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Border activists declare victory after protest at closed Phx ICE HQ

The U.S. Immigrations and Customs office in Phoenix was already closed on Monday for Columbus Day, but that did not stop immigration activist groups National Day Laborer Organization and Puente Arizona from publicly declaring victory after an afternoon protest intended to shut down the building.

Protesters such as Alexa said they came out for political and also for more personal reasons. Alexa's family brought her to the United States when she was eight and she successfully applied to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival Program.

"It took awhile," said Alexa. "So I was kind of scared like maybe I got denied or something but everything was fine, I got it."

But options like that don't exist for her parents, including her mother Adi, who, like Alexa, asked to be identified only by her first name.

"My dad, he worked really hard to make sure our family was always, we weren't spoiled or anything but we always had what we needed," Alexa said.

Alexa's father was apprehended coming home from work in May and he spent time in the Phoenix ICE building before he was transferred to Eloy and then deported.

"They actually came in that night, I guess they were waiting for him somewhere," Alexa said. "A couple minutes later they came and knocked at the door and they were like oh, we came actually for you so they took him. That's it."

Now Alexa now works two jobs to help support her mother and her 10-year-old younger brother, a U.S. citizen. At the protest, her mother carried a sign with a photo of the family before they were separated by her husband's deportation.

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"Now that he's gone me and my mom have to work as much as we can," Alexa said. "And that's not enough. We still sometimes have to ask people to let us borrow some money or such, so it's really hard."

Unlike previous protests, stories like that of Alexa's family took a backstage to the confusion over what was actually happening.

The purpose was to "'shut down' the district ICE office," said protest organizers from National Day Laborer Organization and Puente Arizona, who said that protesters would assemble at a nearby park before marching to the office at noon and demanding operations be brought to a halt through "acts of civil disobedience."

NBC Latino reported that earlier in the day a group of protesters with the #Not1MoreDeportation campaign chained themselves to fences at the Eloy Detention Center and, when their request to be arrested was denied by local police, told reporters that they were going to join the protest in Phoenix. 

At a similar event on Friday, protesters chained themselves to buses carrying people to federal court in Tucson for deportation hearings through Operation Streamline and 18 were arrested. The protest stopped that day's court session. 

But Monday's demonstration didn't have the same dramatic result: the ICE building in Phoenix was already closed, because Columbus Day is a federal holiday.

Counter protest

Across the street about 10 counter protesters from the Arizona Chapter of The Remembrance Project waited in the shade with signs supporting Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and panels featuring Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, Phoenix Police Officer Nick Erfle and Arizona rancher Robert Krentz.

Barb Heller made the panels as part of a larger "Stolen Lives Quilt" that features these three among others whom the group considers victims of illegal immigrants, she said.

"It upsets me - we have laws in this country, they're always yelling for dignity and respect, how about showing a little dignity and respect for the laws of our country?" Heller said. "I'm hoping they all get arrested today, chain yourself to a bus, here, let me unchain you and put you on the bus."

Brandy Baron's grandparents came to Texas legally in the 1930s, she said, and the immigration movement has changed.

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"There was a time when I was growing up everybody got along, even the people that were here illegally were respectful, they laid low they didn't cause any trouble, they were respectful, they just tried to blend in and make a living," Baron said. "Now we have people over here who are making demands of us. The laws shouldn't apply to them apparently and they should just be able to do whatever they want."

At other events, immigration activists have told Baron she should be on their side but she said she feels like she's standing with her people as an American - and she questions how protest organizers operate.

"Today is Columbus Day, they came down here to shut down ICE and ICE isn't even open and I don't know who the brainiac is that figured that one out," Baron said. "I actually came here because I know how they are, they'll do their civil disobedience so they'll be sitting in the street and sooner or later someone will be pepper sprayed or handcuffed so I came for the entertainment."

Considering civil disobedience

When the marchers drew within sight after 2 p.m., Heller, Baron and the rest of the group had packed up their banners and were minutes from leaving to get food.

And protesters like Hugo Gonzales were unsure what was going to happen.

"It was going to be a civil disobedience," Gonzales said. "But since it's closed and it's a holiday, I don't think it's going to even work."

Xaime Casillas cited last week's closing of Operation Streamline as one model for gaining political and media attention for their cause.

"There's always a possibility for civil disobedience to get a message to the president, that the president and Congress need to seriously move forward on immigration reform," Casillas said. "Absolutely, yes, we're going to keep on putting pressure, media pressure on the president and Congress, so they do the right thing and move forward with comprehensive immigration reform."

However, any planned acts seemed to have been gradually abandoned during the protest itself.

Instead of civil disobedience or family stories, the protesters put on dance performances and skits in Spanish where actors playing families were threatened by other actors wearing signs printed with "ICE."

Like Alexa, Gonzales said he wanted the community to know more about who is affected by immigration policy.

"This is what we're doing, we're bringing awareness to the community," Gonzales said. "that's what we're here for so we can let them know that we're not criminals that we're here to fight for our rights and we're gonna actually bring up the economy because if it wasn't for us who's going to take all those jobs that nobody wants to work and we will, we have?"

Cassillas, whose family originates in Jalisco, Mexico but has crossed the border for work since his grandfather participated in the Bracero program during the 1950s, pointed to similarities between illegal immigration in California and Arizona.

"The big draw in history of immigrants coming to California and Arizona was at the peak of harvest season," Cassillas said. "They need people to be able to come here illegally to work here on those farms, those farms do not operate without illegal immigrants to harvest."

Then he and Gonzales also cited their state's recently passed California Trust Act as an example of policy they hope the rest of the country will emulate.

"We want to bring that momentum to Arizona," Cassillas said. "The organizations here have been building up their own momentum and we just want to bring supt for the organizations here to continue to one day get a reasonable immigration reform deal for students and all the undocumented people that are here."

Once the event began, attendance was fluid with protesters coming and going. Law enforcement officials estimated that there were between 250 to 300 at the peak, during the march down Central Avenue.

By 5 p.m., when traffic picked up slightly for rush hour, only a few law enforcement vehicles remained on Central. Officers on foot made sure that the dancing didn't spill into the street and maintained a loose perimeter because, a one officer described, "these situations are always fluid."

Since nonessential staff at ICE, including communications officials, have been furloughed, questions about how the agency is affected by the government shutdown or responds to protesters were fielded by the Department of Homeland Security. A DHS statement on Friday said that during the shutdown the agency "continues to implement its enforcement responsibilities, in accordance with acts of Congress."

The statement quoted ICE Director John Morton's 2011 memo that instructed the agency to prioritize cases involving "criminal aliens and egregious immigration law violators." Deportation statistics for 2012 reflect felony or misdemeanor convictions for 55 percent of people deported that year and that "96 percent of the overall removals fell into one of ICE’s enforcement priority categories."

The statement also said that the Obama administration continues to call for "common sense immigration" that would "fix our nation's broken immigration system while also strengthening our economy" and pointed out that such policy has wide, bipartisan support.

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Rebekah Zemansky/TucsonSentinel.com

Protesters performed skits in Spanish where actors playing families were threatened by other actors wearing signs printed with 'ICE.'