By Kym Cunningham, Contributing Writer
For more than 30 years, Norma Chinchilla has been a voice for the immigrant community. As the executive director of the Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition, also known as LBIRC, Chinchilla helps overwhelmed immigrants cut through the confusion of a strange language and systems, easing their adjustment into American life.
“Most of us came from immigrants at one point in time,” Chinchilla said. “By a throw of the dice, I could have been somewhere else and not here.”
As a sociology professor at Cal State Long Beach, Chinchilla knows how integral immigrants are to American society.
“Immigrants are extremely important to our economy,” said Chinchilla. “They are important to our society. We benefit tremendously from that kind of diversity and those ideas and that entrepreneurship.”
However, their ability to act as a mirror to modern political realities is possibly more important than their ability to diversify American society.
“The way we treat immigrants is often an indicator of how strong our democracy is, how much we care about human rights generally,” Chinchilla said. “When you start saying that certain people don’t even have basic human rights guaranteed by international law and international agreements, it’s a slippery slope.”
Through the coalition, Chinchilla works alongside other city and state groups to reform immigration policy and promote justice through education, service and advocacy.
“They’ve overcome so many obstacles and they’ve worked so hard,” Chinchilla said. “And, to say that there’s no path to legal status…. I can’t imagine any good reason that would be the case.”
The LBIRC offers legal assistance, free ESL classes and myriad other services to guarantee immigrants “fulfilling and prosperous political, economic and social” lives. The coalition uses every resource at its disposal, often using the ESL classes to discuss issues such as combatting domestic violence, dealing with school administration, and accessing preventative healthcare.
In this organization, Chinchilla seems to have found her calling.
“I don’t think you always choose your path,” Chinchilla said. “Sometimes you just fall into it.”
Chinchilla first became involved with immigrant rights in the 1980s. After college, she spent a year in Guatemala and maintained a relationship with people there, eventually marrying one. After the first large influx of Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees fleeing civil wars arrived in the United States, Chinchilla knew that something had to be done to protect their rights.
“We waged a big campaign to keep people from being deported, trying to get them classified as refugees with asylum,” Chinchilla said. “We were able to mount a whole campaign with sanctuary in churches and in temples and … eventually oppose Reagan’s policies.”
Before the Illegal Immigration and Immigration Responsibility Act, or IRAIRA, which makes it almost impossible for undocumented immigrants to obtain green cards, Chinchilla and her compatriots often merely stalled deportation cases until the individual qualified for green card access or citizenship. At the time, undocumented individuals could receive ‘forgiveness’: if the individual had a good record, had started a business or had a citizen spouse or children, he or she could qualify for asylum even in cases in which the asylum had originally been denied.
“We helped the lawyers file lawsuits,” said Chinchilla. “Some of them became landmark cases in immigration. We built some institutions from scratch because the Central Americans didn’t qualify for anything. We built the Oscar Romero clinic (Clinica Monsenor Oscar Romero) from the bottom up, originally just with volunteers.”
In the 1990s, both the Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments signed peace accords, effectively ending the civil wars ravaging the two countries. Immigration to the United States diminished.
“People went on with their lives,” Chinchilla said. “Over this time period, you’re following these people’s lives. They are friends of yours. Your kids are friends. You see what an impact it can make if you become legal.”
It was not until 2006 that Chinchilla realized the need for a local organization to promote legalization and to protect the rights of the Long Beach immigrant community. That spring, Chinchilla marched alongside millions of immigrants who converged on downtown Los Angeles to protest anti-immigration legislation. During her Blue Line ride, she realized the lack of local organizations servicing the Long Beach immigrant community. She and a fellow marcher decided to begin their own organization and the LBIRC was born.
“We thought it would be really easy,” Chinchilla admitted. “Of course, it didn’t turn out to be easy at all. We thought it would just be a question of finding out what services were available and then linking people to the services. What we found out was that the services didn’t really exist.”
