On a recent cool evening, the popular Mexican norteno band Los Cadetes de Linares showed up in black cowboy hats and matching avocado-green suits to play a few songs in downtown Los Angeles.
There was no stage. Instead, the musicians stood in front of the Metropolitan Detention Center, a prison used to temporarily house inmates awaiting trial at the nearby federal courthouse. As the band powered through a set of upbeat ballads, some inmates waved down appreciatively from their narrow cell windows.
The show last week was the fourth installment of a weekly concert series organized by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, a group that advocates for immigrant workers and opposes the deportation of immigrants who are in the country illegally.
The group’s leaders have vowed to continue the concerts until President Obama takes executive action to grant work permits and other forms of relief to millions of immigrants.
“We’re going to be here until he does the right thing,” one organizer told a small crowd that had gathered for the music.
The group is staging the concerts outside the prison because its inmates include immigrants facing criminal charges for illegally entering the country after previously being deported, as well as immigrants serving time for other crimes who will probably be turned over to immigration agents after they finish their sentences.
The prison is part of a complex of government buildings that includes Immigrations and Customs Enforcement offices, where immigrants facing deportation are interviewed and fingerprinted. Last week, as Los Cadetes strummed corridos about daily life in northern Mexico, about a dozen handcuffed men were seen being escorted from one section of the complex to another by ICE agents.
Carlos Bautista, a 52-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who was listening to the music, said he had come to show support for the detainees.
“I am showing them that they are not alone,” said Bautista, a construction worker who came to the U.S. illegally 20 years ago. “We are asking for justice for them.”
The concert series comes at a charged time in the debate over what to do with the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country without permission. This summer, after House Republicans failed to pass a bill that would have laid out a path to citizenship for many immigrants, President Obama promised to use his executive powers to stop deportations of some of them.
Last week, after his Democratic Party was routed in the midterm elections, leaving Republicans with control of both houses of Congress, Obama renewed the pledge, vowing to enact some kind of relief before the end of the year.
He has not laid out the specifics of his plan, including who exactly would win relief, but the announcement has drawn criticism from Republican leaders, who say Obama should not act on his own.
Some pro-immigrant activists have called on Obama to extend work permits and a stay of deportation to the roughly 7 million immigrants who would have been eligible for legalization under a bill passed this year in the Democratically controlled Senate. Others, including the organizers of the concert series, say the president should go even further.
They want Obama to halt all deportations of immigrants convicted of crimes, saying they should be treated like anybody else and released after serving their time in jail. They also want Obama to eliminate programs that encourage collaboration between federal immigration agents and local law enforcement. Supporters of such programs say immigrants in the country who have broken laws do not deserve to stay in the United States.
Speaking at the protest, Pablo Alvarado, the director of the day laborer network, said the administration’s emphasis on deporting those convicted of crimes has divided the community “between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ immigrant, the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving.’”
“We won’t accept those dilemmas that [Obama] has imposed on us,” he said.
Along with his organizing duties, Alvarado is the bassist in Los Jornaleros del Norte, a band formed by day laborers in 1996 after immigration agents raided a Kmart parking lot where they had gathered to seek work. He said the idea for the concert series was born in May during an immigration march past the prison. Los Jornaleros decided to stop and play for the inmates after they heard pounding on the windows.
Along with fasts, marches and other actions, art and culture play an important role in protest movements, he said.
“It brings a dignity and a sense of cultural identity to people,” Alvarado said. “People would rather listen to a song than a speech.”
The series, which began in October, has featured performances by Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux and L.A. reggae rockers Pachamama Estela. It continues MondayJornaleros del Norte.
Alvarado’s band has performed at each concert. Last week, it played a song called “La Voz” (The Voice).
“The voice is also a weapon,” they sang in Spanish over a cumbia beat. “If you don’t say what you think/ If you don’t say what you feel/ Nobody will listen.”
The series will continue Monday with Jornaleros del Norte.