The Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network (WAISN) was formed in November of 2016 after the election of Donald Trump, but their work responds to injustice that runs far deeper than the presidency. WAISN protects immigrants and refugees by collecting and analyzing data on ICE’s violent activities, interrupting arrests and deportations, providing free know-your-rights trainings, accompaniment programs, connecting families with legal support, and more. By building relationships with and training impacted community members and allies, WAISN’s network has grown to be active in 22 of Washington’s 39 counties.
In just four years WAISN has become the largest immigrant-led coalition in Washington state. They do so much more than fending off ICE — their organizing model sets a standard for grassroots basebuilding, incorporating tactics that reach thousands of people, share skills and knowledge, and build leadership from the ground up, all led by people most impacted by immigration injustice. WAISN is a recipient of the Fund 4 the Frontlines Basebuilding grant, SJF’s 5-year, $250,000 grant to help level-up grassroots basebuilding in our region.
Originally recorded in May of 2020, we talked with Brenda Rodriguez Lopez, one of WAISN’s warm, brilliant, and driven Co-Directors.
What’s your role at WAISN, and why do you do the work?
I am the Co-Director for the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network, and I’m based in Kennewick, WA. I come to this work as someone who is directly impacted: as someone who was undocumented and whose family continues to be undocumented, and living in rural communities and working in agriculture. I’m in this work out of survival, to protect and defend me and my family and my community. As someone who’s lived in Eastern Washington, in a rural community that has felt forgotten for many years, it was important for me to come back and build community power. Living in a rural, conservative area, the people who have power do not represent our best interests. So there’s a feeling of frustration, powerlessness and that our voices don’t matter.
Through my work with WAISN, we’ve expanded the network to be truly statewide by building in over twenty-two counties. What really sets us apart from other organizations is that we’re building in rural communities where this work hasn’t been done in the past — places like Grant County, Adams County, and Basin City, the little town where I grew up, where there’s a high population of immigrant and undocumented workers. They don’t often have the basic knowledge of what their rights are, and when ICE comes and knocks on their door and somebody is detained, no one knows what happens to that person or their family doesn’t have the resources to fight back.
I’ve focused on building rapid response teams across Eastern and Central Washington. Those teams are ready to mobilize: if there’s a raid or ICE enforcement sightings, they go document and interact with the ICE agents, with the goal of holding them accountable by recording their conversations. [ICE] has been, for more than a decade, coming to these communities and tearing families apart with no accountability. That we have people in those communities means we can prevent or deter ICE agents from actually arresting or conducting a raid.
I’ve also been building the capacity of our rapid response teams to do deportation defense. A lot of the calls that we get to [WAISN’s] hotline happen after ICE has been through a community. At that point, our work shifts getting people released before they get to Tacoma [to the Northwest Detention Center]. I’m gathering data through the hotline on the tactics and strategies of ICE agents in order to create deportation defense curriculums, based on national footprints that have been successful in getting people released within the 72 hour window before they get to Tacoma.
This is successful because of how communities mobilize — it’s not just advocates, it’s families going to the jails and demanding that people be released, it’s employers calling ICE agents and asking about release. Through that work and data, I’ve been able to develop things like our accompaniment program. Because of the high level of arrests that were happening at courthouses, we partnered with Central Washington Justice for Our Neighbors and the Walla Walla Immigrant Rights Coalition to create a program that trains volunteers to walk side-by-side with immigrant communities when they have to go to the courthouse. This has reduced the number of courthouse arrests in Eastern and Central Washington.
“Basebuilding is long-term relationships with those communities, investing in their capacity, providing resources through re-granting, connecting those teams with funders, and having face-to-face time with those communities.”
What does basebuilding mean in the context of WAISN’s work? And what does that look like in action?
WAISN’s basebuilding has truly grown to be statewide. That’s our mission: to reach communities across geography so we have teams in every county in the state of Washington. It means investing staff capacity, resources, re-granting [money], and being able to support the smaller teams that are being built. We want to grow and we want our teams and our members to grow with us.
Part of our success is how intentional WAISN is organizing within impacted communities to avoid what has been done multiple times in the past — bigger organizations parachuting into communities and then leaving, resulting in those communities losing trust. In order to have a strong base, we can’t just come in and tell people what to do. We engage in a series of listening sessions with community advocates and analyze the data that comes through the WAISN hotline. When we go into communities, we hear what they’ve experienced and share with them how we can add capacity to their work. Then we support those teams throughout their development so they grow to be what they want.
Basebuilding is long-term relationships with those communities, investing in their capacity, providing resources through re-granting, connecting those teams with funders, and having face-to-face time with those communities. At the center of all of that for WAISN is a community agenda: we help communities create their own agenda, and then amplify it through our statewide work. That’s been successful and allowed us to build up genuine relationships with people all throughout the state.
When SJF was developing the Fund 4 the Frontlines campaign and grant, one of the things we talked to grantees about was building pathways to leadership from within community instead of bringing in people from the outside who have a lot of resources, come in, don’t share those resources, and then leave. Are there any people who come to mind when you think of rising leaders who’ve grown within community?
There’s a team of fierce leaders in Grant County called Latinos Por El Sueno, Latinos United For Our Dream. They are people who called the WAISN hotline when a loved one was detained, or they themselves were detained, who WAISN supported through deportation defense, fundraised to bond them out of detention, who are now back in their community. There are two people in particular that stand out to me: Saúl and his wife Wendy. They were both detained at different times – when Saúl was getting released, she was getting detained, and they have four children. When they called the WAISN hotline, they were connected to the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, received free legal representation, and now that they’re back in community after both being in detention.
