In "Heard it Before," immigration justice gets personal
Bend the Arc went on TV this week with an issue ad and petition decrying the ugly racism and nativism that characterizes so much opposition to immigration reform in America. Called “Heard it Before,” the 30-second spot will run on cable and network news stations. It’s one tool of many we are using to demand justice for immigrants and their families.
“Heard it Before” came out just after I returned from Austin, Texas, where Jewish activists are supporting an immigrant-led movement to oppose Texas’s abusive immigration and detention policies. The ad also happened to coincide with a dramatic hunger strike that has spread to dozens of detainees at Hutto, an ICE detention facility just outside of town.
Given the nature of our grassroots work in Texas, it’s not surprising that I spent a lot of time swapping immigration stories. Mine goes back three generations, to a scrap metal company in Georgia and a department store in Texas. In my case, an enterprising cousin with a bit of money settled himself in the United States soon after the turn of the 20th century, and slowly brought over everyone he could from Europe. Everyone he couldn’t resettle here or in Palestine died in concentration camps, or in pits dug in forests.
That story was on my mind when I walked through the front door of the Grassroots Leadership offices in east Austin and accidentally interrupted an emergency huddle of their immigration team in the front room. They had just received word of the hunger strike, and they were making plans to rally supporters outside of the facility to amplify the action inside. From the messages they’d received from detainees, it was clear that the hunger strike represented an act of desperation by women who have been badly abused.
The struggle for justice for immigrants in Texas, like the struggle in much of this country, is cruel and racialized. Advocates here, including Bend the Arc leaders, spend a lot of time just trying to alleviate or prevent human rights abuses. Travis County, of which Austin is the county seat, by some measures leads the nation in noncriminal deportations. As of 2014 the county was deporting around 20 people a week on average, a process that has destroyed families and taken lives.
Inside ICE facilities like Hutto, immigrants awaiting deportation are routinely placed in solitary confinement, a practice that the United Nations has described as torture. Even as I write this, the women on hunger strike in Hutto are being harassed by guards and fellow prisoners, thrown into solitary, transferred to even more dangerous facilities, and made to endure countless other punishments small and large for daring to demand their rights.
[pullquote align=left] Inside Hutto, immigrants awaiting deportation are routinely placed in solitary confinement, a practice that the UN has described as torture.
[/pullquote] The strangers around my family in 1930s Texas and Georgia never saw the photo of a young girl sent to us by the ones we left behind, the photo that still adorns our printed family tree and that corresponds simply to the word “Daughter,” because she and her parents were all murdered before we could learn her name. It would be decades before the American strangers around us acknowledged the destruction of our old lives, if they ever acknowledged it at all. Instead, our new neighbors expended most of their energy reminding us that we were unwanted here–forcing us into low-status work, Black neighborhoods, university quotas. Grinding us down at every legal opportunity, and sometimes illegally, too.
With all that he lost to save my family and to allow me even to exist, I shudder to think what my cousin Sam’s chances would have been, a century ago, if he had been incarcerated in a detention facility like Hutto. For obvious reasons he is a legendary figure in my family, we still name kids after him. But if he had faced what these women are facing I honestly don’t believe he would have made it. I wouldn’t have made it.
We put “Heard it Before” on TV because it’s an idea that deserves a national platform: Jewish history has something to teach us about the foul nativism that drives our anti-immigrant discourse. But make no mistake, the struggle to obtain justice for immigrants is up-close-and-personal, and it goes way beyond the latest crackpot statement from a presidential debate.
What “Heard it Before” brings to mind for me is the holy obligation not only to remember our people and our story, but also to allow those memories to move us to action. Sitting with Latino workers in their weekly junta as they plan a pilgrimage from Hutto to the Governor’s mansion, “Heard it Before” reminds me to be humble and remember both what my family had to go through, and what we were allowed to avoid.
[pullquote align=right] We put “Heard it Before” on TV because it’s an idea that deserves a national platform: Jewish history has something to teach us about the foul nativism that drives our anti-immigrant discourse.
[/pullquote] And it challenges me–what am I prepared to do today to make this country a place of welcome, a place of respect for the strangers among us? How will I make this a different America from the one that abused my own family in our moment of great need?
This month, while our ad plays on TV, Bend the Arc activists in Texas will join in coalition with immigrant-led workers’ organizations and advocacy groups to rally at Governor Abbott’s home. Our demands are simple: the Governor must stop interfering with President Obama’s efforts to reform our broken immigration system, and he must meet face-to-face with some of the families whose lives are being destroyed by the detention and deportation policies he supports.
Some say that’s too much to ask, and that immigrants and asylum-seekers should be detained, harassed, and deported. But we’ve heard that before, and we won’t assent to it.