Family and friends participate in a demonstration to advocate for the release of Cesar Elizarraraz outside of the Chicago ICE Field Office on June 9, 2021, in Chicago. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The day before Halloween, Jesus Alberto “Beto” Lopez and his mom spent hours baking nearly 100 loaves of traditional pan de muerto for Day of the Dead altars to sell to family and friends. The annual celebration marked the beginning of the holiday season for Lopez and his family, and although the work was arduous, these moments are profoundly important to him, especially after the last two years. Lopez, a past DACA recipient and member of the Chicago-based abolitionist group Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD), had recently returned to the U.S. after being deported to Mexico in June of 2020. 

Lopez’s reunion with his family was made possible thanks to the efforts of a network of immigration organizers and advocates, who utilized a humanitarian parole program to bring Lopez, along with previously deported OCAD members Reynold Garcia and Guillermo Contreras, back to the U.S. The program allows immigrants who do not qualify for other entry programs to apply for parole to enter the country temporarily for urgent humanitarian reasons or for the public interest and has been used to help other deported organizers return home.

“We are super happy to have some loved ones back, but we’re still uncertain whether we can keep them back,” explained Xanat Sobrevilla, an OCAD organizer. “At the same time, we’re holding a lot of frustration over what [the Biden] administration chooses to continue to implement.”

Indeed, efforts to keep Lopez, Garcia, and Contreras, and others like them in the U.S. are taking place against the backdrop of the Biden administration’s immigration policy that forces thousands of asylum seekers, including Haitian immigrants, to remain at the border under dangerous and inhumane conditions. In light of the inability and unwillingness of the federal government to rein in ICE deportations and protect immigrants, immigration advocates emphasized how the return of OCAD members and other advocates was a victory made possible not by a benevolent administration but by the longstanding networks of solidarity, mutual support, and trust that organizers have established over the years. 

“Any victory, any step forward, any change in policy or even the small victory of having folks be able to return after being deported, is a testament to the strength of the movement and all the sacrifices and hard work that everyone has done,” said Bárbara Suárez Galeano, an organizer based in Chicago.

Sharing information, intel, and resources

These networks of immigration advocates, groups, and resources allow organizers to address the immediate material needs of people who are detained miles away from their homes and communities. Organizers are also able to share crucial information and analysis about ICE enforcement tactics, as well as help foment the hope that drives their fight for justice even in the most adverse conditions. Sobrevilla, who has been organizing for more than 10 years, described staying in the U.S. as “a constant struggle.” 

“Pushing back collectively conveys a lot of power, and that power does create changes, even though those may feel small at times,” Sobrevilla said. “It’s about persistence and continuing to hope more than anything.”

Connections made at conferences and through social media have helped grow and strengthen organizer networks that can share information, tactics, and even local intel on enforcement practices or a judge’s temperament. State politics and local policies may determine the conditions faced by organizations in different states, but by sharing information and experiences, Sobrebilla explained that groups are able to determine patterns, brainstorm ideas on collective organizing efforts, and help assess individual risks when planning actions. This information exchange came in handy when organizing for Lopez’s release. 

Lopez was driving back to Chicago with friends from a camping trip in May 2019 when police pulled them over for speeding. While Lopez’s friends were eventually released, Lopez was transferred to ICE detention in Minnesota, despite having lived in the U.S. since he was 9-years-old. Upon learning of his detention, Lopez’s brother, Miguel Lopez, a long-time OCAD member, began working to secure Lopez’s release. With the help of a friend, Miguel connected with Iowa-based interfaith organizations, and many Chicago abolitionist groups to rally public support for his brother. ICE refused to transfer Lopez to a detention center closer to home, so organizers had to mobilize at the corresponding ICE field office in Minnesota. People who were otherwise strangers arranged overnight housing, bought meals for Miguel and his friends who drove at least five hours to attend the events, and showed up to Lopez’s court hearings, rallies, and prayer vigils.

“When I would go to court, I would see people who didn’t even know me but still practiced mutual support, that made me realize I wasn’t alone,” Lopez explained. “I think having so many people show up, something that even the court workers weren’t used to, helped make sure that the judge knew he was being watched.”

While in detention, Lopez sued ICE in federal court for failing to process his DACA application, a strategy he and other organizers had discussed with other DACA recipients across the country also dealing with deportation proceedings. Lopez was eventually released on a $25,000 bond in April 2020, with money that was raised through an emergency online fundraising campaign, but the time with his family was short-lived. Three months later, ICE summoned him for a check-in in Iowa, where he was re-detained as soon as he entered the building and deported 24 hours later. Lopez and organizers say his deportation was likely in retaliation for the lawsuit Lopez had filed and the attention surrounding his case.

“It was a day where I didn’t feel like a human,” he said. “I felt like an object that was being moved around without anyone caring about how I felt.”

Connection and cooperation is crucial

Like Lopez, Contrerass and Garcia relied on their ability to tap into knowledgeable and determined networks of advocates and organizers to return to the U.S., albeit in different ways.

