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Protesters adapt to continue activism amid COVID-19 pandemic

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El Paso protesters are transforming their public action toolkit in response to COVID-19, finding socially distanced ways to express solidarity and pressure for change. 

A cacophony of car honks filled the air around the Immigration and Customs Enforcement El Paso Service Processing Center this past Thursday afternoon. Car after car drove slowly past the entrance to the immigrant detention facility, emblazoned with messages for ICE agents, public leaders, and the detainees themselves. “Free Them All,” “Detention is Deadly,” “ICE is Inessential,” and “No Estan Solos.” These neon painted words were scrawled on demonstrators’ vehicles in an emergent form of protest, the car rally.

Gabriela Castaneda, spokesperson for Movement Mujeres and one of the organizers of the car rally, explained why this form of protest was chosen. “The main factor in the decision to do a car rally was of course COVID-19. We are very aware of this deadly virus and, unlike ICE, we would never put anyone in danger. We followed the guidelines provided in the stay home order from El Paso County, and we made sure that our protest remained safe.”

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About 40 vehicles protested outside the El Paso ICE detention facility on Thursday, April 16. Car-based protests are used to comply with social distancing guidelines. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

An El Paso Service Processing Center detainee tested positive for COVID-19 the day of the protest and growing numbers of leaders and immigrant advocacy groups are calling for ICE to release detainees at centers such as these, where conditions are often crowded and unsanitary, an environment where the novel coronavirus can spread easily. The detainees are not charged with crimes and are in a civil process to determine their long-term status in the United States.

ICE has reported 124 COVID-19 cases among detainees as of Friday. That does not include the case in El Paso, which ICE has not publicly acknowledged despite confirming it in a meeting with El Paso leaders on Friday. 

Agency officials said they have released 700 detainees nationwide who were at high risk of serious COVID-19 complications and is taking steps to protect remaining detainees. 

Vehicle-based protests around the country

Three organizations were behind El Paso’s #FreeThemAll Car Rally: the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee, Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention, and Movement Mujeres. The demands of these organizers include: immediately releasing all migrants in ICE detention centers beginning with those most susceptible to COVID-19; stopping all enforcement operations, and ending all deportations. 

About 40 cars participated in a protest outside the El Paso ICE detention facility on Thursday, April 16. Video courtesy of the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee.

Organizers have emphasized the importance of social media. Digital action prompts include “the #FreeThemAll challenge,” where supporters film themselves while calling leaders like Rep. Veronica Escobar and Mayor Dee Margo, and then share that video to their social media accounts.

These forms of public action are not unique to El Paso: #FreeThemAll car rallies took place across Texas this weekend, in cities including Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth, and Corpus Cristi. On April 10, a massive caravan descended upon two detention centers in southern Arizona, with reports of over 700 people participating in that car rally. 

Meanwhile, right-wing protests demanding an end to stay-at-home orders have increased around the country, some of which have also taken the form of a car rally, termed “Operation Gridlock.”

Activism in a COVID-19 world

There are both advantages and disadvantages to staging a protest using cars. 

A “drive-by” protester called on Immigration and Customs Enforcement to free detainees on Thursday, April 16, in El Paso. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“The pros of a car rally is that your only focus is to be driving. You don’t have to walk, and this helps with the people who want to participate but can’t because of a physical issue,” Castaneda said. “The cons are that, when you have a protest where you have to walk two or three miles to reach your destination, where you’re carrying banners, where you’re marching with your whole family, it sends a message of sacrifice and solidarity. But in the end, no matter how you protest, we must keep doing it.” 

Castaneda estimates approximately 40 cars participated in Thursday’s rally, and expects there will be more at the next El Paso car rally protest on Friday. 

She and other organizers plan to continue protesting for as long as ICE holds detainees in high- risk conditions for virus transmission. 

Gabriela Castaneda

“We have to keep organizing. We have to keep coming together to fight for issues that affect us all, as human beings. We ask (local and national leaders) to do everything in their power to make sure that these people inside prisons and detention centers have the means to fight back against this pandemic, because their lives matter,” Castaneda said.

She encourages anyone with family members detained in El Paso to call her at 915-494-4213 if they would like help in advocating for their loved ones. Those who are interested in participating in future protests can find more information at the #FreeThemAll El Paso Facebook page

Cover photo: A “drive-by” protest circled the area surrounding ICE’s El Paso Processing Center on Montana Ave. on Thursday, April 16, in El Paso, Texas. About 40 motorists, with messages painted on signs and on their vehicles and horns blaring, protested what they claim are unsanitary conditions and a lack of supplies that threaten the health of detainees. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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René Kladzyk

René Kladzyk is a musician and writer based in El Paso. She performs original music as Ziemba, and has written for publications including Teen Vogue, i-D, and The Creative Independent. Her new album came out on Sister Polygon Records in September 2020, and she is hopeful that we’ll be able to enjoy live music together IRL again soon enough.

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