The unthinkable is happening. What now?
It is happening.
The United States is poised to round up and deport as many as 11 million hard-working, tax-paying, property-owning, and child-rearing immigrants who happen to be undocumented.
Before the election, I was told I was fear-mongering. Candidate Donald Trump would never do such a thing. He was just campaigning, not governing. The Republicans would never allow it. They would lose their foothold on Hispanic voters. Agribusiness would object. Who’d to pick the crops? Rural towns would resist. Deportation would decimate their tax bases.
The question is what to do.
The Trump administration told immigration authorities Tuesday that anyone residing without documentation was subject to deportation. In the past, deporting felons was a priority. Now, the net is cast about as widely as one can imagine, though so far children commonly known as “dreamers” are not included.
Those subject to deportation include anyone who has lived in the U.S. for years without papers but who has paid taxes, owned property, and otherwise invested in their communities. This includes kids who arrived in search of their parents. This includes parents struggling to make a better life for their kids.
So far, Republicans have not said a word, even so-called moderates who in years past pressed for immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship. As long as Trump gives Republicans what they want in rewriting the rules of the federal bureaucracy and in appointing conservative judges to the federal bench, the Republicans are eager to turn Lincoln’s Party of Freedom for All into Trump’s Party of Populism for White People.
The Democrats are still figuring out a mechanism by which to oppose Trump’s executive order (signed on January 25). Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro traveled to the U.S. -Mexican border Monday to speak to activists. She said she and other Congressional Democrats are pressing lawmakers to provide legal aid for immigrants facing the threat of deportation.
“The most vulnerable will have access to high quality representation in our justice system,” she told an audience. “A policy that separates families is an inhumane policy.”
Other Democrats are more circumspect.
New Haven and Hartford have long been sanctuary cities. Authorities there do not ask for the status of those detained by police. But Mayor Joe Ganim has done everything he can to avoid bringing Bridgeport into the spotlight. Ganim has even said, bizarrely, that he doesn’t like the term of “sanctuary cities” because “it’s been divisive.”
He’s right for the wrong reasons. The anti-immigrant wing of the Republican Party coined the term with the intention of inflaming division. Now a Republican president threatens to undermine a Democratic mayor’s growing base of support. In declaring Bridgeport a sanctuary city, Ganim would not be contributing to nation’s rancor. He would be rightly protecting his interests. He has said Trump is a friend. He is not. He’s a Republican.
In addition to providing legal aid and fighting the order in the courts, the Democrats should mount a moral crusade. Now that the administration has cast a wide net, making eligible for deportation those who have lived here peaceably for years, the Democrats should demand that the administration answer the following question: Does the punishment fit the crime?
“Illegal entry,” as the crime is called, is a misdemeanor. This almost certainly applies to those who entered once and never looked back. Our justice system requires parity between the crime and the punishment. Is it right to be separated from your family, property and community, because of a misdemeanor?
Beyond a moral crusade, there’s only so much the Democrats can do until they are back in power. But there is something ordinary people can do if they care about someone subject to deportation. They can take a tip from Black Lives Matter.
The BLM movement raised awareness of police violence to levels unseen before. In doing so, it shifted public opinion. That was made possible by smart phones and social media, and the ability of ordinary people to document and disseminate evidence of black men being killed or injured by police officers.
The same must happen now in face of the country’s anti-immigrant fever. Public opinion is thus far behind the president, but public opinion will change when videos go viral of children being ripped from mothers, men being separated from wives, and stories emerge of farmers losing their crops and rural towns rapidly decaying into shells of their former selves.
Trump and the GOP’s anti-immigrant wing benefit from the fact that, to most Americans, immigrants are an abstraction. They are not real. The same could have been said of Michael Brown, the black teen shot by a white cop in Ferguson, Missouri. But viral video and Black Lives Matter made Brown real, and in being made real, Brown became a palpable symbol of injustice.
The Trump administration would like to proceed quietly with this executive order to minimize backlash. That can’t be sustained, however, if the order is exposed for being the injustice it is.
John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and a New Haven resident.
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