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A restaurant worker and father of four daughters in Southern California is arrested while dropping his youngest daughter off at school. A young woman in Mississippi is taken into custody after speaking at a news conference about her fears of being deported; she is released on unspecified terms only after attorneys, including lawyers for the Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Immigration Law Center, intervene. A popular restaurant owner is apprehended near his home in a small town in Illinois and released on bond only after an outpouring of local support, including letters from local law enforcement officials. A woman with whom I serve on a committee for a civic organization breaks down in tears at a recent meeting, revealing her “undocumented” status and her fears of being deported after raising her family in the U.S.
This is the face of the new Trump policies dealing with the 11 million undocumented people in the United States, policies that vastly expand the threat of deportation to anyone living in the U.S. without documentation. No longer do certain priorities, such as felonies or “significant misdemeanors” take precedence; now anyone who entered the country without documents, including a person who lived here for many years, is vulnerable to deportation. Millions of people who have been living and working in the U.S., contributing to their communities and to the economy, are now at risk simply for who they are: people “without papers.”
The policy doesn’t simply threaten specific individuals, families, or communities. It imperils all of us, not simply because it emerged from the racialized rhetoric and scapegoating promulgated by candidate and President Trump – and not simply because it enacts these evils in official government policy. It imperils us because it places into question our very identities as Americans. Is citizenship only a matter of status and category, i.e. the possession or non-possession of a birth certificate, green card, or certificate of naturalization? Or does it mean something deeper: a responsibility to one’s fellow human beings?
In describing the values energizing his quest for social justice, Martin Luther King Jr often referred to what he called the “beloved community,” a vision of society that recognized the interrelatedness of all life and the moral obligations that follow from those interrelations. As he said, “To the degree that I harm my brother, no matter what he is doing to me, to that extent I am harming myself.” King understood that people could also harm themselves by failing to act, by engaging in forms of complicity that corrode the conscience and diminish one’s own sense of humanity.
For these and other reasons, many people have stepped up to their responsibilities to the fellow members of their communities – neighbors, employees, students, co-workers, employers – rejecting an invidious documented/undocumented binary to give new meaning to American citizenship. They are growing the sanctuary movement in their churches, communities, municipalities, and states. They are attending and supporting “know your rights” workshops, signing up for “rapid response” networks to be present when people are detained, and working at the local and state levels to support policies that resist federal intimidation. The “know your rights” workshops are particularly important because they affirm that all people in the U.S., no matter whether they are citizens or not, have rights, including the right to remain silent.
These actions point to another motive beyond personal conscience for resisting Trump’s deportation policies. You may recall the opening lines of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s chilling poem: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist.” Niemöller, a Lutheran minister who initially supported and then resisted Hitler, and who was held captive in Nazi concentration camps for seven years, closed his poem with these words, “Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”
In choosing the general pronoun “they” over a specific historical reference to Nazis, Muller offered a stark warning transcending time and place: crushing the rights of individuals in any society ultimately means crushing the rights of all. When silent complicity prevails, the gates to authoritarianism are opened wide. Yet the choice to speak on behalf of the other can still be exercised if citizens act in time. In such choosing we can see not only the movement of the individual conscience. We can also see how democracy itself – the culture and institutions sustaining human rights – can be kept alive as well.