‘Radical’ activism: A Q&A with Chicago immigration organizer Rey Wences

By Anabel Mendoza
Medill Reports

Rey Wences is the co-founder of the Immigrant Youth Justice League, which later became Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD), a local nonprofit focused on advocating against the deportation, detention and criminalization of immigrants. Wences, who started organizing for immigrant rights at 18 years old, discussed what makes OCAD different from other immigrant rights nonprofits in Chicago and why the city needs the organization’s ‘radical’ activism.

What drew you to immigration activism?

I became an organizer right out of high school in 2009. I’m formerly undocumented, and at the time, I hadn’t seen any undocumented-led youth organizations active in Chicago. One of my classmates at the University of Illinois, Chicago was in a deportation proceeding at the time, and that was the first time I helped stop the deportation of someone through a public campaign. Within a couple of months, we were able to gather support from many young people throughout the city, and we stopped the deportation of my classmate.

What impact did this experience have on your desire to found the Immigrant Youth Justice League and later OCAD?

After the campaign, there was a lot of energy, enthusiasm and hope for undocumented young people to do more organizing and mobilizing work. That’s why I helped found the Immigrant Youth Justice League in late 2009, and then, OCAD took its place in 2013 when our focus shifted.

How was OCAD different from the Immigrant Youth Justice League?

OCAD’s purpose was to address the gaps that we noticed as Immigrant Youth organizers. We noticed that there weren’t many organizations taking on cases of people with criminal records, DUIs (Driving under the influence) and other types of charges. That’s why we decided to focus more on immigration enforcement and the criminalization of immigrants that we were seeing in Chicago.

What was happening in Chicago that caused you to focus on protection from immigration enforcement?

In 2011, the federal government was trying to implement a program called Secure Communities, which included a task force that went to different cities, including Chicago, to detain immigrants. When this was happening, we didn’t feel like we could just sit there. They were not going to be making our communities secure and safe. They were coming in to arrest our communities with more enforcement.

How did federal programs like Secure Communities shape OCAD’s mission and purpose?

We started to see the effects of these policies and programs in our communities. In 2012, we saw an increase in deportation cases in the area. It was around that time that we started a campaign to stop the deportation of Anibal Fuentes, an undocumented immigrant from Albany Park.

At the same time, we noticed the inaction of local officials who just talked about immigration reform. Chicago’s Welcoming City Ordinance, a group of policies intended to protect immigrant communities throughout Chicago from federal immigration authorities, was introduced in 2013 but there were still exceptions as to who could be protected under the ordinance. We felt like they were making a lot of empty promises in terms of meaningful immigration reform policy, so OCAD took on an abolitionist approach.

What does it mean for OCAD to take “an abolitionist approach”?

OCAD believes that at the end of the day we are the community. We are the ones who know how ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is acting, and we’ve been able to identify how they’ve been excessively violent towards immigrants. When we saw this type of action, we had to equip everyone with the information to know their rights.

But we’ve also seen how knowing your rights doesn’t cut it. We may be able to stop ICE from coming into your house but eventually, people have to leave their homes, so we worked to adopt an abolitionist framework because we also have to act. OCAD is grounded in a history of radical organizing in Chicago that has been inspired by black organizers who were leaders of this type of abolitionist work.

What are your hopes for the future of OCAD?

I’m excited about the growth of the organization. We went from being completely volunteer-led to now creating and funding the work that we’re doing. I’m also excited about the type of interventions that can happen as we continue organizing in Chicago. This city is filled with people who are ready to organize.

Photo at top: Rey Wences (far left, kneeling) gathers with other leaders and community members of Organized Communities Against Deportations (Rey Wences/OCAD)