The protest began just before 11 a.m. following a news conference in front of the building during which several speakers called on President Barack Obama to put an end to the deportation of people who are in the country illegally. The Atlanta protest and another on Tuesday near Chicago were the latest in a string of civil disobedience actions staged by activists to protest deportations.
With immigration reform seemingly stalled in Congress, the Obama administration has been issuing policy directives to halt the deportation of certain groups. Last year, it suspended the deportations of some immigrants brought here illegally as children. Last week, it gave immigration authorities the power to “parole in place” immigrant spouses, children and parents of current U.S. service members, reservists and veterans, meaning those immigrants can apply to legally live in the United States.
Citing those discretionary actions, activists say Obama should extend relief from deportations to other people living here illegally. The immigrant community isn’t just going to stand by waiting for lawmakers to reach a consensus on reform, said organizer B. Loewe with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.
“Whether people have to stop deportations themselves through grassroots casework, through civil disobedience or through any other way, people will see families get relief,” he said.
On Tuesday, four protesters formed a human chain with their arms locked together in front of each of two gates behind the downtown Atlanta building that houses some offices of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A total of four people — the two at the end of each chain — had U-shaped bicycle locks around their necks locking them to the gates.
Authorities cut the locks off, and organizers said all eight of the protesters were taken into custody as several dozen supporters cheered, chanted and waved signs.
The demonstration continued outside with three protesters sitting in the driveway in front of a gate while their supporters spoke, chanted and sang. After nearly two hours, police officers confronted the three and one was taken into custody, officers pulling her away by her arms, her legs dragging behind her, after she refused to move.
The protesters were taken into custody by officers with the Federal Protective Service, which shares the building with ICE. A spokeswoman for the agency said she could not immediately confirm the number of people taken into custody or what charges they might face.
ICE said in a statement it respects the rights of all people to voice opinions within the confines of the law.
The National Day Laborer Organizing Network said in a statement a group of protesters in Broadview, Ill., on Tuesday morning stopped a bus outside an immigration detention center that they said was filled with ICE detainees who were headed to the airport to be deported.
Civil disobedience has a long history in the U.S. but it can take a long time to bring about change, said Georgia State University professor Fred Brooks, who has studied community organizing. He cited the roughly 50-year struggle for women to get the vote in the U.S., and said civil disobedience needs to be part of a bigger strategy.
Emory University law professor Kathleen Cleaver likened the current civil disobedience actions by immigration activists to lunch counter sit-ins by black college students during the civil rights movement. These simple actions can embolden individual protesters but can also galvanize others who are in a similar situation, she said.
“When a people or group that lives in somewhat invisibility for whatever reason, when they come out of invisibility and they stand up and they make people acknowledge them, it has two effects: It changes them, but it also changes the discussion,” she said. “What they’re doing is a time-tested technique of opening the political avenues to people who don’t have any power.”
The protests Tuesday in Atlanta and Illinois were the latest in a string of similar actions.
“We want to make our message heard by President Barack Obama to stop the deportations and to stop separating families,” Tomas Martinez, identified by organizers as one of the people taken into custody, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Monday. “We want to send a clear message. This kind of action is going to continue all over the country.”
Martinez, who lives in Atlanta, said he previously participated in protest actions at the White House and at an Arizona detention center. He was living with his brother’s family when his nephew was deported six years ago. That painful experience has motivated him to fight additional deportations, he said.
Osvaldo Flores, 19, was brought to the country illegally when he was 3. He was granted temporary permission to stay in the country last year under the new Obama administration policy. While he and his brother can now work legally and get driver’s licenses, they still fear their parents will be deported, he said.
“It frustrates me,” he said. “My parents have been here so long and have worked so hard at low-paying jobs, and they’re not getting any credit for that.”