“The left remembers 1933.” Those words, and warnings like them, began to appear on protest signs and in political debates in the aftermath of the 2016 election. Even before the election, pundits and white liberal activists worried aloud that the United States was approaching a dangerous tipping point, that we were moving steadily toward a red line that signaled a historical atrocity that would be perpetrated right here in America, in our name.
The target, most likely, would be Trump’s earliest and most popular campaign scapegoat: immigrants. As immigrant communities themselves began to mobilize, others anticipated a looming moral test for those of us who are the children and grandchildren of immigrants. Would we give our neighbors sanctuary and hide them? Would we put our own comfort, safety and privilege at risk to save them? Would we lay down on the road before the deportation trucks rolled away? Even former President Barack Obama suggested that if Trump targeted the Dreamers, he would feel compelled to speak out like he would on no other issue.
The impulse to prepare for that ultimate transgression is noble, but misguided, because the red line won’t arrive in the form of single galvanizing moment. Rather, it will appear as a gradual shift in the status quo, one that acclimates people to the persecution happening around them.
When we imagine historical examples of great wrongs ― the Holocaust, the suppression of the Civil Rights movement ― hindsight and Hollywood furnish us with convenient but fictional turning-point scenes. A family is deported to a concentration camp. Protesters are attacked with fire hoses and set upon by dogs. It can be hard to conceptualize these travesties as anything but singular moments during which the urgent question is thrust before the bystanders, point blank: “Which side are you on?”
The reality is far more complicated. To quote a popular line from The Handmaid’s Tale, “Nothing changes instantaneously: In a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”
Today, degree by degree, deportation by deportation, the water is beginning to boil. The moment many of us were mentally preparing for is here, even if it’s not clearly marked that way. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Border Patrol, emboldened by Trump’s demagoguery, have turned up the heat, with unforgivably cruel results. While it may not be a direct top-down order, the shift in the wind thanks in part to Trump’s executive orders on immigration is clear. Under Obama, ICE agents felt “kind of hobbled or, you know, hands tied behind their back, that kind of thing,” then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told the House Committee on Homeland Security. “And now, they feel more positive about things.”
In preparing for the “red line” moment on immigration, some asked the question: “Would people hypothetically have to seek sanctuary in churches and synagogues?” That question has been answered. Last week in New Jersey, a man named Harry Pangemanan was forced to enter a church for sanctuary to escape deportation. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy showed up to support Pangemanan, in part thanks to his award-winning rebuilding efforts after Sandy. Others from Pangemanan’s Indonesian Christian community were not so lucky ― they were detained, particularly cruelly, after dropping their young children off at school.
The question of whether good citizens might have to risk arrest or worse to help their neighbors has been answered, too. Federal charges have been leveled against humanitarian activists, most recently in January, for providing water to migrants on the perilous desert border crossing in the Southwest. The charges represent a change in practice: An attorney who represents the activists from a group called No More Deaths recently told the Intercept that the government had previously tacitly allowed the life-saving activity, but “now all of the sudden it’s all changed.” His reasoning? We have a “racist federal government,” he said.
The boiling water effect means that the xenophobic policies initially aimed at a particular group ― Mexican immigrants ― have spread to harm others whose status here was previously quite secure. As one example out of many, the Salvadoran workers who make up a good deal of Washington, D.C’s service workforce are now under threat of having their longstanding Temporary Protected Status revoked. “If they’re good enough to work in federal buildings, and they’re good enough to serve senators and members of Congress, then they should be good enough to stay in this country,” Paco Fabian, of the labor group Good Jobs Nation, told HuffPost.
Week by week, more chilling stories are emerging about inhumane actions by ICE, including the arrests of prominent pro-immigration activists. ICE is tearing harmless citizens from their loving families after decades of peaceful social contribution, as in the case of Jorge Garcia, a Detroit dad of two who has been here since he was 10, and Lukasz Niec, a doctor and green card holder in Kalamazoo, Michigan, who came here at age five with his parents to escape communism. He is reportedly being held due to misdemeanor charges from his youth. ICE is stopping people at random on buses and forcing them to produce their papers. If the left really remembers 1933, it will remember that the horrors of the Holocaust didn’t begin with deportation to camps. They began much like this.
ICE raids have always been inhumane — even before Trump took office. But the data indicates that the agency has shifted from targeting ostensible criminals to, basically, anyone ― a “major shift,” according to observers. In fact, the number of criminals deported has gone down, while the number of non-criminals has risen. This wider focus is matched by expanded surveillance; ICE, in order to enforce its power, has bought a massive license plate registry, a move that raises major civil liberties concerns. As an ACLU lawyer asked, “Are we as a society, out of our desire to find [undocumented] people, willing to let our government create an infrastructure that will track all of us?” Given that ICE is already going after middle-aged doctors, local heroes and other community pillars, it’s not hard to see how easily this database could, and probably will be, abused.
We are in the middle of a crisis perpetrated and encouraged by a government whose leader refers to other countries as “shitholes.” What further proof are we waiting for? Random, terrifying arrests, forced separations and the threat of detention in centers where human rights may be violated have created a living hell for too many ― and an unacceptable reality for all of us. Even if Congress and Trump hash out a deal on an immigration framework to provide a “path to citizenship” for some, it’s crucial to remember that for Trump, any deal would hinge on a broader border security mandate, meaning ICE’s raids and separations will continue and likely worsen.
Not so long ago, a generation of immigrants in my own family boarded ships and left their families behind forever. They came here, virtually penniless, to escape religious persecution and the Pale of Settlement in Russia. Those of us who share that history must realize, now, that the moment to act is here. The water has been simmering for quite some time. For those of us with the privilege to do so, it’s time to lay our bodies on the line. We can look to the examples of activists risking arrest for a sit-in in the Capitol, attempting to block traffic as well-known immigration activist Ravi Ragbir was arrested, creating bail funds for detained immigrants and preparing to hide people from the authorities. We can also find immigrants organizing in their own communities and offer them our financial help.
Merely protesting isn’t enough. Saying we remember is not enough; the left must ensure that we do not misremember 1933. We should be ready and willing to participate in broad-based civil disobedience, to fight as if the soul of our country depends on us, because it truly does. We must not wait for an arbitrary moment ― a hypothetical firing, an intensified crackdown and roundup of Dreamers ― to mark our red line. At that point it, it will be too late.
Sarah Seltzer is a writer and editor living in New York City.