We All Have a Duty to Protect Immigrants From Trump’s Mental Warfare (OPINION)

Jul 3, 2019
4:45 PM

(Photo by Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota, USA/CREDIT)

By Sulma Arias

“Prima, do you have a plan in case you get picked up by ICE? Do your kids know what to do if you don’t come home?”

Y tienes un abogado? Do you have a lawyer?” 

I questioned my cousin about her plan, implored that she be prepared for the worst case scenario.

I anxiously waited for her responses.

All weekend I carried my phone with me, waiting to hear from family members and fielding answering questions they had.

For 20 years, my prima has worked in this country. She raised her family here. It’s where she belongs.

Every day, conversations like this one play out in millions of immigrant households. For undocumented immigrants, waking up and getting through the day is an exercise in risk assessment, but even more so last month when President Trump once again made innocent immigrant families the target of threats. Whether his threats are meant to fire up his base, to get Democrats to negotiate, or simply because terror by tweet is his modus operandi, he managed to send millions of families into anxiety and panic.

Last month, after the tweets, immigrant rights groups worked tirelessly to get out information about legal rights if ICE knocked on our doors, raided our work sites or stopped us on the street. The network of more than 40 immigrant rights groups that I manage, Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), and our political arm FIRM Action, partnered with national allies to share hotline information if we witnessed a raid.

We sprung into action, in a way all too familiar under this administration. Quickly, we began assessing what we knew, who could lend support on the ground, and who was available to talk to reporters as our inboxes were flooded with questions. We worked arm in arm with our allies to keep immigrant and refugee families safe.

Years of trainings for our communities are meant to prepare you for these moments: don’t open the door, exercise your right to remain silent, ask for an attorney, don’t sign anything—on paper or digitally, and always have a plan.

But how do you prepare your mental state to adjust to a daily threat that can upend your life in minutes? When even the smallest interaction with law enforcement, such as a traffic stop, can destroy years of a life you’ve built?

The 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. (the country they call home) and their children who are mostly U.S. citizens, live this reality every day. They find themselves being persecuted because they did what anyone would do to give their families a fair shot at life: They moved.

No one leaves their home, their families, everything they know unless they absolutely have to.

I left El Salvador as a child. I was 12 years old. My mother had died a few years before and my siblings had already made the long journey to the U.S. It was my turn, and I would have to do it with my three- and four-year-old niece and nephew. We would be safer in the north, and we would have the opportunities that weren’t available to us in our native home. Does anyone actually believe we made the perilous journey out of anything but desperation for a better future?

Now our timelines and news loops are filled with images of the children who have died at the border. Babies sleeping on cold floors without access to soap and toothbrushes. Young teenagers caring for toddlers and babies. Thousands of parents separated from their sons and daughters. Migrant children forced into the sites where internment camps housed people of Japanese descent decades ago. There are such camps along the southern border. History is repeating itself.

Immigrants —people who look, sound and maybe pray differently— are being targeted simply because of who they are.

And while we are being attacked, the politicians that can stand up for them are MIA. We currently have more than 24 candidates running to lead the Democrats and champion progressive causes in the presidential election. But where are these people who are aspiring to run the country and earn our support in 2020 when it comes to defending immigrants and their families?

Where are the Members of Congress who should be rejecting any additional money for Trump’s cruelty? They should be creating a budget to solve the crises that this administration created.

Elected officials, many whom immigrants and people of color helped elect in 2018, must be firm and reject any additional funding for ICE and CBP. Giving in to Trump’s hateful demands is being complicit in his mental warfare on immigrants. DHS has shown time and again that any additional money they are given goes to fund harmful policies and enforcement actions.

What our communities need are concrete solutions that transforms the immigration system to one that prioritizes unity and freedom for all immigrants. A system that is grounded in humanity and compassion, not terror or fear.

We need to create the roadmap to full citizenship that is affordable and equitable. America has always been a beacon of hope for those seeking to make better lives for themselves and their families. Our strength as a country comes through when we live up to our values of unity and freedom.

We should all feel free to live our lives. We should all be able to step out of the house and run quick errands, go to work or church, or pick up our children from school without the bone-chilling anxiety that triggers the thoughts: “What if ICE picks me up?”


Sulma Arias is the interim director of immigrant rights and racial justice at Community Change Action. She tweets from @AriasSulma.