Q&A: Leadership, lights, camera y Comunidad! (Part I)

Written by: Ben Barge

Date: September 01, 2020

Part 1 of 2: How a Netflix documentary on nation’s immigration system puts a spotlight on the Comunidad Colectiva and the Carolina Migrant Network. 

Last month, Netfix premiered “Immigration Nation,” a multi-part documentary about the nation’s current war on immigration and the toll it is having on families in and out of the system.

Sister organizations Comunidad Colectiva and the Carolina Migrant Network are among the many organizations that the series focuses on.

NCRP’s Field Director Ben Barge sat down to speak with one of the organizations’ key leaders, Stefania Arteaga, about their work supporting and organizing immigrants down South.

Their continued struggle against criminalization and for funding, despite their achievements on the ground, is another reason why NCRP calls on funders to double down on their support of the pro-immigrant and -refugee movement.

Ben Barge: Immigration Nation recently premiered on Netflix, and when people get to episodes 3 and 4, they’ll see your incredible work with Comunidad Colectiva and the Carolina Migrant Network. How did this all begin?

Pict. of Stephania Arteaga is co-director/strategist of Comunidad Colectiva and the Carolina Migrant Network

Stephania Arteaga is co-director/strategist of Comunidad Colectiva and the Carolina Migrant Network

Stefania Arteaga: Comunidad Colectiva came to be because we had a gap in our community around grassroots organizing. A lot of us were involved in the momentum for comprehensive immigration reform in 2010, and when that sizzled, a lot of people burned out, including myself.

But we stayed involved, especially as the 2016 presidential election started ramping up. And then, here in Charlotte and across the Southeast, we saw so many youth being picked up at bus stops or on their way to school because of Operation Border Guardian, which was designed to pick up Central American migrants who had aged out and had exhausted all legal remedies.

And so we realized we had to be more intentional about our organizing. We’re really just a bunch of folks who grew up together and organized a youth group who said, “we need to do something about this.” I think I was the youngest, I was 20 at the time.

We began organizing community defense watches to limit ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and protect people from their retaliatory behavior.

But there was no nonprofit in the state providing bond representation to people detained. And so people would call our hotline to report ICE activity, or worse, to say “so and so has been detained” or “so and so hasn’t come home in a couple of days, can you help us find them?”

And our only option was to refer them to pro bono representation with a backlog of 3-4 months. So we created the Carolina Migrant Network to really address the retaliatory nature of ICE operations, which you see in the Netflix documentary.

Currently, it is the only organization in the Carolinas providing pro-bono bond representation to people detained by ICE.


BB: Our immigration system and ICE enforcement is getting more attention under the Trump administration, in part because it’s become even more extreme. But a lot of what’s happening now also happened under previous administrations. What would you say to funders who have given a one-time grant or an emergency commitment to support the pro-immigrant, pro-refugee movement, but think with a different president the need for funding will go away?

SA: First, DHS (U.S. Department of Homeland Security) isn’t stopping, and their funding isn’t stopping. If anything, they’re growing.

An organization that just came about in 2003 and only required a small percentage of our federal budget is now overwhelmingly requesting more and more funds.

They have even taken dollars away from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), while we’re in the middle of (Hurricane) Isaias coming through the Carolinas.

It’s really difficult, especially for communities in the South. You know we are kind of ground zero. We are a new community that is experiencing a lot of retaliation and disenfranchisement in local government. And as a rogue agency with no accountability, ICE takes advantage of that.

The documentary shows the lengths to which ICE is willing to go to punish and undo the will of voters who decided they did not want Immigration and Nationality Act Section 287(g) in their communities. i

They’ve pushed anti-immigrant bills and new 287(g)-like programs with no expiration date in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Florida, as a testing ground for the rest of the country.

So our work isn’t over. We need more funding, for the legal support to reunite our community and the capacity to help them organizing.


BB: It takes a lot of courage to share your story with the world. What’s the biggest lesson that you hope folks take from the show?
SA: First, listen to directly impacted people and organizers, because they’re not exaggerating about what’s happening on the ground and sometimes it’s even worse.

Two weeks after Trump was inaugurated, we had series of raids in Charlotte and across the state and when we reported that to news outlets, they said, no, that cannot be true, because ICE has said that they have not been conducting any operations.

A week later, we got 8,000 people out on the streets in Charlotte to shut Uptown down, to let them know that yeah, there’s people here who have been impacted.

We’re often stuck on red or blue, but the bigger point is that policymakers can screw somebody’s life over if we don’t hold them accountable.

Throughout all of this, we were followed and surveilled to intimidate us and limit our First Amendment right to free speech.

It shows the level of resources this the federal government is willing to place on their destructive policies while communities are, you know, are trying to operate on sticks and chewing gum.

Second, I strongly believe that investing in communities is feeding a lineage of organizers. I wouldn’t have been able to do what I am doing now, if it wasn’t because 10 years ago a funder decided to fund the Latin American Coalition, who created this youth group who then taught me how to do what I’m doing now.

Right now is the time to invest in new Southern innovative organizing – funding towards directly impacted people. We need somebody to invest in us so 10 years from now, there’s going be other Stefania-likes. So that would be my pitch. If we want change, we need to invest in it.

Ben Barge is NCRP’s field director. Stephania Arteaga is co-director/strategist of Comunidad Colectiva and the Carolina Migrant Network 

Read Part 2 of this story, when Ben and Stephanie discuss what philanthropy can learn from the documentary and Comunidad Colectiva’s work.