I Am Not Going Back
Consciousness Shifts in the Trump Age and What They Mean for Now
I remember that October night in 2017, the night my consciousness shifted so much I knew there was no going back. I was at NYU for a live taping of Maria Hinojosa’s and Julio Ricardo Varela’s politics podcast In The Thick produced by Futuro Media. The topic: “Undocumented and Unafraid.” I was a new Futuro Media development officer and was attending my first event.
We gathered at night in the airy event space and could see ourselves reflected in the windows. We were a packed audience filled with people who cared deeply about the undocumented, people that every New Yorker knew either as family, friends, colleagues, or employees, or neighbors, or strangers in the subway. We were also the undocumented, or the once undocumented, sitting in the seats, or on stage, for there was newly named MacArthur genius and organizer Cristina Jiménez on the panel. All around us were people building their lives — and our society — in a country that could pull the rug from beneath them at any moment, especially in the age of Trump.
But that’s the thing. This is the night that I saw clearly how it was never just Trump.
I lived through the post-9/11 Bush years. I remember how bad it was for immigrants in the aftermath, especially Muslim immigrants, and how so many Americans looked to our borders with fear. How the USG stoked this fear, made borders brittle and hard as best they could. I knew this, yet I had never given sustained attention to how the federal government treated migrants in the meantime. When Cristina Jiménez spoke of how hard it was to support President Obama’s candidacy only to see meager results for immigrants, and how journalist Julio Ricardo Varela spoke of being told by some progressives not to “rock the boat” when it came to pressuring the President, I was stopped short. When Varela referred to President Obama as the “Deporter in Chief” I was shocked.
I’d never heard anyone call President Obama the “Deporter in Chief” before. This was a president I respected and supported throughout the entirety of his two terms, even through my own grave disappointments with his response to police murders of Black people and the Flint water crisis. I’d known the President made concessions on “border security” to Republicans in hopes of real immigration reform, but the reality is that I had never had to face what the fallout of those decisions meant to real people, real families torn apart by our government. Though my step-father emigrated from the Philippines, he’d never faced government persecution due to his immigration status.
Later, I’d learn that President Clinton deserved this terrible designation more than President Obama with over 12 million deportations over two terms if you include all border apprehensions, removals, and returns. But if you focus on removals — the kinds of deportations that involve removing people who have established lives in this country that often include families, jobs, and broader community ties, the Obama Administration beat both the Clinton and Bush administrations with over 3 million.
The more I listened to panelists Cristina Jiménez, Executive Director of United We Dream, Sandra Lilley, Managing Editor of NBC Latino, and Viviana Gonzalez, a student at NYU and co-director of policy for the NYU Dream Team, the more I sank into the horror of realizing how much the government has long terrorized migrants — new arrivees as well as long-standing residents — in our names and how inadequate the Obama Administration policy response had been despite the true win of DACA protection for undocumented young people. I knew that immigrant families had been detained under Obama, families that included young children. But something about this night opened my eyes, again, to the sad reality that the machinery of state violence was not stopped by the mere presence of a Democrat in the Oval Office, and how that Democrat could make things worse.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement emerged in reaction to our lived reality as Black people targeted for harm and death. On this night in October, my field of vision widened. So did my empathy. I saw more of the vulnerable around me, and how their vulnerability predated Trump administration atrocities.
Since that night, I’ve done what I can to listen and learn about the migrant experience in America, including atrocities such as mass detention and family separation. I am particularly moved by Maria Hinojosa’s reporting on these issues.
I am not going back. The human rights of undocumented immigrants are non-negotiable.
Historian Greg Grandin noted in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The End of the Myth that by 2016 “the United States was spending more on border and immigration enforcement than on all other federal law-enforcement agencies combined.” I will no longer accept that this is how it must be. Too often, our leaders bargain away the rights and protections of human beings. Too often, we accept that those who promise us “security” should get the lion’s share of our money. No. No more accepting that things are how they are if the status quo is hurting people.
I think back to that NYU night, how I thought I was going to an event for work. I couldn’t know how much would shift for me. I’ve broadened my own reckoning with the past, and I’ve joined our collective reckoning. We won’t stop just because there’s a new administration. Reckoning is our only hope.
Photographs by Stacy Parker Le Melle.