Wednesday of last week, as thousands of New Yorkers gathered and chanted at Washington Square Park and other locations across the city, a quieter demonstration went on in Elm Park, Staten Island.
Under the bright yellow canopy at the entrance of La Colmena, a nonprofit that works with Latino and immigrant workers in the borough, members of the organization got together to show their support to protesters through art: they hung up a 6-by-9-foot handmade banner that read “Black Lives Matter,” “Trans Lives Matter,” “No Human Being is Illegal,” and “No Muslim Ban” in bold letters.
“This is our way of showing that we are standing in solidarity with our black brothers and sisters,” said La Colmena executive director Yesenia Mata. “Because our community knows what it feels like to be targeted, killed, destroyed.”
The organization also understood the protests were of particular significance for some of the immigrants they work with.
“We have some of our members that say, ‘I am undocumented and I’m also black. So I have to fight twice as hard’,” Mata said. “So this was especially important to them.”
Although some members of La Colmena have attended protests in person recently, many are still wary about joining, fearing potential consequences such as deportation. According to Mata, members are concerned about reports about Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers attending demonstrations.
The NYPD has arrested over 2,000 people in connection with the recent protests. Black and Hispanic people comprised about 78 percent of total arrests made by the NYPD in 2019 and the department recently came under criticism after it was revealed that over 80 percent of people who were issued summonses for social distancing violations in the city were people of color.
“That is a big concern. We are very careful to warn members who go to protests because we have to make sure that they are not arrested or that nothing happens,” Mata said. “Because if something does happen, they don’t only get arrested, they get detained.”
The right to to protest is guaranteed by the First Amendment regardless of immigration status, according to immigration attorney Tsui Yee. “But the other issue is that law enforcement may not necessarily respect these rights,” she notes.
The police can only stop, detain, and arrest someone if they have a legal reason to do so – and the person being stopped has the right to ask the officer why. But immigrants have to be especially careful, even if they are permanent residents or green card holders.
“The police officers could find out someone’s immigration status and they could choose to share that with ICE, for example, if they have a reason to think that someone is not in legal status,” Yee said. “ICE could then try and pick up this person from the jail they’re being held and place that person into ICE custody and possibly start deportation proceedings against them.”
A Mother Jones story shares the tale of Johan Montes Cuevas, an undocumented Mexican-American who after being arrested at a Phoenix rally on May 30 was taken into custody by ICE. Both ICE and US Customs and Border Protection told Mother Jones that their agents were deployed to several states in support roles, not to carry out immigration enforcement, but reporter Fernanda Echavarri notes that “their mere presence was enough to set off shockwaves across undocumented and mixed-status families.”
If a person is arrested, they can decline to answer any questions and contact their lawyer. Remaining calm and respectful toward the officers is also important. “You don’t want to do anything that would provoke an officer to use it as a basis to arrest someone,” she said.
Being featured in photos of the protests on social media might also be a concern – that, alone, is not a reason for someone to be arrested. Officers can use public photos as evidence of someone in particular breaking the law, but can’t make assumptions about someone’s legal immigration status or nationality just by going through pictures. “Are they using photos to go after a certain group of people, use their city or their national origin? There’s not a legal basis to go around rounding up people because they look a certain way, or have a certain skin color,” Yee said. “That doesn’t mean that police are not doing that.”
Some organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), provide resources and guidelines for protesters. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has created a document with information specifically for immigrants who want to join protests, which lists some of the rights in case of arrest, such as the right to remain silent and the right to a local phone call – if a person decides to call a lawyer for legal advice, law enforcement is not allowed to listen to the conversation. Immigrants do not have to answer any questions about their immigration status or where they’re from and it is also helpful to have the contact of an immigration attorney.
Another nonprofit, Artistic Freedom Initiative (AFI), which advocates for artists at risk and supports them with resettlement, has extended its legal services to both immigrant artists and immigrants arrested or detained while protesting.
Since AFI announced its pro bono legal network, their partner law firm Sethi & Mazaheri LLC has received five inquiries for legal representation, and has officially signed up three artists. This includes an American-born artist and two immigrants (a photographer and a multidisciplinary artist), all of whom have been arrested while protesting in New York. The three have been charged with felony rioting and are currently waiting for their court dates.
Sanjay Sethi, founding partner of the law firm, explained that the two immigrants, one with permanent resident status and the other with an O-1 visa, could face deportation as a result of an arrest charge or potential conviction.
While Sethi said immigrants should practice their rights to protest, recent incidents of violence and police brutality can incite trepidation and anxiety among immigrants. “This is an unfortunate part of immigration because there’s this fear that somebody could be charged with a felony,” he said. “And there is a larger consequence that could impact their ability to stay in the country, and that potentially freezes an immigrant’s inclination to protest.”
But this is not to discourage immigrants from participating in democracy and speaking out on racism during this time of upheaval in America. Wherever they are, immigrants should be mindful of police officers and make sure that they’re with people who could record any interaction with the police, Sethi added. Having such evidence could protect not just their right to express themselves but also their ability to stay in the U.S., which is tied to their livelihood.
“When it comes to the Latino and black communities, they’ve been at a higher rate getting through Covid-19. It is no surprise, due to less resources and less funding that these communities get. So we always say that ‘your fight is our fight,’” Mata, from La Colmena, said. “Nadie es libre hasta que todos estén libres: nobody’s free until everyone’s free.”