We came to stand in front of the White House and be heard. There were many thousands of us, holding signs funny and heartfelt, waiting to march in the punishing heat. A few people fainted, and the masses assembled responded with a crowd’s singular, cellular competence, creating a human megaphone to call for medics.
The playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner wrote, “I do not believe the wicked always win. I believe our despair is a lie we are telling ourselves. In many other periods of history, people, ordinary citizens, routinely set aside hours, days, time in their lives for doing the work of politics, some of which is glam and revolutionary and some of which is dull and electoral and tedious and not especially pure–and the world changed because of the work they did.” I thought of his words as I talked to asylum seekers and nuns, retired grandparents and young lawyers. These were people who, to me, represented the best of this strange and troubled, beautiful and heartbreaking country I had come to and made my home.
I felt an abiding gratitude to them. Talking to people at the #FamiliesBelongTogether march reminded me in a very tangible way that, despite the administration in the slave-built ivory house behind me, the majority of this country’s people wanted, still wants, a better and kinder future. Here is what some of them had to say to me.
SARAH MATHEWS: Hi Omar, I came over to talk to you in part because of your sign: “I Am Alive Today Because America Gave Me Asylum.” Can you tell me the story behind that?
OMAR EL-NIDAWI: I’m an American. I’m an immigrant. I came to the U.S. ten years ago, when I was 27. I grew up in Baghdad, Iraq. I came to the U.S. and claimed asylum because I was threatened in Iraq. I spoke up against extremism and militias and corrupt politicians and it made me a target. America accepted me and gave me a new home. I believe everyone who needs it deserves the same chance, to feel safe, and to have a new start.
What would you say to people who would counter what you just said with, “But this is about security, and the security of our borders.”
I’d say that we have very effective and rigorous vetting measures in place for people who are trying to come to this country who might mean this country harm. I know because I’ve been through the pipeline. I know what it takes. Refugees, people who are trying to come here to safety, are not threats to this country. All this is a distraction from the actual threats.
What are the actual threats?
What we have in America in the last few years—many of the terror acts in the US and also in Europe—come from homegrown radicalization, rather than people coming from outside. ISIS doesn’t need to send people in through the barbed wire of immigration procedures; they can radicalize people right here, as can white supremacist groups. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot by adopting racist and xenophobic policies. When we alienate groups like we are currently, we give bad actors a recruiting tool to radicalize people within them. We should make people feel welcome and show an America that is inclusive and understanding of others.
So, why are you here, Sister Patricia Sarah Terry and Sister Mark?
SISTER PATRICIA SARAH TERRY: We are here because this is an issue that hurts us badly in the heart. We feel that if there’s any way our presence here is helpful to anyone or if it can encourage justice and compassion and action to bring the families together, that’s why we’re here.
SISTER MARK: To me, it’s just very straightforwardly the right thing to do, and if you look back at Christian history, our life as a church begins with Christ and his parents as refugees in Egypt. To start from that history and then to say that immigration rights aren’t our problem, that children being ripped from their families is not our problem, is insane on the face of it. We’re here to protect people who need protection.
What would you like to say to young people?
SISTER PATRICIA SARAH TERRY: I feel that the young people actually have a great deal of wisdom, and a great deal of courage, and they have ideas that I believe we need to make room for in the world. I feel that my job–I’m a grandmother, and I’ve had my time in the workforce–and I believe that my job right now is to support young people, and to try to keep the world a little bit safer for them until they can assume leadership fully. I have a great deal of faith in young people today.
SISTER MARK: So I’m not that far out of my teens, and when I look around and see all the stuff that’s going on in the world–people not taking care of each other, people treating each other as less than human, as less than loved, I’m as frightened as anybody else is. I think it’s a scary time to be in this country, but I also look around and see so many people attending rallies and supporting each other and being there for each other and I think it’s not the time to give up hope, either. As long as we keep showing up for each other, whether it’s a rally, whether it’s calling up your friends to make sure they’re doing OK, taking care of your family, I think there’s a lot of hope left and I see it in us.