Later on, Saúl came to a legal clinic we hosted in Quincy, introduced himself, and he said he wanted to volunteer with WAISN. A few months later, we organized a community meeting in Ephrata because of the number of courthouse arrests happening in the area. All of these impacted families showed up, and Saúl and Wendy were one of them. They’ve been active in the advocacy committee, they attended the WAISN advocacy day, spoke to their legislators, and shared their story during the rally. They’ve connected with other groups across the state to the point where they’re receiving mentorships from up in Skagit. They’ve organized a day of action at the courthouse in Ephrata… it’s just beautiful to see them walk through that door with their kids.
They called me a few weeks ago [after the pandemic began], and said they were out of work, but they were going to be okay. They wanted to ask how they could help other people at this moment. They always want to support the community even if they’re in the same tight situation as everyone else. It’s been beautiful to see their growth and their energy and how they bring their entire family into this work. The multi-generational involvement always makes me excited and reminds me of my own family.
“The more rural that you get, that’s the type of organizing that you see. “Community” is my neighbor, my family, people who are right next to each other.”
That makes me think about how when people most impacted by these issues are the ones leading the work, the sense of who is community completely transforms because it’s so much more personal. It’s a much more family and community centered thing — this is a movement, it’s not just someone’s nonprofit job.
Where we are organizing makes a direct impact on our approach. The more rural that you get, that’s the type of organizing that you see. “Community” is my neighbor, my family, people who are right next to each other. Those who are directly impacted have the solution and have a plan on how to make things better. I’ve seen organizations that come from bigger cities thinking that helping and empowering people is to do the work for them, when in fact we can do the work ourselves. We are powerful.
That’s something I’ve learned to be intentional about: I can’t just assume that because somebody is undocumented, has been or is detained, or has family who is detained, that they can’t fight for themselves or they don’t know how to do that. Some people feel more comfortable being outspoken than others, but there are still ways you can engage people and build their leadership that don’t require them to be giving an interview or leading a rally. It’s really through relationship building that you get to figure that out, help people open up and feel comfortable, and find [the type of leadership that’s best for them.]
What do you plan or hope to use this grant for? What are you excited to do with this grant, what does it mean for your work?
This grant means we’ll be able to have a fellowship program to build the leadership of community members impacted by this work in key areas where that support is needed. There’s only one Brenda and one Monserrat and one Karen, and we can only be in so many places. It’s not our intention to do the work and be in every space. We’ve identified key areas where it’s important for there to be someone leading local work: they live in the area, they know the area, they have local connections. That’s what the fellowship program is going to be — leaders from that community doing those listening sessions, rapid response, helping build the capacity of community members to be ready to document when ICE arrives.
A huge part of our work is advocacy, but we understand that legislation — working within the system that continues to oppress communities — is not the end goal, it’s a tool that gets us where we need to be. A law that does that is Keep Washington Working, which ends the collusion between state agencies, including police departments, and ICE. But in Eastern and Central Washington, and parts of the west side that are more rural, sheriffs continue to not enforce it, and therefore people continue to enter the deportation pipeline through their collusion. Our fellows will help enforce that statewide law in their counties and cities by building awareness that the law exists, and holding accountability campaigns when someone ends up in detention because of that collusion. They’ll build the power of impacted people to know their rights and to know there’s a statewide network that has their back.
Aside from the fellows on the ground, we’re going to have a fellow to work on the language justice access program. While we are statewide and our network is multi-ethnic and multi-faith and multi-generational, our language access is something we know we can do so much better. The main community that we serve is Latinx and a lot of our materials are available in Spanish, but we know we are failing our other communities — immigrants and refugees — so we want to be intentional in having a fellow help us get there so we can offer hotline support, materials, and trainings in multiple languages and be able to serve our immigrant and refugee communities.
That’s so powerful. It’s already incredible how expansive your network is, but imagining it multiplied by other languages is like… you’re like the Avengers of immigrant justice.
[Laughs]. You know, it was always something we had in the work plan, but then three hundred fires happen and it always gets pushed to the backburner. COVID had really highlighted this for us — our members ask us, “What languages is this information in?” When we say it’s just in Spanish, I can see the look on their face, and I know we can do better and be better. Now we have the resources to be better. So I’m really excited to be able to have multiple languages, even just in our hotline. It makes such a difference.
Last question: Where do you see power and strength in WAISN’s work?
I see power and strength in the communities that we work with, in people like Saúl and Wendy who, despite all the challenges and their personal experiences, have turned their struggle into power to fight back and help others. I see strength in our statewide network, because it translates into people power. We organized a caravan to support the workers in Yakima from Seattle, but we know there were people from all over the state because of those connections.
No matter what happens in a little, rural town, through our WAISN network we’re able to share it statewide, reaching not only our member organizations, but legislators, the governor’s office, the [Attorney General’s] office. We have a way to amplify people and their experiences and the challenges and the barriers that they’ve been facing for decades. The example I always think about is a raid that happened in Basin City, my hometown. If that hadn’t been known about in Seattle and other parts of the state, those people [targeted by ICE] would have probably been deported. In the past when something like that happened, someone gets detained or deported and there was no support for the family. But because we have a network of community that cares, that has the tools, that has the knowledge, we’re able to fight back.
Is there anything else you want to share about WAISN?
WAISN’s work doesn’t only happen because of staff. It happens because of members and volunteers. Despite the horrible and heartbreaking things that go on, it doesn’t matter what crisis it is, we always have people who are rising to the occasion — volunteering to answer the hotline calls, to create a resource finder. That’s something that definitely motivates our network to keep going. We’ve built that community. I feel like I’m not alone, that no matter what happens there will be people who rise up to the occasion, allies and impacted community who will always be there to support this work. It’s definitely not work that I can take credit for by myself. We’re all doing our part, it’s how we’ve been successful, and how we will continue to fight back for our communities.