Union leaders and alderman among 32 arrested at immigration rally

It all went as planned.

After warning protesters who were sitting in front of the doors of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices three times, an officer told the activists to stand and that they were being arrested.

Thirty-two protesters who represented unions and immigration rights groups were lined up and led inside the building for processing.

The staged act of civil disobedience, with planned arrests, camera crews and trash bags emblazoned with dollar signs meant to symbolize the cost of current immigration policy, stood in stark contrast to the tangible fear of deportation of those in the U.S. without documents.

“We need comprehensive immigration reform,” said Keith Kelleher, president of Service Employees International Union Health Care Illinois-Indiana, and one of those arrested, as he was being led into the building.

“Our brothers and sisters in our unions and in the community are being deported every day and we need to stop it. That’s why I’m getting arrested.”

The arrests followed a rally at Federal Plaza and a march from the plaza to the ICE offices. The event was organized by the Labor Committee on Immigrant Worker Rights, an organization that represents a number of unions throughout the Chicago area.

Kelleher said employers who take advantage of immigrant labor by lowering wages cause lower wages for all workers.

“We cannot fix this economy as long as 12 million workers are forced to live in the shadows and subject to exploitation,” Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of SEIU, said. “All workers deserve to have the same rights and responsibilities.”

Medina called on Republican lawmakers to join efforts to craft comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

Jean Cusack came to the protest from Milwaukee with a group named Voces de La Frontera.

On her back was a photograph of Omar Damian Ortega, a Milwaukee man Cusack said was an undocumented worker detained and facing deportation after he tried to seek worker’s compensation for an on-the-job back injury.

Cusack said she wants to see immigration reform that allows a path to legalization for workers.  “The process is impossible,” Cusack said.

Among the arrested was Ald. George Cardenas(12th). In a speech at the rally, Cardenas said there needed to be unity between Americans across immigration status.

“We will not have tranquility in this nation unless we are all united, unless we are all allowed to pursue liberty and happiness,” he said.

Cardenas, himself an immigrant, said immigrants and other Americans were tied by a common bond.

“We share your values, we share your work ethic, we share your self reliance,” he said. “Your dream is our dream and your future is our future.”

This story was originally published May 25, 2010 on Medill Reports Chicago.