The U.S. is experiencing an immigration crisis fueled by the criminalization of poor people of color. With the understanding that much of what we are witnessing today has roots in the failed war on drugs, Bob Libal, executive director of Austin, Texas-based Grassroots Leadership, works to combat unjust immigration policies and the inhumane system of mass incarceration. 

We recently spoke with Libal about his work on the front lines for an ongoing "Voices of Resistance" series, which aims to draw insight and inspiration from the South's deep history of struggle for social change and to learn from a new generation of Southern leaders working in today's volatile political climate. His responses have been lightly edited for clarity. If you have ideas for other Southern changemakers to feature in the series, please contact Rebekah Barber at rebekah@southernstudies.org

Tell me about your background and how you became involved in advocacy work.

I really became involved when I was a student at the University of Texas. I have a somewhat political family, and my grandfather was a big influence on me. When I was at UT from 1999 to 2003, it was similar to today — pretty fraught political times — and I got very involved in an active student movement, initially working on corporate accountability campaigns, including campaigns related to the university’s contracts with companies that were deeply invested in the for-profit prison industry.

I helped lead a student effort that pushed the university to dump Sodexho Marriott, which at the time was a campus caterer for University of Texas athletics and also a major investor in Corrections Corporations of America (CCA, now CoreCivic). That campaign was a national student effort that culminated with a sit-in in the tower and administrative offices of UT. A few days later, Sodexho dumped their shares of CCA.

I think it was there that I first learned about the power of small groups of organized people, and also the limitations. I was a student when both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started and was part of the major student mobilizations to prevent the Iraq War from starting, which was obviously a failure.

I learned a lot during my time as a student and went to work for Grassroots Leadership in 2003 as a student organizer. I have stayed with the organization ever since. I continue to be inspired by the idea that people have the power to change the world around them through organizing.

What have you seen working on the ground with Grassroots Leadership?

My colleague and I took over the student organizing in 2003. We opened the office here in Austin — the organization had been based in Charlotte, North Carolina. This was in the midst of the post-9/11 anti-immigrant frenzy, which is eerily similar to today. There were so many new and terrible things that the government was devising along with private actors to do to immigrants that it was hard to keep up. We saw this massive expansion of the federal immigrant detention and incarceration apparatus. New prisons were being built seemingly everywhere. It really was an eye-opening experience.

I remember going out to the Hutto Detention Center in 2007 and visiting a man and his family who were detained there. It was a family detention center at the time, and I heard stories about how absolutely awful it was. I think those kind of things have certainly motivated me for the last decade.

Our response needs to be one that ... doesn't push for more humane prisons for families but that pushes back against the entire idea that criminalizing and locking someone up is appropriate.

In 2012, we made a decision to move the organization's headquarters to Austin because we thought that if we were going to be doing organizing and advocacy work to end prison profiteering and mass incarceration and deportation and criminalization of communities, there was no more important place in the country to be doing this work in than in Texas. We still do work around the country, but we are really focused on building a base in Texas because Texas is a state that is often a laboratory for deeply troubling policies that relate to incarceration, inequality, and injustice.

How did we get to this moment in history?

How did we get to ripping kids out of their moms' arms so that we can send their moms to jail for a few days before sending them to a detention center? I think the answer to that question is one that is really bound up in how we deal with social issues in our country and how deeply we come to rely on the criminalization and incarceration of people, particularly people of color. It's about how we deal with all of our social issues — from addiction to mental illness to homelessness to poverty to immigration status. Our default is to either put somebody in a cage or send them to a court and criminally convict them. So I think the problems we see today are an extension of the last 50 years in American history. I also think that we are repeating a lot of what happened during the drug war.

As a society, we generally believe the drug war was a failure. It failed to do much to curb illicit drug use, but we have done a lot of damage to communities by locking people up and not treating people who need treatment for drug use. The same thing with the immigration system — we are not treating the underlying issues that are forcing people to leave their country of origin.

What do we need to do to fight back during this moment of moral crisis?

Our response needs to be one that learns the lessons of the last 50 years and doesn't push for more humane prisons for families but that pushes back against the entire idea that criminalizing and locking someone up is appropriate.

We need to push to end [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions' practice of separating kids from their moms' arms, but also to end the criminal prosecution of immigrants across the board. The criminal prosecution of immigrants is now happening across the entire federal criminal justice system, and this year it will likely worsen. So we need to be making bolder demands in this moment. I think we have the moral clarity that we need. We need the courage to demand an end to the injustice that is happening to immigrants and people of color every day.

Concretely, we must demand an end to immigrant detentions. We must demand an end to mass incarceration — an end to the criminal prosecution of migrants in addition to the immediate goal of ending the separation of families at the border and ending egregious things like family detention. It is a time where every progressive organization and every elected official and people who want to be elected officials need to stand up for what the time calls for, which is bold leadership and transformative change rather than change that is small in scope.

How have you seen communities rally in recent weeks?

It has been really heartening to see people, for the last two years really, stand up and fight back. We've seen an outpouring of support of people who are saying, "We will give our time, we will give our money, we will put our bodies on the front lines." We trained hundreds of people to do civil disobedience in Austin in the last couple of years. I think there's a real sense of urgency and moral crisis, and it's not hard to get people to stand up and fight back.

And it's not just about pushing on the federal level, but also about recognizing that a lot of the injustices that are happening also have local implications. Local decision makers are often where we can have the greatest impact.

Just here in Austin last week, an organizing campaign we worked with — Workers Defense Project — won a victory with the Austin city council passing a Freedom City policy that makes police officers inform immigrants of their constitutional rights and puts in motion a process to eliminate discretionary arrests, which often are the front line of the arrest-to-deportation pipeline.

I think that these kind of efforts are really important because change doesn't solely come from the top to the bottom but often flows from the bottom to the top. So starting with those changes locally has been really important.