On March 19, dozens of immigrant rights activists protested a Donald Trump rally outside of Phoenix, Arizona. Jacinta González, one of the activists at the event and field director for the Arizona-based advocacy group Mijente, told Rewire their goal was to disrupt the presidential candidate’s event as much as possible by shutting down both of the main roads leading to the rally. Why? As González explained below, to stand in opposition to what activists see as threats to their communities, including Trump’s rhetoric, by “vocalizing that constitutional rights are not negotiable, human rights are not negotiable, and more than anything, human dignity and the protection of communities [are] not negotiable.”
Once police arrived and began towing demonstrators’ vehicles, González and two other organizers decided to lock their necks to a van’s window in order to delay the event further. The three were swiftly arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for obstructing a highway, but it was González who made headlines when the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office transferred her to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody.
González is a U.S. citizen. She said she was transferred to ICE custody solely based on her surname.
ICE released a statement on González’s arrest, saying, according to Democracy Now!, “Under current ICE procedures, all foreign-born individuals who are booked into the Maricopa County Jail are interviewed by ICE personnel to determine alienage and removability and whether they would be an enforcement priority for the agency.”
In a phone interview with Rewire, the organizer explained how her experience in ICE custody represents just another way that the federal agency operates as a “rogue agency.” She warned that we may see anti-immigrant sentiments become more normalized because of the response the candidate’s “appeals to exclusion and hatred” have had on GOP campaign speeches and immigration proposals, among other things—what many are calling “the Trump Effect.” Though Trump has asserted he is not racist and has reluctantly disavowed endorsements from white supremacists—and he’s certainly not the only GOP candidate relying on harmful rhetoric—González said there is good reason the communities she works with fear a Trump presidency.
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Rewire: At this point we’ve seen a lot of protests at Trump rallies. How was the one you participated in different?
Jacinta González: Well, we knew from other actions across the country that going into Trump rallies was incredibly dangerous for people of color, because very frequently they’re faced with violent attacks from pro-Trump supporters. So, we thought the best approach would be to be outside of the rally and impact it that way. We stopped traffic, and once the police came to tow those cars away, we knew we had to escalate [the demonstration], so we chained ourselves to the bus.
Rewire: Before the protest to shut down the Trump rally, had you participated in a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign before? Why is this an effective tactic to use?
JG: I’ve participated in direct actions and civil disobediences for many years, but it was my first time being arrested. I think that we are in a critical time in this country’s history. Donald Trump, as a candidate for the Republican Party, is not only himself spewing racist rhetoric and xenophobic opinions, but he’s opening things up for white supremacists across the country to express their violent anger and hatred against many different communities, anyone they perceive to be different. Trump has said he wants to deport all [undocumented] Mexicans, that Mexicans are criminals, and that we must surveil all Muslims, and he talks about Black people in a way that promotes their incarceration. These are very violent attacks that would “disappear” all of our loved ones and destroy the fabric of our communities. So for us, it’s very important in this moment of crisis to act from a place of love and political clarity, and that means shutting down those types of attacks. That’s why for us it’s so important to say communities of color aren’t going to passively take a politician promoting the destruction of their lives, but we’re going to organize and resist. Nonviolent civil disobedience is a way of doing that. We believe in a variety of tactics; this isn’t the only one. But this time in our country requires us to escalate and take bold action to interrupt the public narrative, and that’s what we did.
Rewire: You were arrested with two other people. At what point did you realize you were being treated differently than the others?
JG: We were arrested by the Maricopa Sheriff’s Office, which is run by Joe Arpaio, a notorious sheriff, one of the worst in the country who, through Department of Justice investigations, has been proven guilty of racial profiling before. The sheriff’s office has longstanding deportation machinery that law enforcement uses to separate hundreds, if not thousands, of families in Arizona.
I was inside the booking area where you sit and wait to be called to get your mugshot and fingerprints taken. One by one, we were called to get our mugshots taken, and then two plainclothes officers called out my name and began to interview me about my immigration status and other biographical details they didn’t ask the others about. In fact, they didn’t even speak to them. They just called me up and almost right away told me they were going to place an immigration detainer against me and that would mean I would not be released with everyone else. The three of us were taken to court at 8 p.m. and the judge released us on our own recognizance a few hours later, but I was kept overnight in isolation. The next morning, ICE agents came, handcuffed my feet, shackled me, and transferred me to their immigration offices.
Rewire: How did you feel? Did you understand what was happening as it was happening, or were you in shock?