If the services did exist, Chinchilla found that the members running the organizations often did not know if undocumented persons, or even green card holders, could qualify. Chinchilla decided to put her organizing and institution building experience from the 1980s to good use.
“I gathered a few other people and we experimented over time,” Chinchilla said.
Unfortunately, the same tactics of stalling legal cases no longer worked, as it became more and more difficult to classify undocumented immigrants as refugees. Despite the rise of cartel and gang violence in Mexico, which spills into El Salvador and Guatemala and creates microcosms of civil-war-level homicide rates, the U.S. government remains reluctant to grant current undocumented immigrants refugee status. Even those LGBT immigrants fleeing sexual persecution have a hard time justifying their need for asylum. However, Chinchilla says that domestic violence cases have been a little bit easier to defend, especially for Guatemalan women. In several landmark cases, judges ruled that the Guatemalan government failed to protect these women from abuse.
“Even if they [the women] leave a relationship, they are often pursued by their lovers or husbands who want to kill them, to punish them for leaving — for dishonoring them,” Chinchilla said. “And, even if they don’t directly do it, it costs nothing to hire a killer. And of course, they don’t just kill the women; they maim them. It sends a message to all women to not leave relationships.”
Chinchilla has acted as an expert witness in many of these cases. Sometimes, her testimony meant the difference between a new life or a death sentence for these women.
“In asylum cases, you hear tragic stories of persecution,” Chinchilla said. “Things that keep you awake at night. You know that this person’s life is riding on the outcome of this hearing and this judge, sometimes, couldn’t care less.”
Influence Seeping In
Things really took off for the coalition when more undocumented students began attending Cal State Long Beach after Assembly Bill 540, which allowed qualified California high school graduates to pay resident tuition fees. Essentially, AB 540 makes it so that undocumented students do not have to pay the exorbitant international student tuition rates because, of course, they are not international students. In many ways, these students were the catalyst for the organization’s success.
“They were becoming very organized and very conscious and more and more visible,” Chinchilla said. “They wanted to join with us. That’s how we began building what we have today.”
Chinchilla stresses the connection between immigrant rights and rights of other groups, such as LGBT and women. Some of the Dreamer leaders — the undocumented youth movement responsible for passing the federal Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM, Act — recently came out as gay or lesbian, solidifying the intersectionality between undocumented youth rights and the rights of the LGBT community.
“They were the ones that were carrying the banner,” Chinchilla said. “They were the ones that were right out in front, taking the risks.”
And yet, it took a while for many of these youth to feel comfortable to publicly express their sexuality. Many worried they would be rejected from their communities.
“By coming out and by bringing them out in the open, we’ve been able to increase the acceptance and the understanding,” Chinchilla said. “We have a lot of immigrant parents who … understand now that … it would be better to have their son or daughter in the family. And they respect what the kids have done as leaders.”
Chinchilla works to pass on the values that she has learned within the organization to these young adults, hoping that they will become its future leaders.
“My goal, as I see it, is really to transition this to a well-rooted sustainable organization and pass it on to somebody else who hopefully comes from an immigrant background and has lived the experiences of the community,” said Chinchilla. “What I try to pass on is that our credibility and our reputation are the most valuable resources we have. We got there by trying to work in a way that was very trustworthy and credible. When you’re working with populations that might feel like they need to be invisible, you really have to be credible and you have to be consistent. You have to be there when people need you.”
Cooperation is also important in building a network for the organization.
“We try to work with a lot of different groups — that’s sort of my philosophy on organizing,” Chinchilla said. “It’s kind of a culture that we try to establish.”
The Tides of American Sentiment
Chinchilla said that she believes the majority of Californians are sympathetic and supportive of immigrants. She also believes that the majority of Americans are in support of legalization, although technicalities and qualifications may vary from person to person.
“The reality is that most people are very practical,” Chinchilla said. “[Americans] don’t believe in mass deportations; they don’t really believe in deportation … if [someone] has been living here for a long time.”
Chinchilla said that the anti-immigrant sentiment that seems to have swelled within the past decade stems from three major factors: the recession, fear-mongering used by politicians and confusion or a lack of knowledge on the issue of immigration.
