Angela Navarro moved into a North Philadelphia church last month in defiance of her final deportation order.
That made Navarro, 28, the ninth undocumented immigrant to take sanctuary in a U.S. church since September. U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) cannot make arrests in “sensitive” places like churches or schools without prior approval, as per a 2011 ICE memo.
"Does it work in every case? No. But it allows a different side of the debate to come out."
Navarro’s supporters, led by immigration advocacy group New Sanctuary Movement, have launched a full-scale campaign to get Navarro’s deportation order reversed. That means scads of national press, lobbying Congress and serious online organizing. In less than a month, the online petition for Navarro’s cause garnered more than 6,000 signatures.
While some might scoff at the power of online petitions (with good reason), immigration cases are one instance where they can actually make a difference, immigration advocates say.
“Online petitions and technology allow us to define the client in a way that humanizes them,” said immigration attorney Brennan Gian-Grasso of Old City’s Gian-Grasso & Tomczak. “Does it work in every case? No. But it allows a different side of the debate to come out.”
Online organizing also means that advocates can reach a far greater audience than those in their immediate community, he said. It’s also a way for organizers to sidestep mainstream press and tell a story on their own terms.
With social media, you’re able to “organize faster and with a more coherent message than you ever were before,” Gian-Grasso said.
One successful campaign during which online media played an important role was that of Israel Resendiz, an undocumented Norristown man who spent nearly five months in Philadelphia prisons awaiting a hearing for his deportation case.
Resendiz, 34, had left the country to attend his father’s funeral in Mexico and was deported without a hearing when Border Patrol caught him returning to the United States. He crossed the border again, that time successfully, and returned to his family and business in Norristown, where he was arrested in early 2014 for re-entering illegally.
"ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference."
Immigrant rights group Juntos took up his case, organizing a campaign to get Resendiz out of prison. That’s because the deportation process for imprisoned immigrants works faster than the process for those who are not imprisoned, said Juntos organizer Jasmine Rivera. In other words, if Resendiz was released, he would have more time to work with lawyers on his case, as well as be with and support his family.
Like the New Sanctuary Movement’s campaign for Navarro, Juntos’s campaign for Resendiz involved a number of facets, of which online organizing was just one. Resendiz’s supporters organized rallies and Resendiz went on a hunger strike, both of which were covered in the news.
Online organizing is just one tool in an organizer’s tool box, Rivera said. Still, she said the campaign’s online presence “absolutely made a difference.”
Juntos set up an online petition that sent an email to Thomas Decker, ICE’s Philadelphia Field Director, every time someone signed it. That was a strategic move, Rivera said, since Decker was the only one who could decide to release Resendiz. Nearly 300 people signed the petition.
Juntos also took to Facebook to promote the petition since Facebook is a prominent social media platform for the Latino community, Rivera said. They also used Facebook to encourage people to call the regional ICE office and ask that ICE release Resendiz, an effort that generated hundreds of calls, she said.
The petition was a way to show Decker how much support there was for Resendiz. It also gave a voice to supporters who were not local to Norristown and couldn’t attend a rally.
Last summer, five months after he was imprisoned, Resendiz was released. His case is ongoing.
When asked if online organizing makes a difference in deportation cases, ICE spokeswoman Sarah Maxwell said, “ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference.”
As for Navarro, she won’t leave West Kensington Ministry until her deportation order is reversed, and social media will continue to play a large role in her campaign, said New Sanctuary Movement organizer Nicole Kligerman.
“Because [Navarro] cannot leave the church to speak with her supporters, social media is a venue through which she can directly communicate and galvanize support,” Kligerman wrote in an email.
She added that the more than 6,000 signatures on her online petition “signal to Immigration that they cannot deport her without a public uproar.”