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Rapid Blog: Fighting for Immigrant Rights...When You’re Not an Immigrant

Kate Kooyman

In this edition of Rapid Blog, local pastor Kate Kooyman explores the issue of solidarity in light of the three U.S. citizens arrested in Grand Rapids who were protesting recent deportation policies. Kooyman writes "there is an important place for non-immigrants in the struggle to ensure that Grand Rapids a place where immigrants can survive, thrive, and belong." 
Kate Kooyman is an ordained pastor and works for the Office of Social Justice at the Christian Reformed Church. She loves to talk to churches and community groups about the truth that "Immigrants are a Blessing, Not a Burden." She lives in Eastown.

“For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in April. “This is a new era. This is the Trump era.”

Not long after he said that, on Thursday, April 20, three white folks were arrested in Grand Rapids for blocking traffic. They were hoping to raise awareness about the real consequences of the same broad-based deportation policies that Sessions was celebrating; policies that are breaking up families in our city, that are causing trauma for children, that are sending away beloved and much-needed neighbors, and that are weakening the fabric of our community. And they knew that the consequences of a public action for them, as U.S. citizens, was much different than for the immigrants who are most impacted by Jeff Sessions threats.

I’m a white girl who was born in this country. But I was inspired by what those activists did that day. I, too, am passionate about immigration reform.

It’s estimated that there are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today. There’s a common refrain that politicians have come to rely on voters believing the lie that immigrants who are here without papers are freeloaders, criminals, and gaming the system.

The truth is, undocumented people pay tons of taxes–even income tax and Social Security contributions they will never benefit from. They cannot access social services like welfare or food stamps. They are markedly less likely than nonimmigrants to commit crimes. And they would love to “get in line” for legal status or permanent protection from deportation. But for most people here without papers, there simply is no line.

I have been part of efforts to educate about and advocate to fix our broken laws for years now. Never has it felt more urgent to do this work than it does today.

“Right now there is a lot of fear of the unknown within the undocumented community. They are afraid to leave their homes, go to work, take their kids to school. Many live in a constant state of anxiety. This affects not only them but their children as well,” says Jackie Hernandez, a leader in the immigrant rights efforts of Grand Rapids. Hernandez reiterates that organizing for dignity, respect, and permanent protection for immigrants is more crucial today than it ever has been.

Federal executive orders have dramatically expanded which immigrants are “priorities” for deportation—no longer limited to those who have committed crimes, now it seems most anyone who is here without legal status is subject to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) knocking in their door.

That’s moms. That’s coworkers. That’s pastors. That’s neighbors. Such a broad approach to immigration enforcement should concern all of us, because it will impact all of us. It will weaken our economy. It will imperil our public safety. And it will harm our humanity. As Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, we are all “woven together in a single garment of destiny.” When a child lives under constant fear that his mother may not appear after school to pick him up, the trauma he experiences will eventually impact all of us.

There are things white folks can do that others can’t. Jeff Smith, who has helped coordinate the work of a Rapid Response Team to ICE, recognizes that white folks who were born in this country have a level of safety that is not shared by immigrants. “Those of us who carry lots of privilege are the ones who quickly mobilize in response to ICE agents arresting, detaining and deporting people. We can take risks on behalf of those who can’t,” says Smith.

The Rapid Response work has two focus areas: first is direct action to prevent people from being arrested, detained, and deported; the second is the work of mutual aid, which is providing material, emotional, and financial assistance to families when they have had someone taken by ICE. White allies have begun to participate in this work of solidarity by first attending a training, and then becoming part of a list to receive notifications of urgent situations.

But white folks don’t need to be the leaders. Movemiento Cosecha, which helped to organize “Day Without an Immigrant” marches in Grand Rapids and all over the U.S. on May 1, is intentionally non-hierarchical, and shares leadership among those who are most impacted by our unjust immigration laws. Immigrant leaders in our community planned and implemented the march for themselves, and invited white folks to participate in specific ways, like providing bottles of water along the march route.

There is an important place for non-immigrants like me in the struggle to ensure that Grand Rapids a place where immigrants can survive, thrive, and belong. If you’re interested in finding your role, follow Movemiento Cosecha GR, the Grand Rapids Immigrant Solidarity Network, and the Micah Center on Facebook. Perhaps, at least locally, we can characterize the “Trump era” as a time marked by solidarity and cooperation, a time when our community lived out the truth that we—immigrant and nonimmigrant alike—need each other.
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