She related a story about a misguided, or as Chinchilla puts it, “confused” woman whose grandson had told her that undocumented students receive free tuition from Cal State Long Beach, while the grandson — a U.S. citizen — had to pay. When Chinchilla gently confronted the woman, explaining to her that she worked at the university and that undocumented students were required to pay tuition the same as everyone else, the woman rebuffed her remarks, saying that this misinformation had been in the newspaper. This exchange happened shortly after Cal State Long Beach opened the DREAM Success Center, an office which offers academic support for undocumented students.
“The messages probably got mixed up in people’s heads,” Chinchilla said.
As a sociologist, Chinchilla also knows that American sentiment towards immigrants goes through cycles.
“I have a whole collection of quotes from different time periods that say exactly the same horrible things about immigrants,” Chinchilla said.
She likes to do a workshop in some of her classes: Chinchilla puts some of these quotations up on the board and has the students guess the time period these quotations come from as well as the immigrant community that they address. Despite being right or wrong, Chinchilla believes that the students learn a lot from this exercise.
Chinchilla also believes that this cyclicality of American sentiment heads towards progress, although society is in a state of regression.
“The march of history is in the direction of large numbers of immigrants being successfully integrated into American society and having roots here,” Chinchilla said. “It’s not on the side of those who want to prevent them.”
In many ways, Chinchilla views the immigrant rights movement as a continuation of the work done by activists during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
“It changes your life,” said Chinchilla of her work. “It’s kind of like people who got involved in the Civil Rights Movement. You’re never the same again…. You hear so many stories — sad stories, successful stories — and you can see so clearly how laws can make a difference and how policies can make a difference.”
As with many other movements, it is storytelling that convinces people to support the cause.
“It’s not an abstract issue with us in California,” said Chinchilla. “Los Angeles is home to a big percentage of immigrants in the country. These are our friends, our neighbors. They’re on soccer teams with your kids. They’re in churches. They’re fully integrated in many ways into our lives in Long Beach. But then in other ways, they’re vulnerable…. I fear the power of the federal government because immigration is something that is very much under the power of the president.”
Under the Donald Trump administration, Chinchilla notes a rise in fear amongst the Long Beach immigrant community, especially in regards to the recent raids by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
“Everybody’s afraid,” Chinchilla said. “Some of the fears can be justified and then some of them are just speculation. But once fear starts, it’s very difficult to control.”
Chinchilla mentioned one instance when the coalition received a call that ICE agents had arrested workers at a car wash just outside of downtown Long Beach. When members of the coalition went to provide support, they found that the ICE agents had just been getting their vans washed, the same as they did every week. ICE agent sightings at Dunkin Donuts led to a similarly misguided wildfire-level of fear. Yet, Chinchilla maintains that although some individual rumors are untrue, enough confirmed reports exist to give credence to this wave of fear.
“There were reports in some areas of ICE going with mobile fingerprint trucks, arriving at a workplace and forcing everybody to give their fingerprints,” Chinchilla said.
ICE agents then ran the fingerprints through a database to see if the workers had a deportation order. If so, the agents can round up all the undocumented workers, claiming ‘collateral arrest’ if they were in the presence of a known criminal. Although the legality of fingerprint profiling seems suspect to civilians, police and the federal justice system maintain that it is entirely legal. Because civilians leave fingerprints in public places and get fingerprinted to receive a license, judges have ruled that fingerprints are not subject to the same privacy laws and do not require police to obtain a warrant to fingerprint an individual or group of individuals. This practice undoubtedly leads to racial profiling, essentially assuming undocumented status for collections of Latino/a individuals.
Chinchilla said that the practice of collateral arrests presents the catch-22 of undocumented status: even if undocumented individuals refuse to cooperate by showing identification that proves their status, they can be taken in under the pretext of posing potential problems. Whether an individual gets taken in is often up to the whims of the raid’s lead ICE agent.
However, even the so-called criminality of some of those with deportation orders should be subject to scrutiny.
