Imagine you just got a phone call informing you that in two, maybe three days, federal immigration authorities will be descending on your neighborhood and rounding up undocumented immigrants. Some of these immigrants are people you know, some of them aren’t, but either way, they’re all part of the community to which you belong.
You know that people taken by ICE are plunged into a Kafka-esque hell inside America’s austere and abuse-plagued detention centers, and that’s long before a judge decides whether or not to deport them. You don’t want either of those things to happen to your neighbors. So here’s the question you must answer.
What are you willing to do?
This scenario is exactly what Libby Schaaf, the mayor of Oakland, California, found herself facing on Saturday, Feb. 24. Having been tipped off that ICE would be conducting raids across the San Francisco Bay Area during the coming week, Schaaf had a tough choice to make. Comply with the federal government, keep her mouth shut, and watch ICE authorities rip her community apart ... or put Oakland first and issue a loud warning to her constituents about what was coming.
Mayor Schaaf chose the second option. And for that, she has become an object of institutional fury. ICE chief Thomas Homan told Fox News that as many as 800 immigrants avoided arrest thanks to what Schaaf did. The Department of Justice is currently exploring the possibility of punishing Schaaf with obstruction charges.
But whatever comes next, the fact remains that Schaaf placed the lives and liberty of her constituents above obedience and occupational self-preservation. This is an astounding and deeply moral act of defiance against the state: a moment of civic inspiration for these cruel times.
It’s also an urgent challenge for the rest of us to step up our acts of resistance as ICE escalates its war on immigrants.
A few days before Schaaf warned Oakland about the imminent ICE raids, the Boston Globe published an article that should have sent a chill down the spine of any Boston resident with empathy for immigrants. According to federal data, arrests of undocumented immigrants in the Boston area increased by 50 percent during the last fiscal year. This is an enormous uptick and a reminder that the Trump administration is making good on its nativist promise to kick America’s deportation machine into high gear.
But it shouldn’t come as a shock to us.
Massachusetts, a place that many of like to imagine as a stalwart beacon of liberal values, has been quietly under siege from ICE for more than a year. The list of commonwealth residents who have been quietly bagged by the agency is long and diverse. It includes community members such as MIT janitor Francisco Rodriguez, former Boston Gaelic Athletic Association chairman John Cunningham, Haverhill father Jacob Leonce, and Pioneer Valley resident Niberd Abdella, who recently married his longtime American partner while sitting in a detention center.
Whenever someone is taken by ICE, their friends and neighbors are usually the first to speak out and challenge the agency. Sometimes these displays of resistance are amplified and supplemented by local elected officials. At this moment, Sen. Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton) and Rep. Juana Matias (D-Lawrence) are still trying to get Gov. Charlie Baker on board with a bill called the Safe Communities Act, which would foster better relations between immigrant communities and local law enforcement. One of the ways the bill would achieve this is by prohibiting Massachusetts police chiefs and county sheriffs from acting as immigration enforcement agents.
The Safe Communities Act has received support from immigration advocates and the police. But the governor’s office continues to rebuff Eldridge and Matias’s entreaties. This means that in the absence of leadership and moral courage from Baker (which is something of a theme for him), Massachusetts towns and cities are going to be left on their own to decide how to deal with ICE and protect their most vulnerable residents from disappearing into America’s detention center labyrinth.
This will require us to make brave choices like the one Libby Schaaf made last month.
Would you shelter them in your home? Would you help them get out of town until the heat cooled down? Would you walk around town knocking on doors and vocally warning people house-by-house? That last option might sound ridiculous, but it’s merely a grubbier version of what Schaaf did in Oakland. And what she did saved hundreds of lives from disruption and ruination.
It’s time for the rest of us here in the commonwealth to honor Mayor Schaaf’s courage by taking stock of what ICE has been doing in our backyard.
It’s time for us to act accordingly.