Keep the Pressure On: Jewish Activists Continue the Fight for Immigration Justice Under Biden
Justine Orlovsky-Schnitzler is JWA's politics writer.
It’s been over a month now since Donald Trump lost the presidential election. An anxious (and deeply chaotic) election season gave way to nearly five days of liminal anguish as poll workers tallied votes. For those left of center, relief at Trump’s defeat was pronounced, but laced with exhaustion and sadness. Although there will be a different man sitting in the Oval Office come January 20th, 2021, we will still be dealing with ongoing and longstanding crises: 286,000 (and counting) Americans dead from the novel coronavirus; surging white nationalism; institutionalized racism and violent xenophobia.
I am thrilled that Donald Trump lost the election. But my general panic has merely been dialed down a few notches. For a great number of American voters who consider themselves to be on the left rather than the right, Joe Biden was something of a last-resort candidate—someone running on the idea of returning to “normalcy,” as if such a thing ever really existed. During the primary season, establishment-oriented Democrats slung mud at leftists asking for too much. (Even after the election, many high-ranking Democrats were quick to blame the left for lost House seats. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pushed back against this accusation in a blistering New York Times interview).
Establishment Democrats told progressive voters that the focus needed to be on getting Trump out of office. Everything else—a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, abolishing ICE—could be negotiated after Inauguration Day. Pushing, pulling, or forcing Biden further left post-victory felt (and feels) like a pipe dream. But there were only two viable electoral options on the ballot this year. Voters showed up in record numbers last month to pull Biden across the finish line. Now, the work begins.
One of the members of Biden’s transition team, Cecilia Muñoz, has come under renewed scrutiny as Biden shifts from candidate to president-elect. Muñoz served for five years under the Obama administration as the Director of White House Domestic Policy Council, which means that she was both the mouthpiece and shield for much of Obama’s more sinister immigration policies. Excerpts from a particularly damning 2014 PBS Frontline interview recently made the rounds on Twitter. In the clips, Muñoz defends Obama’s version of family separation policies along the border by arguing that “even broken laws have to be enforced,” a position that has been used throughout history to justify all manner of atrocity.
It is precisely this kind of political deference to some greater, untouchable system that frustrates and worries immigration activists. Obama faced criticism during his tenure for the deportation of millions of people, but in the wake of Trump’s proudly nationalist immigration overhaul, it became difficult for many to see critique of the Obama administration’s out-of-sight cruelties worthwhile fodder for debate. But Biden owes much of his electoral victory to Obama’s legacy. In a moment—in a year—when carrying on as we always have feels both impossible and undesirable, treading water is its own kind of cruelty.
It's important to take the space to feel relief that Trump will no longer be the president come January. But for American Jews (and everyone else) invested in ending the deportation machine and ICE, the work is ongoing, and that means keeping pressure on even after the centrist Democrat replaces the raging white nationalist.
What can individuals and communities do in the coming days, weeks, and months to ensure that “never again” really means “never again”? How do we maintain momentum and remain vigilant, even when the "right" people are in power? And how do we challenge leaders who purport to support immigration justice to keep their foot on the gas?
The simplest answer is also the most important one: Listen to the voices of those who have been harmed by the United States’ cruel immigration policies, who have been doing this work and sounding alarms because there is no just or compassionate alternative. People’s lives have been ruined by borders—visible or not—and the military apparatuses—visible or not—that enforce them.
Jewish groups like Never Again Action (NAA), formed during Trump’s presidency, have made it clear they understand the system to be inherently broken, demanding an ongoing crisis response until “the deportation machine is unable to function.” Similarly, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, which helped some of their members assemble NAA in 2019, has established long-term partnerships with groups like Mijente and Make the Road New York to provide physical, material, and vocal support to migrant communities fighting for freedom of movement in the United States. Alyssa Rubin, campaigns director for NAA, tells me, “President-Elect Biden has pledged to reverse some of the abuses, like the policy of family separation and the Muslim ban. These changes are critical first steps, but the incoming administration cannot stop there and return to some pre-Trump ‘normal,’. Trump’s transparently racist policies [are] built on an inherently racist system, and to become the America of Biden’s promises—a nation that understands immigrants are ‘an irrefutable source of our strength’—we must dismantle that system once and for all.”
Now is the time to look locally. The deportation machine operates in all of our backyards; the border is everywhere. In North Carolina, Alanna Davis, organizing with Carolina Jews for Justice, notes, “While Biden may be our accepted president-elect, Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson continues to enable the deadly detention and deportation machine known as ICE here in North Carolina... Carolina Jews for Justice works with Siembra NC’s Solidarity Committee to host ICE Watch and Court Accompaniment training to help make sure no one feels alone in an otherwise isolating process.”
Across the country, one can find similar efforts to both disrupt the deadly immigration apparatus and to show up in visible, supportive roles for neighbors facing deportation proceedings, ICE raids, and government surveillance.
Sophie Hurwitz, former New Voices Fellow for the Jewish Women’s Archive and Jewish activist who has organized with NAA, puts it thusly: “This more localized work has a better shot at tangibly supporting our undocumented neighbors—work like helping defend against evictions, ensuring that COVID prevention care and other healthcare resources are available for uninsured people in your local community, or accompanying people (perhaps virtually, for now) to immigration hearings...After Trump, even those of us who didn't know this already know that our government is not likely to help us keep ourselves and our loved ones healthy and safe, so we must focus on doing that ourselves—focusing on those members of our communities, such as undocumented immigrants, who are least protected by the state.”
If Trump’s presidency destroyed anything in American politics, let it be the idea that anything less than explicit white nationalism doesn’t require engagement by the public. Rebranding agencies like ICE will not end their overreach into our communities. Showing up to the voting booth once every four years will not undo structural harms. Let the Biden presidency be one of continuous pressure, of constant molding, of showing up for our neighbors in material ways. Anything less than radical community defense falls short of justice.