“This is what the public doesn’t understand at all — it could be 20 years ago: you had one DUI, you made one mistake,” Chinchilla said. “If you’re a citizen, you have a chance to expunge it.… You don’t have to carry it around for all of those years. But with immigration, there’s no forgiveness.”
Chinchilla also argues that these ICE raids endanger the safety of the entire community, immigrants and citizens alike.
“Even the police are complaining that, all of the sudden, people don’t want to cooperate with them when they had a good relationship,” Chinchilla said. “And that’s a problem because the police need the community in solving crimes.”
But ICE is not the first problem the coalition has faced regarding local law enforcement.
“The biggest problem that we’ve had was with the LA County sheriff — that’s where the biggest abuses have been,” Chinchilla said. “We’re still working hard to get them to make sure that they follow the TRUST Act…. But they’re very hard to control.”
With the sheriff’s office, there is not the same kind of commission to hold officers accountable for their actions. Often, the immigrant community members are also not sure who they are stopped by, making cataloging complaints increasingly difficult.
Chinchilla also said that the level of abuse seemed to depend upon the individual sheriff’s attitude towards immigrants, making it difficult to pin down whether certain harassment was departmental policy or the actions of rogue sheriffs. Chinchilla remembers one sheriff in particular as extremely abusive of the immigrant community.
Nicknamed “El Perro” (The Dog) by the women he harassed, this sheriff was tasked with patrolling the Blue Line.
“Instead of doing that, he goes to the local neighborhood right next to it, where immigrant parents are dropping their kids off at Roosevelt Elementary School, and he starts asking for IDs only of Latina mothers — only the mothers, never the fathers,” Chinchilla said. “He knew that they were vulnerable. He knew that they wouldn’t be able to challenge him.”
Eventually, these women got fed up with his constant harassment, which included checking identification, towing cars (all suspiciously ended up at a single tow yard), ticketing, and searching personal belongings without probable cause. When they verbally confronted him for racially profiling them, he would make racist threats, saying that he was going to make sure they ‘went back to Mexico.’
“Sometimes, the kids would be in the car and they would see this guy harassing their moms,” Chinchilla said.
El Perro harassed the community for two years until the LBIRC, working in conjunction with the National Lawyers Guild, had enough formal legal complaints to present to LA County Sheriff Lee Baca.
“Baca reassigned the guy right then and there,” Chinchilla remembered. “The guy was furious.”
Thawing the ICE Storm
On Jan. 25, Trump issued Executive Order 13768, cutting funds for so-called sanctuary cities and giving immigration officers unlimited discretion in instituting deportation proceedings. Whatever relationship Chinchilla believed the coalition had created between the law enforcement and the immigrant community, it disintegrated after Trump’s directives.
“Now, it’s just kind of out of control — so different,” Chinchilla said. “[ICE agents] lie. They don’t want you to know when they’re starting a big raid. They know that we have groups all across the country.”
Chinchilla said that the LBIRC has become involved with a network of churches who work to provide what they call “street sanctuary.” This group recruits and trains volunteers from the surrounding communities to prepare in the event of a raid. Once group members receive a text message alerting them to a raid, they converge upon the spot to act as witnesses to any arrests.
“Hopefully, they would get badge numbers and observe the process and maybe even stop it,” Chinchilla said. “But most of them don’t happen with that kind of lead time.”
In the wake of the Trump administration, Chinchilla and the LBIRC have their hands full keeping track of community members. If one get arrested, the LBIRC tries to keep as close tabs on the individual as possible, so as not to lose track of him or her. Chinchilla said that sometimes it takes less than 72 hours for the individual to be deported. In this situation, every second counts.
Despite the uphill battle, Chinchilla loves her work.
“You live this,” Chinchilla said. “It’s in your flesh and bones.”
This month, the LBIRC is hosting its own month of action. Community members are invited to join the organization at its general meeting on March 22 or at the Humane Immigration Reform Rally on March 30 to find out ways to get involved and help immigrant community members.