Learning to Be an Ally to My Undocumented Neighbors

It’s January 13, 2017. There are seven days until Trump takes office. This is our last weekend to live under President Obama. This week, Trump gave his first press conference in six months. He attacked reporters and news outlets head-on, yelling at them, silencing them in front of live cameras. Watching this shook me to my core. It is one of the most un-American things I’ve seen. I am scared for our future in a way I’ve never experienced.

Trump’s news conference was the first since July when he asked Russia to conduct espionage against Hillary Clinton. Also during the summer he hinted that someone should assassinate Clinton, all of this in front of live cameras. And, of course he’s insulted, attacked and threatened so many broad groups.

These are just a few reasons of many that make headlines like this in The New York Times inconceivable to me:

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Only white men are in the photo above. In 2017 there are countless millions of white Americans who are “unfazed” by Trump, his threats, and his election. I can only imagine that those people don’t truly know any adults of color, an undocumented immigrant who’s trying to make a new life for their family in the U.S., someone who’s lgbtq, or other-abled. If they did, they couldn’t be “unfazed”.

I wonder what they would think if they saw the people I saw Wednesday night at a know-your-rights workshop for immigrants, especially those who are undocumented. I took the lightrail train to get to the event a few miles south of our apartment in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle.

“We will do everything we can to defend our children and families but we need you to be there with us,” a latino man said into a microphone in both Spanish, then in English.

“We must organize in these difficult political times. Because we are threatened by the incoming administration we must band together and protect each other. This means we have to work hard and organize. It involves emails, phone calls, meetings and marching in the streets.”

I walked into a packed room of more than 100 people, mostly latino/a, who our president-elect has threatened. I saw parents who were not smiling. They were sitting and standing as they held young children who looked like they wanted to get down and play. I saw teenagers who looked inquisitive, others trying to act cool. I saw what looked like entire families of four, five, six people.  It was standing room only.

The man at the microphone encouraged everyone to increase their engagement with their churches, schools and neighbors. He mentioned upcoming peace marches, he told them that in an hour they’d get time with a lawyer, one-on-one, to talk through individual concerns. But first, they’d be hearing from a volunteer attorney from the Latino Bar Association of

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A card to carry in your pocket that describes how to protect your rights while encountering police and other officers . Organizers distributed them to immigrants at the know-your-rights event.

Washington to learn some basics like: How to ask for your rights, what can cause deportation and how to protect your rights when encountering police officers and judges. I had a hard time wrapping my mind around this scary list of topics and I wondered what some of the acronyms like “INS” meant. And that’s how I, a white guy with power and privilege, felt. How could an immigrant, perhaps one who hasn’t learned the systems of daily life here and who may speak broken English, not feel crushed by fear and a sense of hostility from this country, from Trump, from the hatred he’s brought to the center of our attention?

I was here in my role as a member of our Capitol Hill Neighborhood Action Coaltion (NAC). I’m part of a NAC committee that has formed to find ways that hundreds of us can form support networks for undocumented immigrants, Muslims and other marginalized communities. It takes thought and group brainstorming to consider how to go about doing this. So, I’ve been attending events to find out what the need is at this moment.

A non-profit that works to guide immigrants in Seattle through our complicated systems hosted the event Wednesday to try to ease fears with information. In fact, there are at least several organizations that have started hosting free know-your-rights workshops for immigrants in our city. One of those organizations is the City of Seattle itself.

The idea is that our immigrant neighbors can come and find out ways to more easily navigate the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) or find out what they should do if they’re approached by police. But there’s an incredible sense of urgency now, much more so than before the election. Just look, the City of Seattle is now posting these signs advertising know-your-rights events. I’m seeing them online. I believe they’re being posted in neighborhoods too. Our mayor, Ed Murray, is the guy in the middle:

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The City of Seattle says it’s seen an overwhelming response to its call for volunteers to help events like this happen as soon as possible:

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I’ve now spent time with both El Centro de la Raza and OneAmerica talking about their immediate needs as organizations that work with immigrants and which are going at full-throttle to try to soften any blows that may be coming. Some organizations need spaces to host these know-your-rights events or they may need restaurants to donate refreshments to offer to the hundreds of people who spend their lunch or dinner time learning how to not have their lives ruined.

The staffers I’ve spoken with want to hear from volunteers. At El Centro de la Raza the number of new volunteers coming to their orientation meetings has doubled from what it was in the months before the election. Of course, they also need four and five-figure checks. Their work is our work as citizens, and the work is urgent. I hope the people I know, especially those in cities in red states, find the organizations doing this work near them. I hope they form a relationship with those organizations.

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