Knowing Your Rights—Even During a Pandemic

The ACLU’s long-running campaign to inform immigrants and protesters pivots from paper to apps.

Nina is the star of ICE Is Not Welcome Here, one of the latest components of the American Civil Liberties Union’s long-running Know Your Rights campaign.
Nina, a "spunky and confident" cartoon figure, is the star of ICE Is Not Welcome Here, one of the latest components of the American Civil Liberties Union’s long-running Know Your Rights campaign.

If you’re an agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Nina doesn’t want you knocking on her door. She doesn’t want to chitchat with you on the porch, and she certainly doesn’t want you coming in and snooping around and asking about her family. A young Latina in red sneaks, Nina is wise to all your tricks. She’s seen ICE agents pretend to be police officers investigating a crime in the area or checking on a suspicious-looking car, and she’s heard “Could we maybe come in and talk to you about it?” too many times.

Nina is the star of ICE Is Not Welcome Here, one of the latest components of the American Civil Liberties Union’s long-running Know Your Rights campaign. A cartoon figure, Nina is both cute (imagine a bespectacled Dora the Explorer with pigtails) and fierce (she is standing up to la migra, after all) and can be found on posters and in community handbooks distributed by the civil rights organization’s Southern California affiliate. Her message to everybody, immigrant or otherwise: If there’s an ICE agent at your door, don’t open it. If they insist on coming in, ask them whether they have a search warrant and turn them away if they don’t. Audrey Chan, who became the ACLU of Southern California’s first-ever artist in residence last October, created the character of Nina this year. “They wanted the illustration to be really accessible and positive and community centered,” she says. “And they wanted Nina to be spunky and confident.”

For decades, Know Your Rights campaigns have been a major part of the work of immigrant-advocacy and legal rights groups across the country, from the ACLU and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund to, most recently, organizations affiliated with Black Lives Matter and the “no prisons” movement. The campaigns consist of pamphlets and posters, videos and handbooks. There are materials for Muslims and LGBTQ youth; people marching in protests or simply photographing other protesters; schoolkids dealing with campus police and grown-ups dealing with everybody else. “We have materials for airports, so you can know what TSA can and can’t do,” says Jenna Pittaway, the ACLU of Southern California’s multimedia producer and the creative director of the ICE Is Not Welcome Here project. “And there’s a whole set of ‘voting in jails’ materials that we’ll probably refresh this year.”

Know Your Rights—or KYR—information has traditionally moved hand to hand: a poster passed out at a rally here, a brochure picked up at an ACLU booth there. Over the past few years, however, the materials have increasingly shifted online—a transition that COVID-19 has only accelerated—shared by organizations on their websites and on social media. Mobile Justice, an app launched by the ACLU in 2015 after the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, allows users to record suspicious police activity on their cell phones, then send the footage directly to the ACLU. The group is currently updating the app with the latest KYR information from ACLU affiliates across the United States. If you find yourself in, say, Alabama, Mobile Justice gives you rights information specific to that state—think The Negro Motorist Green Book but for all of us. “It’s still in beta,” says Pittaway, “but that’s the next evolution of our Know Your Rights delivery.”

Know Your Rights cards date back at least five decades.
Know Your Rights cards date back at least five decades. Most recently, the ICE Is Not Welcome Here project has adapted to social distancing protocols with downloadable posters, door hangers, and children’s coloring images.


It all started with a wallet-size card.

Know Your Rights cards date back at least five decades. Most are the size and heft of standard business cards and contain the bare-bones, “in the moment” version of the KYR message. “Hand this card to the officer, and remain silent,” one reads. On one side, in brief, simple sentences, the cards tell you what to do when confronted by a police officer or immigration agent; on the other side, there’s a quick note to said officer explaining that you don’t want to speak with him or her or don’t consent to being searched. Some cards are almost comically cheery (“Good day, Officer,” one begins); all are unfailingly polite.

The earliest cards circulated by the ACLU of Southern California were intended for interactions with law enforcement officials, whether at civil protests or during random searches. Before long, organizations were creating cards for a range of circumstances, including run-ins with immigration officials. In 1977, the Willamette Valley Immigration Project distributed thousands of bilingual cards to labor camps throughout western Oregon following Immigration and Naturalization Service raids that led to 46 workers being deported. On the cards, a woman holds a child in her left arm, her right fist raised in the air; next to her, a man clutches a strand of barbed wire. The card reads, “Ya Basta Con La Migra” (enough with the INS).

Over the years, millions of such cards have been created in response to everything from INS raids in East Los Angeles (which inspired 1984’s Stand Mute campaign) to the 1991 Rodney King beating. They have been given to immigrants affected by post–Proposition 187 deportations and raids and to Asian American teens being racially profiled as gang members by Orange County cops. The San Francisco–based Immigrant Legal Resource Center has been handing them out since 2007, after the Bush administration pushed the INS to implement massive raids on meatpacking plants and personal residences. “What we’re trying to do is be really straightforward but nonconfrontational,” says executive director Eric Cohen. “We don’t want people confronting ICE. We don’t want fights and violence. What good is it to know your rights if you get shot?”

Before the 2016 election, the ILRC was distributing about 7,000 to 8,000 Know Your Rights cards a month. After Trump took office, those numbers shot up by 10 to 15 times; last year, says Cohen, the center gave out nearly 2,000,000. The cards have remained much the same over the years, although they now have rounded corners rather than pointed ones. “We were told locally by ICE and their detainees that ICE doesn’t want people having sharp-edged, laminated cards,” says Cohen. But they’re still bright red, a nod to the organization’s large soccer-loving constituency. “When the referee in a soccer match wants to kick someone out of the game, they pull out a red card,” says Cohen. “So the analogy is of someone kicking ICE out of their home or not allowing them to continue. We’re kicking ICE out of the game.”


When Chan, the SoCal ACLU artist in residence, first began work on the ICE Is Not Welcome Here project, the plan was to create printed materials to hand out at marches, parades, and rallies as well as radio ads for Spanish-language stations in Kern County and the Inland Empire. All of that, says Pittaway, went out with COVID-19. Now Nina can be found on downloadable posters, door hangers, and coloring sheets, which socially distancing people can print out at home. On the posters, Nina stands in a vaguely L.A.-ish streetscape amid a rainbow coalition of neighbors and family members, her right palm extended forward, signaling an unseen ICE agent to stop. “The poster serves as a warning to ICE agents that the people in this home know their rights,” says Chan. “But it’s also meant to be empowering to the families and to acknowledge the individuals who are being impacted by these systems.”

Know Your Rights campaigns have also moved beyond traditional civil rights advocacy groups to be adopted by an assortment of online artists and activists, who combine their own designs and illustrations with the messaging of organizations like the ACLU. On Instagram, one sees freelance KYR posters created by Portland, Oregon–based indie artists and protesters’ guides designed by podcasters in London. “The ACLU’s materials have always been shared,” says Pittaway. “But now artists are adopting the language and creating graphics around it to make their own stuff.”

Even so, Pittaway still carries the old-school cards, with their roots stretching five decades back, and she believes that their message is getting across. “I definitely notice people questioning actions more and not just accepting whatever police say. They’re bearing witness and documenting. A lot of times, if a police officer or an ICE officer wants to violate your rights, they’re going to do it. But if you can document it, and publicize it, that’s just as important as knowing your rights in the first place.”

Robert Ito most recently wrote about the nation’s oldest suicide prevention center for Alta.

Robert Ito is a journalist based in Los Angeles.
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