In western New Orleans, William Diaz-Castro’s work is everywhere. It’s in the sidewalks, the streets, and the campus towers; in the storm-ravaged homes resurrected from ruin. Concrete is his specialty, and during the city’s recent reconstruction, his skills were in high demand.
Diaz-Castro is one of tens of thousands of immigrants who came to New Orleans in the years following Hurricane Katrina, which damaged more than one million homes. After helping rebuild the city, this community is now being detained, prosecuted, and deported en masse.
Get TalkPoverty In Your Inbox
The federal government now spends more on immigration enforcement than it does on all other law enforcement agencies combined. In addition to funding deportation efforts, this includes more than $2 billion to lock up immigrants in federal detention centers. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detains hundreds of thousands of people each year, in part because a little-known congressional directive known as the bed mandate requires ICE to keep a minimum of 34,000 “beds” per day.
In 2012, ICE targeted Diaz-Castro as he was leaving for work. He and his friend were trying to jumpstart his car in the parking lot of his apartment complex when eight armed ICE officers surrounded them. Upon discovering that he was undocumented, ICE promptly arrested and deported him.
This was during the early days of the Criminal Alien Removal Initiative, or CARI, an aggressive ICE pilot program that resembled stop-and-frisk policing. According to ICE, the program was supposed to focus on undocumented immigrants with criminal records who posed a risk to community safety. But according to Fernando Lopez, a lead organizer for the Congreso de Jornaleros (Congress of Day Laborers), an organizing and advocacy group in Louisiana, that’s not how it worked in practice. Lopez says that the result of the program was “totally racial profiling,” and that whenever ICE would see two or three Latino people, “they would just surround them with their guns drawn.” These raids happened all throughout the Latino community—in laundromats, bible study, at a Latino market in the suburbs.
Diaz-Castro and his partner, Linda Guzman, were expecting when he was deported in 2012. He knew that without his support, his partner would struggle to provide for their newborn son. “I couldn’t abandon them,” he says. So he came back, just in time for their son Willie’s birth.
After a few years of relative peace, on March 22, a team of ICE officers swarmed Diaz-Castro’s apartment without a warrant. Three-year-old Willie watched as the officers interrogated his father, handcuffed him, and took him away.
Diaz-Castro’s absence has been hard on his family. Guzman makes $8 per hour in her job at a laundromat—not nearly enough to pay for rent, utilities, food, and a babysitter for Willie. Without Diaz-Castro’s wages to help, Guzman could no longer afford rent, so she—and Willie—became homeless.
In 2014, President Barack Obama announced his resolve to fix our immigration system. He put forth a plan to grant deferred action to undocumented parents, and he expanded the existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. He also vowed to focus on “actual threats to our security,” and promised to punish “felons, not families.” But these words have been little comfort for Diaz-Castro, who’s never even had a speeding ticket, let alone committed a violent offense. As he puts it, “My only crime is to be an immigrant.”
After his arrest in March, Diaz-Castro spent a month in one of ICE’s privately-owned detention centers. Since he had no prior criminal record, he didn’t qualify as a priority for deportation, so ICE referred his case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and transferred him to federal prison. When he was finally charged with illegal entry 6 months later, he’d already served his entire sentence. He was released from prison, but ICE didn’t let him go free—instead, they transferred him back to detention, using his entry charge as a new justification for deportation.
Diaz-Castro has been an active member of the Congreso de Jornaleros since 2013, and they’ve been providing legal support throughout his case. In addition to direct legal support, the group also conducts large-scale grassroots organizing and direct action. They were instrumental in stopping the CARI raids: They ran an escalation campaign that included a large protest at ICE headquarters in which dozens of Congreso members chose to get arrested, risking deportation to draw attention to the brutality of the raids.
It’s partly through Congreso’s help that Diaz-Castro got his charges reduced from felony re-entry to misdemeanor entry. After ICE transferred him from federal prison back to immigration detention, Congreso urged ICE to exercise prosecutorial discretion and release him, arguing that he didn’t meet any of the criteria ICE uses to prioritize people for deportation. ICE relented, and on December 20, they released him.
Under President Trump, demand for groups like Congreso will likely increase. Trump has promised to end sanctuary cities, triple the number of ICE agents, and deport “criminal aliens” on day one of his presidency. Lopez says they must fight against the normalization of racism, hate, and bigotry that will accompany a Trump presidency. To do this, Congreso is mobilizing more people than it has in the past, including people who aren’t as directly affected. “Allies need to step up,” he insists.
Lopez says they’re recruiting people to join a larger movement that’s “not just about immigrants.” It’s a movement that’s broadly anti-hate, anti-racism, anti-family separation; a movement that includes hundreds of groups like Congreso that have been fighting—and winning—local battles against injustice.