Standing Up For Immigrants and Refugees

We Must Stand Together to Protect Our Open Society
“No human being is illegal.” Protesters join the Women’s March on Jan. 21.
“No human being is illegal.” Protesters join the Women’s March on Jan. 21.

By Deepak Bhargava

Our most vulnerable people – immigrants and refugees - and our core democratic norms now face extraordinary and existential threats.

Early appointments and actions by the President suggest that this is not a drill. Donald Trump, in keeping with his campaign promise of mass deportation, exclusion of refugees and a Muslim ban has issued a series of dangerous executive orders that present the most devastating threat to America’s character as a nation of immigrants since the 1950’s.

In his short time in office, Trump and his administration officials ordered a ban on refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries, promised to punish sanctuary cities that offer immigrants refuge, and perhaps worst of all made nearly all 11 million undocumented immigrants a priority for deportation. Trump has also authorized hiring thousands more agents to create a massive deportation force with wide-ranging powers to arrest, detain and deport immigrants who have raised families and integrated into American society. Millions of families could be separated, leaving U.S. citizen children without parents, while millions more live in fear. The reports from school children and teachers in immigrant neighborhoods of trauma are heartbreaking.

We know how this pattern of blame, exclusion and victimization has played out throughout history. Xenophobic rhetoric breeds fear and divides communities. Angry, populist nationalism has been mobilized for political gain against the most vulnerable, but the threat extends to the fabric of open society itself. Should America, which despite all of its flaws has a uniquely generous history of welcoming immigrants and refugees, reverse course, this will have negative implications for the migration debate in Europe and around the world. The stakes are enormous.

What can be done? Unfortunately, the President has considerable executive authority to harass and deport millions of immigrants. However, large majorities of Americans, of both parties, oppose mass deportation. We can stop this assault when people of good will stand together across culture, issues, party and faith to defend the most vulnerable in our society.

Democracies survive such harrowing moments only when the resistance unites and builds a firewall around the most hated, scapegoated and powerless people in our midst.

Building a popular front is not a partisan enterprise. Some Republicans and conservatives of good will, such as Sen. John McCain, have denounced and opposed the most anti-democratic and nativist Trump proposals. But rhetoric alone will not stop a determined aspiring authoritarian ruler. Speaker Paul Ryan, who promised an undocumented family during a televised town hall that a deportation force is “not happening,” needs to stand courageously against the President now that he is actually building and unleashing such a force. This is a test of character.

In this moment, we are not called to engage in partisan campaigns. We are called to a meet a humanitarian and moral crisis in practical ways that can rebuild a pro-immigrant civic consensus. Americans across faith and partisan lines are supporting the sanctuary movement. Universities, civic institutions, church leaders and even local governments are moving to provide safe refuge for immigrants already being terrorized by deportation forces that threaten their families. A crucial leverage point will be the wave of resistance to mass deportation that is being led by mayors, attorneys general and law enforcement, whose failure to cooperate with federal immigration authorities could frustrate Trump’s plans. U.S. citizen children of undocumented immigrants are humanizing the debate for the public, while grassroots immigrants rights groups do the vital work of training millions of immigrants how to protect themselves in this new environment. This community level “know your rights” work is essential because lawyers won’t be of much use if immigrants sign away their rights before the lawyers arrive. Public opinion can pressure Congress, which has the power to deny the administration the funding required to carry out mass deportation.

For all Americans, May 1 is emerging as a potentially powerful day of hope and solidarity, and I expect millions of non-immigrants to join immigrants in taking to the streets to uphold our nation’s best traditions. Given the level of fear that is coursing through immigrant communities, non-immigrants have a historic responsibility to stand up and speak out. The outpouring of support we have seen from new voices and people from all sectors in support of immigrants – movingly at the airport protests against the Muslim ban – is the silver lining in a very dark time. Our country is far better than our administration, and a wave of popular mobilization, coupled with principled civic and elected leadership, can keep millions of families together and preserve the character of our country.

Deepak Bhargava is president of the Center for Community Change, a national social justice organization that builds the power and capacity of low-income communities, especially communities of color.