A 15-hour protest that brought national attention to a mother fighting her deportation in Phoenix may have just set an example for immigrant rights activists across the country.
The activists started Wednesday at 11:30 AM by escorting Guadalupe García de Rayos to her annual, routine check-in at the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Downtown Phoenix. Her family, friends, and even clergy members held a rally and stood alongside Garcia as she walked into the ICE office. All of it was live streamed.
More than a dozen of García’s supporters waited outside the ICE office for hours, hoping she would return like after previous check-ins. But they didn’t see her again until late in the evening, when she was inside a white van ready to be deported to Mexico.
"If you're in Phoenix, come out here now, we need as many people out here to stop this van from deporting our people," Francisca Porchas, an organizer with the Phoenix-based immigrant rights group Puente Arizona, told more than 600 viewers watching the Facebook Live stream.
More locals showed up to help block the van, including people organizers say they had never seen before.
"Facebook doesn't stop deportations, our own bodies stop deportations," said one of the activists who spoke on the live stream, urging locals to join the protest.
García has had to make annual visits to a Phoenix ICE office since she was detained for six months in 2008 after she was caught using a fake social security number in a raid of the waterpark where she worked. The raid was orchestrated by the Maricopa County's former sheriff, Joe Arpaio, known for hardline tactics against immigrants in the state.
During the Obama administration, García was considered a non-violent immigrant with a criminal record—a low priority for deportation. But with Donald Trump now in office and issuing sweeping executive orders on immigration, her situation has drastically changed.
“I believe this is a direct result of President Trump’s immigration executive orders,” Garcia’s immigration attorney, Ray A. Ybarra Maldonado, told reporters during a press call.
The García family are members of Puente Arizona, which hosts, among other programs, a six-week workshop that prepares locals to fight against being locked up in a detention center and deportation orders. So when García learned she had to make her next check-in with ICE, the Puente network sprung into action.
Activists in Phoenix may have more experience fighting deportations and the policing of immigrant communities than any other city in the nation. They have lived with the state's anti-immigrant SB 1070 laws and more than two decades under Arpaio. The community organizers in town have tried everything to bring attention to their cause. They say it’s now time to put bodies on the front lines to physically block deportations.
Organizers say activists around the country will have to adopt similar strategies to bring attention to people in risk of deportation. For Garcia's campaign, it was multifaceted: there were online petitions, phone drives to pressure Senator John McCain to help, protests, and civil disobedience while an immigration attorney also appealed her deportation.
Throughout the events, Garcia's Puente network maintained some control shaping the narrative of her story by producing their own media. Her advocates carefully maintained Garcia was a mother of two U.S. citizens who had been living in the country for 21 years. They said she was simply trying to support her family when she was detained at the waterpark where she worked nine years ago.
The Puente network also prepared her family to speak to the press. Or not speak at all, like when reporters asked questions that were too personal for Garcia’s teenage son.
Then by Thursday, evocative images of Garcia locked up in the white van being blocked by protestors were seen across cable news networks with the story trending in many cities.
United We Dream, a national immigrants rights group led by immigrant youth, has already launched the #HereToStay Network, which allows anyone to pledge to physically show up to support immigrants at risk of deportation. They say they launched the site to fight President Donald Trump as he turns his “mass deportation threats into reality.”
“Phoenix just showed us an example of what protecting and defending our community looks like," said Marisa Franco, director of Mijente, a group that organizes for the rights of the Latinx and Chicanx community.
García was ultimately deported to Mexico early Thursday morning. ICE officials picked her up in a bus at 5 AM before transferring her to an unmarked vehicle with escorts in front and behind her. “I felt like if I was really bad, like El Chapo,” she said at a press conference in Mexico.
But even though García was deported, Franco says this week’s protests in Phoenix were important so that the community did not remain silent.
“It is important and necessary for people to resist and document this because this is going to happen all over the U.S.,” Franco said during a phone call with reporters.