Hey everyone! Long time no see. Junior year is long gone, and it’s given me some time to think about what I want to write for my next article. Since I started the blog to explore issues that came to light during and after the 2016 Election, I’ve continued to find many issues that need social activism, public debate, or at least a real conversation.
While a lot has already been written about the (il)legal immigration situation at America’s southern border, I still feel compelled to offer my own perspective and some lessons from history that I learned that may help us work through this crisis as a society.
I’m horrified, as most people are, by the policy of separating children from their parents, and the treatment of both children and parents following the separation— with some kids kept in what are essentially caged. In fact, when I first heard about this, I felt furious in a way I haven’t felt in a very long time. The pictures and videos circulating of families being physically ripped apart, toddlers in shock blankets, jolted me – and hopefully many others – out of a state of apathy and resignation.
Despite my profound ire about this, I knew that there had to be other events in our history that followed the same pattern as our government, and that studying them could perhaps show us a path through this crisis. I pored over immigrant narratives, I listened to the stories of undocumented immigrants, and I read the narratives of other people that have been systemically oppressed. From my research, the experience of European Jews during and following the Holocaust provides one source of inspiration for a path forward. One book in particular stood out to me— Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi. In it, Levi describes the terrible, inhumane lives those in concentration camps were living. However, he also describes the way people were able to not only survive, but to move forward. His prescription is captured in the following quote:
“Precisely because the Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts; that even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness … We are…deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power…the power to refuse our consent. So we must certainly wash our faces without soap in dirty water and dry ourselves on our jackets. We must polish our shoes, not because the regulation states it, but for dignity and propriety. We must walk erect, without dragging our feet, … to remain alive, not to begin to die.”
This incredibly moving quote is still relevant to our situation today and gives us advice on what we can do to help others now. It essentially boils down to two simple actions we can all take:
Bearing witness and telling the story
Consistently refusing to give consent
Bearing witness means sharing the facts and stories unapologetically, objectively, passionately, and consistently. In a world driven by news cycles, new crises overtake previous events even if the issues remain unresolved. Each of us bears the responsibility to make sure that the public knows all the facts, and doesn’t lose interest. Simple actions like sharing, retweeting, or reblogging footage of children in immigration detention centers will appeal to Americans’ sense of justice, and debunking myths (like that seeking asylum is illegal) in everyday conversation, will educate everyone about the legal issues surrounding detention and separation. Being outraged— as long as you’re educated—works, especially in a democracy. Donald Trump signed an Executive Order that ordered separated families to be reunited in detention centers. While this hasn’t yet been fully implemented, it was the educated and outraged public that forced a shift in policy for the first time during Trump’s presidency.
Consistently refusing to give consent means that each of us has the power to stand up and say “No”. We have the ability, but not always the will, to say publicly that we disagree with a policy. And though we don’t use it as much as we should, we also have the ability to tell our state and local elected officials what we believe in and how we would like to see them act and vote. Numerous congressional representatives and senators have said that they have created bills and ended up being passed based primarily on their constituents’ suggestions. Registering our protest and refusing to accept a new status quo will be crucial in turning the tide on issues such as the detention and separation policy.
“But will these two actions be enough?” You ask. I believe they will, but it will take time. Just look at the impact of the Women’s March, which embodied both bearing witness and refusing to give consent. I believe the direct result of the March is the historically high number of women candidates now running for public office – over 18 months after the event!
I once read somewhere that the democratic circle is incomplete without the people getting up to take the stage themselves. That is, people need to act.
The change we seek rests in our own hands, and it’s up to each and every one of us to engage more actively in our democracy. It may be running for the next election, or organizing marches, or simply busting myths in every day conversation— but the story is ours to tell. Whether we want to succumb to history’s faults, or learn from history to break through the mold, is our choice.