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Tabling for Rapid Response to ICE means confronting white supremacist attitudes

August 15, 2017

Last night I attended a neighborhood church festival to table for the Rapid Response to ICE grassroots organizing group.

The church festival was hosted by Lee Street Christian Reformed Church in the southwest part of Grand Rapids. Those of us working with Rapid Response to ICE were contacted by one of the pastors at Lee Street CRC during the recent ICE raids, because a member of his congregation had been picked up by ICE and put into detention. 

The church festival was typical of many festivals, with lots of good food, music, a large play area for kids and information tables. I sat for about 2 hours and talked with mostly Cuban, Dominican, Mexican and Guatemalan people from the neighborhood. I had cards out with information on What to Do if ICE comes to your door and signage in Spanish about an upcoming training that the Rapid Response to ICE team was hosting next week.

Every single one of the people who were from recent immigrant communities all knew someone who has been targeted by ICE and shared their stories of the horrors that family members have faced. People also talked about the constant fear that they and some of the neighbors face, since they never know when government agents or local police will stop them. This is their lived experience and the reality they must face everyday. Despite the fear they face, these people were welcoming to me, they took cards about ICE to share with friends and they offered thanks for the work that the Rapid Response to ICE was doing.

This was in sharp contrast to the reaction I got from several white people who also attended the festival.

As I said, on our table was mostly signage in Spanish, with a stack of cards about what to do it ICE comes to your door, with the Spanish information side up. One white woman was looking at the information and said, “where is the English information?” I said that on the other side of the cards, the information was in English. She then grabbed a bunch of the cards and flipped them over to put the English side up. I told her that this information was for people from communities were the primary language was Spanish, therefore the Spanish side up. This white woman said that “they need to learn English.” I responded by saying that our goal was to provide information that may be critical to their safety in a language they are most comfortable with. I also told her that her statement was racist and that she needed to stop demanding anything from immigrant communities. At this point she walked away.

Then an older white man approached the table and asked what the Rapid Response to ICE was all about. I explained it to him and then he said, “but the problem is that they are here illegally and are a drain on our welfare system.” I responded by saying that people are not illegal and that people who are in the US that are undocumented are fleeing political and economic violence and that it is our obligation to welcome them here and fight against government repression. I also said that the claim that immigrants are a drain on the welfare system was just a lie perpetrated by anti-immigration groups like the Federal for American Immigration Reform and that the US economy would come to a halt if the millions of undocumented people were all detained or deported and not able to do the work that most of us in the US are unwilling to do. This guy also promptly left.

One other encounter I had was with another white guy who was also a member of the church hosting the event. He said that he has seen the cards we are distributing before and that he had a lot of problems with what they said. I asked what was problematic about providing information to people that could keep them from being arrested, detained and deported. He responded by saying, “these people needed to come to the US legally.” I responded by saying this was a highly privileged response and that what needed to change is the immigration policy of this country. He said we can’t take all of them. I responded by saying, “they took your family and mine, so why not all immigrants.”

I then said that your church pastors support this work and are even considering becoming a sanctuary church. He then spoke against sanctuary churches and said it would be wrong if that happened. I asked him if it was a christian mandate to welcome the stranger and he said, “only if they are refugees and not illegal.” He then walked away.

Tabling at this event was highly instructive and also reflected the very real divide in the US between those in the immigrant communities who are directly impacted from US policies and the general white supremacist attitudes and beliefs of millions of people in this country. In the end it was important for us to be there to provide information and to let people from impacted communities know that we are offering solidarity and support to them. It was also important to be able to confront and challenge those who wanted to hold on to their white supremacist values.

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