“‘Families Belong Together’ is the wrong slogan,” says Masha Gessen, staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. The latest round of immigration protests came about in response to a very specific policy and very specific images: children screaming and crying as they were ripped away from their parents at the border. First-time protestors, conservative protestors, Republican protestors all took up signs with long-time protestors, liberal protestors, Democratic protestors. I saw a greater than expected range of political diversity in the Chicago crowd. All over on the media when people were asked why they were marching, the message was the same: families belong together.
But was this a waste of a good march? While she does not discard the point of the marches and says that they did serve an important function, Gessen also says they obscured the larger issue of the government’s all-out war on immigrants. United States immigration policy has never been as warm and welcoming as some of us like to imagine it is, but the rhetoric and actions have changed and intensified. Our own president has said of undocumented immigrants, “These aren’t people, these are animals” and repeatedly referred to Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. Our own country’s agents are arresting men, women, and children and imprisoning them in camps while awaiting deportation hearings that could be months or years in the future. Gang violence and domestic abuse are no longer considered valid reasons for asylum, and there is disturbing talk about the suspension of due process to prevent people from even following the legal steps to request asylum. Naturalized citizens, too, face uncertainty as to whether they will retain their American citizenship. My former students tell me they are worried about speaking Spanish outside of their homes now for fear of intensified scrutiny. Things are so bad that my school conducted ICE raid drills alongside the more routine active shooter drills.
The focus on the separation of children and their parents is immediately heart-rending but is barely the “tip of the terrifying, inhumane iceberg of American immigration policy.” The question then becomes: where do we go from here? If we organize a second march that asserts immigrants’ rights to declare asylum or demands the abolition of ICE or calls for a release of “unauthorized immigrants” from detention, will there be the same turnout? Can we expect to see a united front the way we did for the Families Belong Together march? Have those of us in the immigrant rights movement thought about our next steps? What else can or should we do to help our fellow human being trapped in sickening circumstances and conditions? This is something we need to figure out soon.
It is easy to stand behind that slogan about families. The admonition “Be careful what you wish for” comes to mind, though, as the chilling part follows when we ask ourselves where the families will be waiting together. Like many others, I am concerned they will be waiting indefinitely in prisons or returned to the countries they were forced to flee only to be slaughtered. But, hey, they will be together, right? We must do more. We must do better.