Reflections on Canvassing in South Philly with Juntos: What does it mean to be an immigrant?

On the second weekend of November of this fall, I joined several Bryn Mawr students headed to South Philly to help with a canvassing project organized by Juntos, a community-led Latinx immigrant organization. I wanted to help, but I was hoping there would be roles inside the office I could serve; it was pretty chilly and I was nervous about my Spanish fluency and even English communication skills needed for door to door canvassing. Thankfully, my friend convinced me to tackle a canvassing region with her, because I ended up learning and observing so much during our shift.

The organizers at Juntos sent us to cover one square block between 8th, 9th, Federal and Wharton, a block which contains numerous italian owned bars and restaurants as well as many homes. For two white female volunteers, this was likely an intentional assignment, since it was one of the most potentially racist areas of the Community Resistance Zones project.

The aims of the project were twofold. Firstly, we were trained to briefly educate people about the rights they maintain while interacting with police or any enforcement officials, namely the right to remain silent, the right to a lawyer, and the right to privacy if they do not have an accurate warrant signed by a judge. Secondly, we hoped to sign up committed neighborhood members to form a Community Resistance Zone, a network of people in the community who can be called on when needed to protect their neighbors from ICE and deportations.

Unlike other more residential blocks, our area had many businesses owned by Italian families. According to the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia produced at Rutgers-Camden The Italian immigrants that congregated in South Philly began migrating in the second half of the 19th century, looking for better economic opportunities in the United States due to agricultural challenges and late industrial development in Italy.

In talking to numerous business owners and employees, it became clear to me that many of the descendants of these immigrants do not consider their families as immigrants. When we approached them with our education materials and explained our purpose, they responded to us saying things like We don’t support that kind of immigration, referring to the communities of Mexican and Asian immigrants presently congregating in South Philadelphia. In their minds, this migration is somehow different than what their predecessors did, even though the push factors for migration, such as economic hardship due to deterioration or underdevelopment of agriculture and industry, sound eerily familiar.

This perfectly illustrates what Aviva Chomsky writes about the construction of illegality in her book Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal. Descendants of immigrants from european countries and people whose families immigrated a long time ago, who make up most of the people in this country, consider their immigration or their family’s immigration as being more correct, or done in the right way, as compared to more recent latino immigrants who are seen as wrong, illegitimate, and criminal.

“Most of the citizens who brag that their ancestors came here ‘the right way’ are making assumptions based on ignorance. They assume their ancestors ‘went through the process’ and obtained visas, as people are required to do today. In fact, most of them came before any legal process existed–before the concept of illegality existed.”

As I learned, these racist attitudes are pretty infamous, or maybe just famous, in this part of Philly. Geno’s, which displayed a sign in it’s window that read “This is America. We Speak English” at one point last year, is one of the most popular restaurants in South Philly. It was packed when we arrived there to talk to the manager or owner, and even the restaurants patrons were rude to us.

The exterior of the restaurant is decorated with police badges or patches from police forces across the country, which reinforce ideas of patriotism and nationalism that are often just guises for white supremacy and violence and discrimination against black and brown people.

We talked to a manager about being part of the Community Resistance Zone, the network of businesses and residents in the community that are willing to stand up and protect immigrants in the neighborhood. The idea is to eventually create a network that can be called on to intervene if, for example, ICE agents are in the area. By intervene, Juntos recommends video taping the interaction from a safe distance and documenting what happened, since this doesn’t put the bystander in danger but can help in legal case if ICE agents have violated protocol and or the law.

Surprisingly, Geno’s signed on and accepted the materials we gave them, which included a sign that can be displayed in the window that reads, Community Resistance Zones, and has an illustration of a child of color protecting his neighborhood from hate.

When we got back to the Juntos office, we told them about all the business owners or employees we talked to, and how they were the most unsupportive or blatantly racist or anti-immigrant. We mentioned, however, that Geno’s took the materials and signed on, and the office erupted in surprise. It was apparently a big deal.

On our field trip to the Aquinas Center and the Italian markets a week later, I checked for the sign at Genos, but, unsurprisingly, they hadn’t put it up.

On the other hand, the most supportive people we talked to were the gentrifiers, young white men, obviously taking advantage of cheap rent in the area. One every offered to help Juntos design an app for the resistance zones project.

Although our canvassing area did not have many latino residents, we did meet several asian migrants. Although the materials were bilingual English-Spanish, we hoped they would be interested in hearing the Know Your Rights information and accepting the materials. Due to language barriers, almost none of them would talk to us. While on the one hand, our training might have been helpful to them, on the other hand, their wariness to strangers at the door is probably a good thing, seeing as the most important thing we were supposed to get across was that you should never open the door to ICE, because it counts as an invitation inside. Because of this fact, knocking on doors and convincing people to listen to us tell them about their rights and talk about the community resistance people was truly ironic.

All of this has made me consider my own immigration history. Am I like the italians because I don’t think of myself as an immigrant, even though my grandmother was an immigrant? I hope not, because I don’t think searching for a better life should be illegal or that one way of migration is more correct than any other. Conversations about immigration in my family center have always centered around working to support all immigrants with a pay it forward mentality, just as people helped my grandmother and her family after they fled Germany. Sometimes I get frustrated with the rhetoric my family uses to try to say they understand the immigrant experience, when in reality the experiences are vastly different and comparison is not always necessary. Nonetheless, I wish more people would come to the realization that illegality is a social construct, and not a fact that makes some people’s existence wrong and others’ more right in this country.

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