After arriving in the U.S. in 2015 to find work to pay for his sister’s medical expenses, Contreras became involved with anti-displacement work with an organization in Chicago called the Autonomous Tenants Union (ATU). It was a natural fit for Contreras, who had been a housing rights advocate in Mexico and traveled the country supporting Indigenous rights work. It was through the ATU that he met Suárez Galeano, who was an ATU organizer at the time. Their relationship became crucial when he was detained in Florida by ICE in 2017. After another detained person’s girlfriend was able to help Contreras contact ATU through Facebook, Suárez Galeano immediately reached out to ATU’s network to mobilize support for Contreras. 

“A strong community that’s organized that knows each other … is much better able to mobilize and respond when one of their members is detained,” Suárez Galeano explained. “Anti-displacement work expands at a local level to a transnational level. It is a part of defending our right to stay where we live and where we chose to set roots.”

ATU and their partners launched a campaign for Contreras’s release, found him legal representation, raised funds, and petitioned for him to be moved to Chicago. While they also tried to find Florida-based organizations that would be able to more easily provide on the ground support, the months of detention and financial strain became too much, and Contreras stopped fighting his deportation. ICE deported him in April 2018.

By contrast, Garcia didn’t share the same activist background as Contreras, but still benefited through established solidarity networks within his own community. Garcia’s family had originally arrived in the U.S. in 2015, seeking political asylum. In January 2016, ICE raided Garcia’s Chicago apartment and detained his wife, and their two children, then used fake text messages to lure Garcia from a church the next day. The church pastor got in touch with Lissette Castillo from the Chicago Religious Leadership Network (CRLN); Castillo in turn sought support from organizations like OCAD. 

“That was the first time that I heard of people who are dedicated to helping people like me,” Garcia said.

Within two days, however, ICE transferred him from the McHenry Detention Center in Illinois to a detention center in San Antonio, where his family was also detained. All four were sent back to Mexico shortly after. Because Garcia’s arrest had occurred outside a church—which many consider a sensitive location—CRLN and OCAD connected with national organizations to call for a civil rights investigation. They even spoke about Garcia’s case in congressional hearings hoping the attention could help bring the family back. The efforts failed. 

“The [Office of] Civil Rights and Civil Liberties … we’ve known them to be fairly useless,” said Sobrevilla. “It’s like the police overseeing themselves.”

Humanitarian parole needs to be just and equitable

In the fall of 2021, United We Dream, a national immigrant rights organization, reached out to OCAD to consider humanitarian parole as a way to bring back deported people. Suárez Galeano talked to Contreras, Lopez was called by his brother Miguel, and Castillo—now living in Texas—got in touch with Garcia. None of them had to be convinced to try for humanitarian parole. That level of familiarity and trust between those who are deported and those working to bring them home is an essential element in finding justice in immigration, organizers said. 

“Networks of support that extend across the country and are continuously in touch with people in detention, are crucial to any effort that is successful at changing the material reality of the people most affected by the system,” said Suárez Galeano. 

This ability to meet the needs of directly affected people came in handy once again when Lopez, Contreras, and Garcia finally made it to the U.S-Mexico border. Castillo played a crucial role in their safe return—she checked in with them over the phone as they waited to hear if border patrol had approved their parole, welcomed them once they crossed, got them food, and helped them embark on the last leg of their trips back to Chicago. 

But their homecoming is somewhat bittersweet because of how arbitrarily humanitarian parole can be granted. For instance, Lopez’s brother Miguel is relieved that his brother is back but also pointed out how the choice of granting humanitarian parole demonstrates how much discretionary power these agencies have and how unjustly it is applied. Contreras also emphasized how many people are still suffering unnecessarily at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

“I couldn’t believe that this process could be so easy, and yet there’s so many people at the border, especially Haitian comrades, who haven’t been able to enter,” Contreras said. “It doesn’t make sense that single individuals can make the decision to let some people in and others not.”

While not all immigrant rights organizations consider themselves to be abolitionists, Miguel says OCAD identifies as such because the goal isn’t just to end deportations and to abolish agencies like ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), it extends to addressing the root causes of migration. He noted how capitalism creates hostile situations around the world that force people to migrate for their own safety. In the same way that state violence relies on institutional cooperation, Miguel believes that resistance movements must be similarly connected and coordinated throughout the country, working together to create conditions that ensure people don’t have to migrate in the first place. Similarly, Sobrevilla says that abolition is also about investing in creating the kind of safety that allows people to thrive in whatever place they choose to live. 

“When we talk about things that we miss, [it’s clear that] people love their home countries,” Miguel said. “People miss the smell of the countryside, of coffee plantations, of the places where they grew up, but it’s just so hard to make ends meet. People have to make the choice of leaving.” 

For now, OCAD will focus on figuring out how to ensure that all three members are able to stay in the country after their paroles expire in a year. In the meantime, Garcia is ready to help others like him however he can and Contreras has already started organizing again. Lopez is likewise just as committed to the work but also has a newfound appreciation for the time he is able to spend with loved ones. 

“All we take with us from this life are our memories,” he said.

Irene Romulo is an organizer and journalist who most recently co-founded Cicero Independiente, a bilingual news outlet for the people living in Cicero, IL. You can follow her on twitter at @ireneincicero.