Luis, an immigrant from Mexico, was still in high school when New York City Police officers arrested him. Luis was charged with a crime he didn’t commit, fingerprinted, booked, and detained at Rikers Island. When the prosecutor dropped his case, Luis was released directly into the hands of the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE). ICE sent him to Texas for deportation proceedings, far away from family, support networks, and his lawyers.
Deportations of innocent people from Rikers Island are not unusual; the Department of Corrections allowed ICE to detain immigrants at Rikers after they would have been released by New York City authorities. It has been reported that between 2004 and 2009, more than 13,000 inmates at Rikers have been placed in deportation proceedings. This policy has separated parents from children, eroded trust between the police and immigrant communities, deepened racial profiling and blurred the lines between the immigration and justice systems.
Immigrants like Luis won an important victory Tuesday when Mayor Bloomberg signed new legislation that restricts federal immigration officials from detaining Rikers inmates who have never been convicted, have no outstanding warrants and are not in the terrorist screening database.
It’s also a win for New York’s community of social justice activists. Anyone who questions whether social justice movements make a difference now has an answer — it works.
But legislation that protects the rights of our most vulnerable residents doesn’t just happen. It comes after years of strategizing, campaigning and organizing in the affected communities. It is informed by on-the-ground experiences of activists who are affected by the issues and deeply committed to reform.
North Star grantees, including Make The Road New York and New Sanctuary Movement, spent years marshaling support for the ICE Out of Rikers Campaign. They found partners in City Council President Christine Quinn and Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito, who sponsored the legislation. It’s been a long campaign, with incremental changes, ongoing actions, and compromise leading to this new legislation.
The ICE Out of Rikers Campaign offers three important lessons about community change.
First, the best ideas don’t come from scholars, think tanks or policy wonks. They come from people like Luis, for whom these aren’t policy issues, but rather the difficult reality of their lives. Only when people have experienced problems first hand can they propose truly effective solutions.
Second, ideas are translated into action when the affected people organize into a movement, find strong leaders, build skills, raise money to sustain their work, and keep at it day after day after day. Several North Star grantees have been fighting against the criminalization and unjust treatment of immigrants for years. That’s how Make The Road New York and New Sanctuary Movement and their partners won. This effort required resources from inside of the community, but it also required resources from outside. Social justice activists need more than commitment; they need stable funding to maintain a staff, an office and volunteers.
Third, action becomes lasting impact when these movements stick around to make sure that policy changes are enforced, evaluated and improved. The groups that that pushed for this legislation will need to monitor its implementation. Any law is only as good as its enforcement. And already, many activists are suggesting that this law could be stronger.
The ICE Out of Rikers campaign should make New Yorkers proud to live in a city that is becoming a bit more welcoming to its 2.9 million immigrants. And New Yorkers should translate that pride into impact by supporting the many organizations that make our city more equitable and just.
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