraid to socialize with people who are potentially undocumented, to go to church, to go to school, where folks who are documented are disconnected with the undocumented,” Griffin says. “We say no to that way of thinking.”

The group was founded in Flagstaff, Ariz., and was inspired by '60s civil rights activist Ella Baker, one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). While SNCC was involved in empowering African Americans in the South to register to vote, Fernández says today’s struggle raises bigger questions about globalization and the rights of citizens versus noncitizens.

The Repeal Coalition is not alone in its efforts. About three months ago, the PUENTE movement, another immigrant rights coalition, started forming neighborhood defense committees, or “Comités de Defensa del Barrio.”

“We’ve always been involved in grassroots organizing, but now we are more focused on the neighborhoods,” says Salvador Reza, a well-known human rights activist and an organizer with the movement.

Arizona is the first state to implement neighborhood defense committees, according to Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON). Alvarado says his organization is presenting the success of the new model at its conference in New Orleans in September, and plans to expand it across the country.

It is only natural for the effort to begin in Arizona, he added, because people affected by daily raids need something concrete. "No one will come and help them," he says.

PUENTE currently has 10 committees in different corners of Maricopa County, including the cities of Phoenix, Glendale, Mesa, Tolleson and Avondale. The committees range in size from 40 to as many as 200 members.

Francisco Pacheco, East Coast coordinator of NDLON, sees a precedent in Latin American communities for this type of grassroots organizing. He says it has been easy for immigrants to connect to a model that is familiar to them from their home countries. There are also deeper roots to these committees, he adds: Indigenous communities tended to organize around territorial areas.

“The ground is fertile for this type of organizing movement,” Pacheco said, “because right now people are being persecuted and need a way to protect themselves.”

Susie Garcia de Corona, a U.S. citizen who represents a committee that includes Glendale, Tolleson and Avondale, agrees. “People are hungry to learn how to organize,” she says. “When you have a solid base, whatever happens—not just SB 1070—when people need something, they come together, and there will be a response.”

The committees facilitate access to legal advice, English classes and voter registration efforts, but the goal is to go beyond the electoral process. The purpose is also to tend to the day-to-day issues in those communities, from problems at school to abuse by landlords.

“This is something permanent where the people defend themselves daily,” Reza says. “If they don’t help themselves, no one is going to help them.”

Linda Herrera, a local activist and founder of the group Unidos in Arizona, was glad to see this approach being replicated across the state. Three years ago, Herrera and her husband started working on emergency response teams in the community to prepare for possible immigration raids.

She sees the groups as a way to provide emotional support to people going through family separation and economic hardship as a result of the raids.

The passage of SB 1070 has made the need for a new kind of immigrant rights organizing even more urgent.

“Just as Arizona has been a laboratory for anti-immigrant laws,” Pacheco says, “the community movement also has the right to experiment with new forms of organizing and struggling.”

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