On July 6, in front of a crowd of about 100 people protesting the continued use of the Gary Jet Center in Gary, Indiana, to deport thousands of immigrants, one speaker—Ryan Farrar, a Democratic candidate for Indiana’s state senate—briefly mentioned what he saw as a mischaracterization of Democratic policies by Republicans. They say Democrats want open borders, but Democrats aren’t saying that, he claimed. This solicited a perhaps unexpected reaction from the crowd: “Open borders, open borders,” many chanted approvingly. This moment was reflective of the overall mood at the Stop Gary Deportations Protest: a sense that the status quo is no longer acceptable, that prevailing liberal norms must be pushed farther left if we are to change our world for the better.
The purpose of the event, organized by Northwest Indiana Resistance, was to protest the Gary Jet Center’s contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to deport undocumented immigrants that are detained throughout Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Kentucky. Nearly every Friday, immigrants are shackled and shuttled in buses and vans with the windows blacked out from the Kankakee County Jail and loaded onto planes, then sent elsewhere in the U.S. before being deported to their final destinations. By June 28, 2017, over 12,000 people had been deported out of the Gary airport, according to the Post-Tribune, although a FOIA request obtained by Ruth Needleman, co-organizer of the rally, put the number at 19,501 people as of April 2017.
The Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times both reported that the flights have been occurring out of Gary since 2013. Sister JoAnn Persch, who has been participating in prayer vigils outside of the ICE staging facility in Broadview, Illinois, since 2007, says that prior to that, deportations occurred out of the O’Hare and then Rockford airports. The Gary Jet Center’s deportation capacity is only expanding. They recently constructed three new buildings that will allow them to conduct international deportations, which presently occur out of O’Hare.
The July 6 protest built upon the recent national outrage over family separations at the border, and several groups rallied in support, including forty or so members of Chicago Democratic Socialists of America, who arrived on a bus provided by Jobs with Justice and Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Lisa Vallee, the event’s co-organizer, noted that NWI Resistance is a big tent organization that includes people from all sorts of political mindsets, united by a common mission: “to expand justice, express our local will democratically and build our community to work for all our neighbors,” according to their recently developed website. Formed in response to Trump’s widely protested Muslim ban, the group’s main goals at the moment are to stop the deportations occurring out of the Gary airport and to pass “Welcoming City” ordinances across Northwest Indiana. However, Vallee also sees this diversity as allowing them to bring a more radical message to those who may not be familiar with it, including abolishing ICE and borders. With no activist background, in the space of two years she has gone from “apolitical to liberal to radical.” “It was kind of like I found my voice in a way,” she said.
It was easy to see at the rally that exposure to a variety of radical voices helped the groups in attendance to become better informed about the issues surrounding immigrant rights and the long-standing history of racism and anti-immigrant policies in the United States. The inclusion of speakers associated with Organized Communities against Deportations (OCAD), Black Lives Matter Northwest Indiana-Gary, and local labor unions and religious groups also served to articulate the intersecting elements at play.
Many, including clergy and leaders of several religious groups in attendance, pointed out the humanitarian and moral crisis of tearing families apart, not just due to recent policies of separating over 2,000 children from their parents at the border, but also through the daily deportations that have separated individuals from families and community members for years, including under Democratic administrations. Miguel Molina, an Indiana university student and DACA recipient, hasn’t seen his sister in over five years. His mother has been prevented from seeing several family members before their deaths or attending their funerals because of the border that separates them. All deportation, pointed out Vallee, is family separation that creates generational trauma.
Others, like Lorrell, an activist with Black Lives Matter, highlighted the racism that unites the fight for immigrant rights with the struggles of the black community. She linked the state violence and mass deportations suffered by immigrants to the police violence suffered by black citizens in Gary and the overall system of mass incarceration. Barbara Suarez Galeano, a member of OCAD and the Detention Watch Network, called the crowd to remember that the impacted communities have been fighting for their own liberation for a long time and that we must recognize their leadership and join the call to abolish ICE, an institution “based in racist violence” that cannot be reformed.
Labor activists also weighed in. Gustavo Orellana, a member of SEIU Healthcare Indiana, pointed out that the United States economy overwhelming relies upon immigrant labor. “If they really wanted to deport 12 million people, this economy would crash,” he said. Needleman, the event’s other co-organizer with NWI Resistance, connected immigration with the massive displacement of refugees directly caused by global capitalism and U.S. imperialism. The U.S. government is willing to exploit their labor and resources, she pointed out, but has always persecuted people of color themselves.
The co-chairs of Chicago DSA’s anti-racism working group, Marvin Benjamin and Ed Hirsch, coordinated Chicago DSA’s attendance at the event. Benjamin and Hirsch are hopeful that democratic socialists in Chicago can play a role in supporting and furthering the work already being done by experienced groups. By supporting actions like the July 6 rally and organizing to bus members to the weekly Friday protests, Chicago DSA can both draw attention to the issue and have a direct impact. The Gary Jet Center, perhaps aware that NWI Resistance was planning a larger than usual rally for July 6, did not schedule a flight for that date. “Even small numbers of people can change things,” said Hirsch. By building connections and coalitions with groups like Jobs with Justice and NWI Resistance and showing that members of Chicago DSA are ready to “roll up our sleeves and do the work,” Benjamin says that, moving forward, they will pursue their goal of drawing attention to this as a local issue and stopping the deportations. Future goals include regularly busing in members to the protests, creating a website that will spread awareness about the Gary deportations, continuing to push the message that ICE is beyond reform and must be abolished, and working with other groups to expand Chicago DSA’s involvement. Hirsch believes that Chicago DSA can work as a “pipeline” for getting young, enthusiastic people involved and as a “nexus” for connecting immigrants issues, civil rights issues, and labor issues.
Chicago DSA’s goals also include targeting Chicago’s particular role in the Gary deportations: despite the fact that Chicago is designated as a sanctuary city, its ordinance allows for collaboration between ICE and the police, including the use of the Chicago Police Department’s gang database—which has been criticized for racial profiling—to identify undocumented immigrants for deportation. Additionally, as the airport is operated as part of an agreement between the cities of Gary and Chicago, critics have been quick to point out that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel could do significantly more to stop the deportations out of Gary (not to mention O’Hare). Emmanuel shouldn’t be allowed to attend “any public event without being reminded that he is complicit [in], profiting [from], and abetting the detention and deportation of undocumented people in Chicago and the Chicagoland area,” Suarez Galeano said.
Ada Vargas, a Chicago DSA member, said that they learned from attending the rally that “the folks in Northwest Indiana are badass and we need to be joining coalitions with folks all over the country that are doing this work.” And as for Ruth Needleman, when asked for her advice for Chicagoans coming down to Indiana to help: “Keep coming.”
Abby Agriesti contributed additional reporting to this story.