This is a religious country in the sense that it’s majority Christian. As people of faith, what would you want to see in a new, different, or better immigration policy and policy around refugees for this country?
SISTER PATRICIA SARAH TERRY: I think it needs to begin with being more truthful about the benefits of immigration and the fact that immigration is part of our history, it’s part of all of human history, and every nation needs to have paths for people to come to this country for whatever purpose: humanitarian, if they want citizenship, there must be a way for that to happen. It doesn’t have to mean open borders. It doesn’t have to mean not caring about the safety of the people who are here, but we can do a lot better. Right now, there’s so much misinformation that people have become frightened of immigration, and it’s really quite the opposite: we need to be embracing it.
Hi Abby. As a lawyer, what is your take on the administration’s thinking behind the “zero-tolerance” immigration policy and family detention?
ABBY OMOJOLA: Well, I don’t think this policy is grounded in any facts or data. Immigration has slowed generally, and what Trump’s administration calls “illegal” immigration has also slowed. This idea that immigrants are taking jobs from Americans—data has also shown that this is just not true. I honestly don’t think this has a founding in anything other than bigotry, hate and racism.
Is this a personal issue for you?
Well, my background is in international law, and this all completely hurts my soul. My parents came to the States in the 1980s as immigrants from Nigeria. They came here to get better opportunities. When they were living in Arizona, my dad’s documentation expired and he had to fight very hard to stay in this country. He didn’t have much money and he had four kids, and he was working so much and contributing to this country, and now he has raised six kids who have all grown up and are contributing to this country. Immigrants deserve much better than this policy from us. They work hard and fight hard to get here, and it is not easy to get here.
What would you say to people who aren’t super politically engaged yet, but would like to be?
As Maxine Waters has reminded us, we need to show up in public and make ourselves heard and show people how many of us there are. You can do that by protesting, you can do that by voting, you can do that by donating money to organizations working on this, you can do that by organizing people to come with you and do any of the above. There’s work that almost everyone who cares about this country and its people can do, and we need everyone.
Hi Allison and John, why are you here today?
JOHN KEHOE: We’re just aghast. At this Administration and their policies.
This is an issue that has galvanized people beyond what we’ve seen in a long time–far more than other xenophobic or racist policies adopted by this current Administration. Do you think there’s something about this issue that hits home?
Just the cruelty and indifference and contempt for our history and our traditions. He’s waging war on children. He’s using children to extort confessions out of, to deter parents who are fleeing a warzone, trying to get to safety and bring their children to safety. It’s unspeakable.
In last week’s New York Times, there was an article profiling the President’s supporters. One of them, a man from Loudoun, Virginia said that liberals were ignoring “real issues and problems” as well as “the President’s numerous achievements” to focus on “crying babies at the border”. What would you say to him?
I’d say to him the only thing the President was able to do is get a tax break for rich people. That’s his only accomplishment.
What would you tell young people in this political moment?
ALLISON KEHOE: Register to vote and get out to vote. Elections have hugely important consequences. Try to pay attention to both sides, read a lot, and register to vote.
Hey! So why are you here, Israel? (Not pictured.)
ISRAEL: I’m here because I think it is unacceptable what’s going on with not only the children being separated from their families, but all the immigration issues, all the issues affecting marginalized people in our country. It’s time for people to stand up and say “I’m not okay with this” and take some action—to show that we want things to change. I’m here with my fraternity today but I would be here no matter what. This is a personal issue for me. I’m DACA-mented; I came to the U.S. when I was two. My parents are also undocumented, so we suffer personally from it. It is always a constant fear. I want to tell your readers that even if they feel like nothing they do could make a difference, that is not true. You have power, whether it’s your vote or your money or your voice—that you can use for protest or persuasion—so please use it on behalf of people who are suffering. ♦