MLK Day 2013: Letters from a Maricopa County Detention Center

Adam Efren Lopez

Tizkin Sankofa Huitzilopochtli


When we remember the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we are reminded of his strength in speaking out against injustices that too often occur in the world.  This past Martin Luther King Day, 21 Enero 2013,  DREAM ACTION NIU and DeKalb High School’s Vanguardia Afirmativa de los Latin@s Unidos (VALU) participated in a collective mass student demonstration on a bitter cold Chicago Monday. The groups’ primary motivation for climbing out of bed on that subzero “free” school day was to demand a moratorium on deportations. This moratorium would not only freeze all deportation proceedings but also place an immediate halt to the separation of families -1,100 families per day, to be exact From its inception in 2008 and following its implementation under the Obama Administration, Secure Communities (S-Comm) has been responsible for the detention and deportation of hundreds of thousands of undocumented individuals each year. As a result of S-Comm, executed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, from 2008 to 2012 the Obama administration has deported approximately 1.6 million persons, and just like the U.S. defense budget, this number is rising every day.  We have seen this before.

In 1953, Lieutenant General Joseph M. Swing was appointed Immigration and Naturalization Service’s (INS) commissioner.[1]  It was through this position that Swing enacted his militaristic objective, “Operation Wetback,” to force out the Mexican people. From 1953-59, 3.8 million Mexicans were deported.[2] Obama now has two choices: the Barry Bonds method or the activist approach. Obama could chose to ‘juice up’ the Immigration Industrial Complex in order to break deportation records, or he could act using the powers he possesses to issue an Executive Order mandating a moratorium on deportations (as ex-President Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s). For the skeptics who are hesitant to ease deportation proceedings due to a fear of criminality within the immigrant pool… 

In preliminary data for the January-March 2012 quarter collected by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, for example, just 14 percent of those deported had any criminal record.* But, a closer look at the data shows that just 4 percent of those deported had a so-called “aggravated felon” on their record; [which is] an immigration court-specific designation of crimes that can include crimes as serious as rape and murder, but has also been expanded to include violations like theft or non-violent drug offenses.[3]

This data presents immigrants in a much more honest and accurate light, as opposed to the demonized image which the corporate media paints of the stereotypical immigrant. Unfortunately, S-Comm continues to deport immigrants in mass while also violating human rights, filling jail cells and detention centers, and denying due process. More than any other group in the US, Latin@s is targeted by this policy. In addition to being racially profiled by federal agents, Latin@s in some states, notably Arizona, are now legally targeted by state officials thanks to the US Supreme Court’s decision to keep SB 1070, and therefore other copycat laws like it, constitutional. SB 1070 not only pushes fear into the barrios, but it also questions the very existence of Latin@s in the U.S. As Sean Arce suggests, “[SB 1070] serves as an attack on our own being, our physicalness…questioning our very place - the spaces which we live - and it serves as a threat to our safety and [the safety of] our community.”[4] 

So, what does an undocumented person look like?  The corporate media would suggest that an undocumented person is a Latin@ immigrant who _____and____.  One can easily fill in the blanks with the dehumanizing rhetoric used by the corporate media which spits out venom like oil on a hot surface. As one NPR report reveals, more than one percent of the people caught up in ICE’s rush to deport are U.S. citizens. According to a research report from the University of California Berkeley School of Law, from 2008 to April 2011, “approximately 3,600 United States citizens have been arrested by ICE through the Secure Communities program …and more than one-third (39%) of individuals arrested through Secure Communities report that they have a U.S. citizen spouse or child." Significantly, this means ICE has the authority to decide whether a person looks “deportable,” and therefore worthy of pursuit and deportation. The UC Berkeley report also indicates that, “Latin@s comprise 93% of individuals arrested through Secure Communities, though they only comprise 77% of the undocumented population in the United States,” certainly suggesting a pattern of racial profiling.

