On July 28 I was arrested in Williston, Vermont, for blocking a road outside the ICE Data Center. This unassuming brick building is the home of a 24 hour, seven day a week hotline, where United States citizens can report their undocumented neighbors. About 400 Vermont and New York residents work at this data center, and I barely have the words to express my rage at my tax dollars being used to detain, deport, and terrorize families.
Some recent New York Times headlines about the concentration camps where immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are being forcibly detained include “Hungry, Scared and Sick: Inside the Migrant Detention Center in Clint, Texas,” “We’re in a Dark Place: Children Returned to Troubled Texas Border Facility,” and “There is a Stench: Soiled Clothes and No Baths for Migrant Children at a Texas Center.”
Since the revelations about these border atrocities became daily news stories, I have found myself waking up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep. The parallels between this current inhumane treatment of immigrants and the way Jewish people, Romani people, and LGBTQ people were abused, and then murdered, in Nazi Germany are just too clear. This is why Jewish people all around the United States are blocking ICE facilities, risking arrest, and chanting “Never Again!”
Yesterday, one of my students brought some visiting family members into the yoga studio, so he could show them a place where he spends a lot of time each week. As we chatted, the fact that I had recently participated in civil disobedience came up. My student’s sister said she was so upset by how immigrants are being treated, but she hadn’t “done anything about it yet.” I encouraged her to get involved, because our bad feelings about the current border policies don’t do anything to help those who are being detained and victimized by these policies. In fact, since our tax dollars are paying for these cages, razor wire, and prison guards, we are all supporting what is happening, even if we are morally opposed. And since a new poll showed that 81% of Republicans are in favor of family separations, those of us on the side of mercy have our work cut out for us.
Civil disobedience is just one way to stand up against these crimes. If you can’t imagine getting arrested, I ask you to consider what kinds of steps you might be willing to take. Maybe you don’t have a lot of time, but you have some money you could donate. The Vermont Freedom Bail Fund bails out detained immigrants so they can rejoin their families. Migrant Justice works for the human rights of immigrant farm workers in Vermont. Maybe you don’t have much money, but you do have time. Every city and state has some kind of immigrant rights network, and help is always needed. Here in Addison County, several dozen residents volunteer each week to provide transportation, English lessons, and translation services to our farm worker neighbors.
The most important thing, if you believe in human rights for all people, is to add your voice and your resources to the fight for justice. Remember, throughout history many actions that used to be illegal were clearly the ethical thing to do. Here’s a small list of things that were against the law: helping an enslaved person escape from captivity, hiding a Jewish person from Nazis, sitting down at a “whites only” lunch counter (if you weren’t white), falling in love with and marrying someone of a different race. Many people that broke these immoral laws are now regarded as heroes when we look through the lens of history.
And speaking of history, most of us have a lot of work ahead to better understand our United States history, and its dreadful legacy of family separation. From the moment the first kidnapped Africans were brought to this soil, wrenching apart families has been the economic engine that built this nation’s wealth. In addition to making profits from buying and selling away the family members of enslaved laborers of African descent, the forces of settler colonialism separated countless Indigenous families through boarding schools like the Carlisle Indian School. Even as recently as the 1960s and 70s, white “Christian” missionaries based in Tucson, Arizona kidnapped Apache children and arranged for them to be adopted into white families.
In the resulting court case brought by the Navajo Nation and the White Mountain Apache Tribe, Indigenous community members testified that under tribal customary law, the individuals who created a child are not the only parents. Responsibility for the child’s wellbeing extends to aunts and uncles, family friends and grandparents. In both Apache and Navajo languages, the word for mother is the same as the word for aunt. The word for father is the same as the word for uncle. Elders relayed this in court in their native languages, and the judge ended up ruling that these children were not eligible for adoption. Even if their biological parents couldn’t care for them, they belonged with their extended families, on their ancestral lands. This is just one small example of United States’ vicious history of stealing Indigenous children away from their families.
The families suffering at the border today are Indigenous people who have every right to be here. Their ancestors have inhabited this continent for thousands of years, many generations longer than even the earliest European colonizers. The area that we now call the US-Mexico border has been traversed throughout time. Stopping these border atrocities will require us to understand our American history better, and to commit ourselves to removing the pillars of support that uphold violence and injustice. Now is the time to put ourselves on the side of love, and to be willing to take some risks, because as the Civil Rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer said, “No one is free until everyone is free.”