Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: PLU student takes her activism to I-5 overpass in Tacoma

Carly Brook’s thoughts on immigration began to change in the Spanish classes she took at Pacific Lutheran University.

“I learned a new language, and that opened a new window to hearing stories,” she said. “I volunteered as a visitor at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, talked to people held there.

“Some detainees were feeling lost, lonely. You’d get to know them a little and they’d be deported …”

A few weeks ago, it struck her that the current U.S. border crisis — fueled by the mass immigration of unaccompanied children from Central America — was an opportunity for activism.

“Some of the rhetoric I hear on television scares me,” said Brook, a 21-year-old sociology major who’s heading into her senior year on the Parkland campus. “It’s not about right or left, it’s about being on the side of what’s right, of defending people in great need.

“What we do speaks to the morality of our country.”

Brook and a handful of friends put together a 75-foot banner made of deer fencing, and put a message on it: “We are all Immigrants — Who Would You Deport?”

For six hours Friday afternoon, she and friends held that banner on the McKinley Avenue overpass near the Tacoma Dome, facing northbound traffic on busy Interstate 5.

One of those holding the sign was 21-year-old PLU grad Saiyare Refaei, who majored in environmental studies.

“Activism can be negative. We’re being positive,” Refaei said. “We only want people to think about the choices. Any response we get is good. We’re getting a lot of beeps.

“Some of them just beep to get your attention before flipping you off.”

Ah, that.

Brook kept count of motorists who hit their horns as they moved toward the overpass. In one early 90-minute block, there were 170 honks — nearly two a minute. About 15 of them, she believed, were followed by single-digit salutes.

The choice of location was Brook’s idea, and followed some thought.

“It was the closest to the Northwest Detention Center, which many people in Tacoma don’t know exists,” she said. “If they drive on the I-5, they can see it.”

The federal immigration detention center, which opened in 2004, is on the Tacoma Tideflats, operated by a company under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, was among those who raised concerns about oversight this year after a wave of hunger strikes at the center.

“The detention center is a private business, operated by the GEO Group,” Brook said. “They actually profit from the incarceration of detainees.”

For Refaei, immigration is a personal issue.

“My parents immigrated to the United States as teenagers,” she said. “My mother was Chinese, my father Iranian. They met here, married and moved to Oregon, where I was born.”

Jenny Taylor, another PLU graduate, helped set up and control the banner early on.

“I studied in Mexico for a year and stayed with people there, saw the desperation in their families because of their economic situation,” Taylor said. “It gave me a different perspective on the subject.”

Each of the participants had been involved with organizations that spurred their activism, they said, but on Friday each was acting upon her own conscience. And Brook had an agenda.

“We value the freedoms we have and the democratic structures of our country. It is those freedoms that grant us the freedom of speech to stand on this overpass to proclaim our message,” she said.

What would she and her friends like to see happen? Brook had a list handy.

•  Halt all deportations.

•  Assure due process of law to all of those currently in deportation proceedings.

•  Provide relief for all 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. and provide a meaningful path against deportation.

“I met a man jailed for driving without a license,” Brook said. “He’d been in this country 30 years, had an entire family living here. They were hard workers trying to get by, and he was deported. His children had been born here. They were legal. He was not.

“You see these stories, the pain and injustice, it drives your interest.

“People driving have to look at something, they have to think about something,” Brook said. “We hope today they see the sign and think about the issue.”