In the moral sense of the word, you'd be hard pressed to find a better American citizen than Harry Pangemanan. After Superstorm Sandy ravaged North Jersey in 2012, Pangemanan — a 46-year-old father of two who heads a church-based nonprofit in Highland Park, N.J. — organized other foreign-born refugees like himself to rebuild some 200 homes, while cooking meals for his army of volunteers and learning to hang drywall.
There's just one problem: Pangemanan — a Christian who came to America undocumented about 25 years ago, fleeing persecution in Muslim-majority Indonesia — is not a citizen in the legal sense of the word. After dodging deportation in 2009 by seeking church sanctuary, and then risking arrest as he traveled to work on storm-ravaged homes, he had reached an uneasy but seemingly humane truce with U.S. immigration officials. They asked Pangemanan to regularly check in with them while allowing him to continue his good works in Highland Park.
But everything has changed for Pangemanan and a small but thriving Indonesian Christian community in North Jersey in the year since Donald Trump became president — and changed immigration procedures to "take the shackles off" officers with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Border Patrol and other federal and police agencies that deal with migrants.
On Thursday, two Indonesian immigrants were arrested by ICE officers as they dropped their children at school — the type of setting that that immigration agents used to avoid before Trump and his attorney general Jeff Sessions "took the shackles off." And agents came looking for Pangemanan, who once again has taken refuge in the Reformed Highland Church — just a week after receiving a humanitarian award inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. To make matters worse, the homes of Pangemanan and another nearby Indonesian family were ransacked.
The incident is one more chapter in a slow-motion American human-rights catastrophe that has been hiding in plain sight for the last 12 months. It's part of a series of scattered incidents and policy changes targeting undocumented immigrants from Southern California to the Canadian border, spreading fear and panic throughout immigrant communities and is now targeting immigration activists for their beliefs. It's created unthinkable scenes like families scrambling across snowdrifts to escape the United States for Canada, the kind of thing that used to happen at the Berlin Wall.
And the worst may be yet to come. In the weeks ahead, at least 800,000 so-called "Dreamers" — young adults who were brought here, undocumented, as children and who since then have obeyed the law and worked their way through college or even joined the military — could lose their protected status and face deportation.
Late last week, Trump offered those in Congress and others who support the Dreamers a horrible deal, using 1.8 million undocumented immigrants as a bargaining chip to otherwise abandon what were once America's best ideals — erecting a giant, obscenely overpriced wall around the nation and making the United States unwelcoming to refugees seeking political or economic freedom. It's a scheme carefully crafted to, in the words of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, "make America white again."
In Tuesday night's State of the Union address, Trump reportedly intends to tout the immigration deal as part of a reboot of his dismal presidency — seeking to recast himself as a master of "the art of the deal," even as a humanitarian willing to buck the right-wing extremists in his Republican Party. Don't fall for it.
To the contrary, Trump's broader immigration plan is a cruel scheme that would end a time-honored tradition of "family reunification" (which the right prefers to call by the creepier sounding "chain migration") and reduce legal immigration (and thus hurt the economy) in ways that target non-whites. That would reflect the xenophobia that Trump rode to the Oval Office and the racist views of adviser Stephen Miller, who has the president's ear on these matters, and of Trump himself, who lacks moral authority after calling for fewer immigrants from "shithole countries" in Africa and embracing stereotypes about Haitians with AIDS and Nigerians in huts while hailing blue-eyed Norwegians as the ideal migrants.
Just days after the racism of the American president was laid bare for the world to see, Trump is asking us to embrace what is essentially his s-hole immigration plan — but that's not all. How can the Trump administration try, with a straight face, to claim the high ground on this issue when the police-state tactics of ICE, Border Patrol and other agencies unleashed by Trump and Sessions have led to some of the worst human-rights abuses in this country in decades? For example:
— Earlier this month, an outspoken immigration-rights advocate, the Trinidad native Ravi Ragbir, who fights for his fellow migrants as leader of the New Sanctuary Coalition, showed up for his routine immigration check-in in New York City, only to be arrested — one more sign that the Trump administration may begin to single out the most outspoken. Fainting at the news of his arrest, Ragbir was whisked away by an ambulance — only to resurface in a detention center in Florida, 1,000 miles from his family and activists who've been protesting his detention.
— Near the U.S.-Mexico border outside of Tucson, Ariz., nine members of an activist group called No More Deaths — a faith-based humanitarian outfit that leaves water stations in the desert, seeking a halt to the scores of migrants who've died of thirst after walking across the border — have been charged with felonies and misdemeanors by federal authorities in recent weeks. Earlier this month, an activist with the group published a report accusing Border Patrol agents of systematically destroying water jugs — and was arrested the day the report came out.
— Across the country, local TV reports or newspapers are regularly carrying stories like this one out of Southern California, where a 30-year-old youth football coach and father of two who was brought to the United States when he was just 2 years old and doesn't even speak Spanish was pulled over at a traffic stop by ICE agents, arrested and ticketed for deportation to a country that is not his own.
Look, people will say that American immigration policy — to the extent that we even have a policy — was a mess during Barack Obama's years, and they'd be right. Unable to get comprehensive immigration reform through Congress, Obama increased the pace of deportations — both justified and dubious — and earned the nickname "Deporter-in-Chief." But he also took executive action — under controversial legal authority — to protect Dreamers under the program known as DACA, as well as others who've established a stable home in America.. The regular check-ins by undocumented immigrants like Ragbir and Pangemanan were a solution that was imperfect; but that policy was at least rooted in common sense and, most importantly, humane.
Trump — who issued an executive order that allows for much more deportation, even for those who'd been allowed to check in — and his administration have tossed any humanity out the window. Immigrants who've seen their neighbors targeted by ICE's aggressive police-state tactics and arrested outside schools and churches or inside courthouses now live in a state of fear, afraid to leave their homes, or to cooperate with police or prosecutors on reducing crime in their communities. There is fear of showing up for work at 7-Eleven or checking into a Motel 6. People who've fled drug gangs in El Salvador or dangerous conditions in Haiti have been told the lamp of American liberty no longer shines for them, which is why some are fleeing by way of the Canadian border. Much of this has been fueled by a president's racist stereotypes and his willingness to not only play to the worst prejudices of voters but to bring xenophobes like Miller into the White House.
The danger to America's moral fiber cannot be understated here. Appealing to the masses through racism, and adopting cruel policies that target The Other is a loud echo of the very worst that civilization has seen over the last century — a slippery slope that can get much, much worse before it gets better.
Democrats in Congress would be foolish to rule out any dealing with Trump and the GOP on the DACA program; some improved border security would be reasonable. But when it comes to fundamental human rights, any compromise is simply not moral. The 800,000 Dreamers in the DACA program — which is strongly supported by the American public — deserve a straight up or down vote, while many of the changes proposed by Trump in his so-called deal would fundamentally end the idea of America as a beacon of hope in the world.