JG: This is the reality of the situation: If I was profiled in this way just because of my name, can you imagine what happens to folks who are undocumented, who don’t speak English, who have dark skin? I have very white skin—can you imagine the type of profiling they have to undergo? Even though I was shocked by the abuse, it’s also something that after over ten years of organizing, I know happens every day across the country, because ICE operates as a rogue agency. The way they treated me violated my constitutional rights, and this is what we’ve seen time and time again whenever we have a deportation case. Of course it was painful to experience it firsthand, but it’s a reality I was aware of doing deportation work and because of the realities of those who suffer under this agency that operates in such a rogue way.
Rewire: Once in custody with immigration authorities, where did they take you, where were you held, and what did they talk to you about?
JG: First I was held in isolation about eight hours longer than everyone else, by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. Once I was transferred to immigration, they asked me a few questions and I said I wanted to practice my constitutional rights by having my attorney present. After I was able to talk to my attorney on the phone, ICE asked me to leave the premises.
Rewire: Immigration has always been a contentious topic, but do you think Trump is giving people an opportunity to loudly espouse all of their anti-immigrant opinions?
JG: Absolutely. The Donald Trump campaign has opened up political space for people to feel OK voicing their anti-immigrant, racist, and xenophobic opinions, as well as their Islamophobia, homophobia, and misogyny. All of those issues are interrelated, and they’re all being agitated by the Trump campaign.
We’re also seeing this play out on a policy level in places like Arizona. Arizona right now has [several] anti-immigrant and anti-refugee bills that Gov. [Doug] Ducey is going to have to decide if he will sign. Most of these laws are unconstitutional and many of them would increase the prison population and misuse state resources. So, that’s one thing we’re seeing. It’s also giving us some pause because a lot of things Trump wants to promote, the Obama administration has already put in place. When Trump talks about militarizing the border, when Trump talks about deporting people without due process in violation of their civil rights because they’re “just Mexicans,” it turns out we’re already doing a lot of these things [under President Obama’s deportation policies]. Obviously there’s a lot of space for it to become even worse.
This poses an interesting dilemma for Jeh Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security. Will he scale back and dismantle the infrastructure that was built to deport over two million people? Because if that is handed over to someone like Trump, the impact on communities will be devastating.
Rewire: When you hear the “Trump Effect,” what does that conjure up for you? How do you think Trump’s rallies are already affecting the communities with which you work?
JG: The Trump Effect is real. In Arizona, the state legislature is emboldened by the political space created by the racist rhetoric and it becomes the new normal. The rhetoric becomes something that isn’t pushed back on as much, and it’s literally activating white supremacist organizations. You have people with direct links to the KKK supporting Donald Trump, and instead of it being a devastating blow, it doesn’t impact his reputation at all.
It’s emboldening politicians who want to use these sentiments, but it’s also emboldening people who are capable of violence, real person-to-person violence in our communities. Promoting deportation and incarceration is incredibly violent in its own way, but as we’ve seen at Trump’s rallies, we’re also talking about physical violence. Especially with communities in the Deep South or communities in red states or rural communities, it changes the entire way you live and how you see danger. You can’t trust your neighbors, you can’t trust the authorities, and folks who are already vulnerable are left with even less recourse. This is why it’s such an urgent moment, and why it’s so necessary to escalate at protests and show that our communities aren’t going to take this passively.
Rewire: When Donald Trump first emerged and announced he was running for president, for a very long time after that—and even still today—media treated him as a joke. Despite his anti-immigrant sentiments, he’s polling very well. How are the communities with which you work responding to this obvious tension?
JG: I think communities of color who have seen these attacks before won’t see it as a joke. When Donald Trump said Mexicans are rapists, many people said it was a joke, but there were a lot of people of color who had to remind others that’s exactly what criminalization is. That’s how it operates, and it’s incredibly dangerous. There’s a lot of fear and nervousness and uncertainty, but there’s also a lot of anger. There are a lot of communities who know this isn’t acceptable and some think the response should be creating dialogue. But let’s be real, no one in a white supremacist organization is going to want to dialogue with an undocumented dark-skinned person. So it does become a question of strategy, about how to push back, and about vocalizing that constitutional rights are not negotiable, human rights are not negotiable, and more than anything, human dignity and the protection of communities [are] not negotiable.
Rewire: Do you stand by the action you participated in? Why was it important for you to protest?
JG: I believe that this political moment requires this type of action; the threat is that large to our community. If we do not speak out loudly and boldly, the pro-Trump racists he’s behind—the xenophobic, Islamophobic, and so on—will continue to grow in numbers and strength. He’s normalizing hateful ideas. So for me, it’s incredibly important that communities affected continue to rise up, but also for allies to push back. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment where everyone has different skills and tools and we have to utilize them all to stop these attacks and threats to our human rights. I stand by our action. I hope to see more like them across the country.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.