COINTELPRO 2.0: Targeting Immigration Activists — There is a Better Way

By Caitlin Breedlove and Rev. John Vaughn

Cointelpro was a FBI program that conducted surveillance and set the context and framework for the assassination of Black freedom leaders in the 1960s.  The purpose was to destabilize the growing social movements that were fighting for Black equality. They were movements that were crossing race, class and gender that challenged our government, businesses and those to adhered to practices that treated Black people as second class citizens to renounce and change such practices. The fact that our government planned and executed such a strategy of  infiltration and deception was horrifying to us. Out of one side of our mouths, leaders spoke of freedom and out of the other side of their mouths, they strategized and acted in terms of freedom for only certain segments of the population.

Today, it looks like the Federal government has re-instituted this strategy, this time focused on leaders within the immigration rights movement. One one hand, we speak with pride about being a country built by immigrant labor and ingenuity. On the other hand, we punish and tear apart families because we have criminalized the desire for immigrants of today to live that same dream.

Already this year, two well-known immigrant rights organizers in New York were detained by ICE, both very active in the work of faith-rooted immigrant rights and sanctuary work. One, Jean Montrevil, was deported after decades of living and organizing in the United States. The other, Ravi Ragbir, had been transferred to Florida and then back to New York City due to immense public outcry; he remains in detention. Just last week, Scott Warren of the humanitarian organization No More Deaths in Tucson, Arizona, was arrested and charged with up to 5 years in prison by the Department of Justice. They say he is being charged with “smuggling”: otherwise known to people of faith and moral courage as providing food and water to dehydrated and starving people in the desert. Otherwise known to many of us as being a person of faith, a person of conscience.

Fear, silence, and repression are shaping and driving public policy. As human beings, we do not do our best work when we are afraid. As people of faith and moral courage, our traditions call on us to practice hospitality and show unconditional love. Fear, silence, and repression are not loving actions.

Our calls to action include:

(1) Petition the government to stop targeting immigration activists who are working out of their deepest convictions. Intimidation and fear mongering is not what we want or expect from our government

(2) Broaden our analysis as to why people are seeking to come to the United States: what is causing people to get in rowboats to cross an Ocean, climb under fences, stand in lines at US Embassies throughout the world, and

(3) Summon and engage the American culture of ingenuity and problem-solving, particularly for those of us who come from communities that have made a way out of no way.

As a Country, we have to use our skills and problem-solving to not get mired in a frame and approach that criminalizes those who are seeking a better life for themselves and their families. We must understand, articulate and act in ways that embrace what a just and vibrant society and economy really look like. Creating a new, loving and just approach to immigration is not easy. If it was, it would have already been done. We call on public and private sector leaders to lean into our American “know how” and do figure out a way forward that is not driven by fear or tearing families and communities apart.

It also is not lost on us that the majority of those being targeted are leaders in communities of color who are claiming power and challenging systems to be more just, fair and compassionate. These are leaders who are calling us to our higher selves in a moment of repression, cynicism, and hopelessness for many of us. The core beliefs in both of our faith traditions call us to a shared spiritual imperative of love, hospitality, and courage in the face of injustice. We have to ask: When leaders can be targeted and punished severely in retaliation to their organizing and seeking to be treated fairly, what comes next?

In the meantime, people of faith and moral courage, the call to all of us is the stand against fear-driven policies and actions that target those seeking a better life for themselves and their families. To not do so challenges the very core of what our faith traditions are all about.

To find out how you can help contact one of these groups or another immigration rights organization in your town.  New Sanctuary CoalitionMijente, and No Más Muertes (No More Deaths)

Rev. John Vaughn is Executive Vice President at Auburn and Caitlin Breedlove is Vice President for Movement Leadership

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