As a column of windowless buses carrying dozens of undocumented immigrants pulled into the Gary/Chicago International Airport, hundreds of demonstrators pressed against the fences demanding intensive immigration reform with chants of “not one more.” The airport has been the site of 19,501 immigrant deportations as of April 2017, according to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by School of the Art Institute (SAIC) instructor Ruth Needleman, one of the event’s main organizers. Gary/Chicago International Airport does not take commercial flights.
Demonstrators were brought together on October 6 by the Northwest Indiana Resistance (NWI Resistance), which reached out to their Chicago-area network and brought in labor unions, immigrant rights groups, and community organizations. This was the third demonstration in the struggle against immigrant deportation organized by Needleman (who helped form the NWI), and L.E. Whitman, a grad student in Communications at Purdue University. Needleman and Whitman have denounced the recent anti-immigrant rhetoric by the Trump administration, which they view as an attack on fundamental American values and a betrayal of working class people.
Union workers see agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — which creates competition between U.S. and Mexican workers despite the countries’ labor rights discrepancies — as instrumental in destabilizing the lives of workers on both sides of the border.
“It’s an attack on the working class, it’s an attack on all of us,” said United Auto Workers Local 551 Vice President Scott Houldieson. “Trade agreements like NAFTA have ruined the lives of so many workers across borders. This trade agreement [allows corporations] to go wherever they want and extract profit from us at the cost of our humanity.”
Strikes and protests against immigrant exploitation and poor working conditions by Fight for 15, a campaign sponsored by Service Employees International Union (SEIU), have been met with success in California; major agricultural players like Driscoll’s have been forced to raise wages to $10.50 per hour as of this year. Yet, H-2A visa carriers and undocumented immigrants employed by these same companies still face long hours, poor conditions, and below-minimum wage pay.
“People are being enslaved, make no doubt about it,” said Desde Rojas, president of the Sacramento chapter of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA). “They are being sent out into fields to work 14 hour days, and when they are sent back they get a small wage for one daily meal. That is slavery at its worst, and we’re talking about 80,000 [agricultural] workers.”
Event organizers like Susan Hurley, executive director of Chicago Jobs with Justice, have fought not only for immigrant and workers’ rights, but also for total reform of the American immigration system.
“It’s about both being both humanitarian and economical,” said Hurley. “We need to hold corporations and the wealthy accountable. The GOP’s actions have been morally repugnant and economically bad.” Other organizers echoed Hurley’s concerns that the White House’s plans for immigration, many under the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are inhumane and disruptive to the lives of many.
“The people in the [ICE] buses are shackled hand to foot […] and the worst crime committed in the last ten years by anybody on these buses was shoplifting or driving through a stop sign. It’s low hanging fruit,” said Needleman.
On October 9, the White House proposed a Republican-sponsored deal to Congress including aggressive moves against both legal and illegal immigration through limiting the number of visas granted per annum and greater punitive measures for undocumented immigrants. In the vision of GOP Republicans, undocumented immigrants and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients who have not been renewed would be swiftly extracted from their homes and moved into detention centers where they would await deportation.
The Gary City Council has in the past labored over whether or not to welcome into the city the GEO Group, a government contractor responsible for building 70 prisons in the US so far; the company wishes to build a new immigrant detention and processing center near the Gary/Chicago International Airport. Protesters have defeated two separate GEO efforts to build a prison in Gary, with the second vote unanimously against GEO’s development. The GEO Group has been faced with accusations of permitting poor living conditions, rampant sexual abuse, and wrongful death, all in the name of cutting costs.
Protesters have denounced any development by the GEO Group, that supporting such a company or project would be support of an unjust cause.
“Immigrants are vulnerable, society makes them vulnerable,” said Reverend Timothy A. Leitzke, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church Valparaiso, and an organizer of interfaith efforts against GEO projects. “The churches are divided on this issue, I know […] but if you believe in God, you are with the immigrants — or you don’t actually believe what you say you believe.”
And as more immigrants continue to be deported via the Gary/Chicago International Airport, Indiana State Senator Eddie Melton has endorsed the efforts of anti-deportation protesters, union workers, and faith leaders. Melton has stated that “immigration issues, the DACA program, and dreamers, will be in the discussion next year.”
The next planning meeting for the campaign against deportations at the Gary-Chicago International Airport will take place on October 28, at 10 a.m., at the Jobs with Justice office at 333 S. Ashland Avenue.