            As a human being and a Latino, I find these figures to be unjust. Regardless of our political leanings, we can see the negative consequences of separating families. Our community is under attack. My hermanit@s are growing up without one or both parents; parents who linger in detention centers or are exiled from the U.S. entirely. 1,100 families separated from each other every day is 1,100 too many. Therefore, we must demand a moratorium on deportations. This moratorium must be called while Obama and the bipartisan Senate committee discuss the long process towards comprehensive immigration reform. Both President Obama and the bipartisan Senate committee see the need to enforce border security. If we investigate this ‘need,’ we will find that "the federal government spent $18 billion last year [2011] on border security, which is more than the combined budgets of the FBI, the Marshals Service, the Secret Service, the DEA, [and] the ATF…. [T]heir total budgets were only $14 billion."[5]

Abuse of power, questionable practices, misuse of funds, and calls of racism all speak to our need to closely watch just how this immense fund is spent. For example, in 2010, Anastasio Hernandez Rojas was beaten and tasered to death by a dozen Border Patrol agents.  Recently, sixteen members of Congress have called for investigations into Rojas’ murder and to the numerous complaints of Border Patrol agent misconduct and human rights violations. To add insult to injury, the agency has also been caught on film, kicking and destroying life-saving water placed in the desert by humanitarian groups such as No Mas Muertos. As similar news reports rush out across the nation, Latin@s face a media blitz which portrays their communities as criminals. As Marco Portales suggests, “both [TV and reality] mutually shape, and influence each other…For this reason, what happens in television is extremely important for Latinos, American society, and the world.”[6] 

If Latin@s continue to be targeted due to the sheer fact that they, regardless of citizenship, are Latin@, then why not stand together rather than alone in this struggle? Why not use these discriminatory practices- racial profiling, separation of families, and destruction of communities- as an opportunity to unite and fight back, peacefully, in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? In this way, we must be moved by the philosophy of the banned Mexican American Studies Program, the philosophy of “In Lak Ech” - Tu eres mi otro yo; Si te hago daño a ti, me hago daño a mí mismo; Si te amo y respeto, me amo y respeto yo.  In other words, an injury to one is an injury to all. As we work in solidarity, we must lift one another as we climb.   

 To dive deeper is to see what the banning of our knowledge has done to the youth of Tucson. The Tucson Mexican American Studies (MAS) students witnessed their beloved MAS program be terminated by an ignorant and Eurocentric school board.  Latin@ historical narratives, literature, and art were heavily scrutinized and eventually banned by those who could not decipher the difference between Reies Lopez Tijerina and Marco Rubio (if you cannot either, then this is precisely why we need these programs). SB 2281 officially banned the MAS program and with this law, our place within society became more cemented into the concrete wall of outsiders and invaders. Our youth must now be taught the 3-D model of Western education – distortion, deletion, and denial. What message is our youth of color receiving from these laws?  The message is that they are not wanted, respected, appreciated, and have nothing to offer. 

However, this story has a happy ending.  On the evening of MLK Day, the VALU and DREAM ACTION NIU students defeated the cold by participating in a lecture presentation given by Sean Arce (co-founder of the banned Tucson Arizona Mexican American Studies) and Jose Gonzalez (ex-MAS teacher) at DePaul University. In the spirit of MLK Day, both Arce and Gonzalez shared precious knowledge and pushed concepts of radical self-love in order to deal with the historical trauma that we as colonized people have to endure. The lecture served as an important reminder to reflect on our complex and elaborate past which will provide a foundation for our future struggles and triumphs. Through this year’s commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, VALU and DREAM ACTION NIU students succeeded in moving parallel to Dr. King’s philosophy of advocacy, peace and social justice for all.       


[1] Rodolfo Acuña, “Occupied America: A History of Chicanos,” (New York: Longman, 2000), pg 304.
[2] Lisa Magaña, “Straddling the Border: Immigration Policy and the INS,” (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003), pg. 18.
[3] Julianne Hing, “Who Are These ‘Gangbangers’ Obama’s So Proud Of Deporting,”, October 17 2012,
*(Immigration violations are typically considered civil violations, and do not constitute a criminal offense).
[4] Sean Arce and Jose Gonzalez, “Sean Arce and Jose Gonzalez Speak at Depaul University,” Librotraficante Flo-pez, January 21, 2013,
[5] Juan Gonzalez, “Obama Offers Hope on Immigration Reform, But Emphasis on Enforcement Portends More Criminalization,” DemocracyNow, January 31, 2013,
[6] Marco Portales, “Crowding Out Latinos: Mexican Americans in the Public Consciousness,” (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2000), pg 56 – 58.