Nogales, Arizona (credit: csfotoimages)

We enter the homestretch of a grueling election season during which millions of Americans are out of work, nearly 200,000 have died of COVID-19, 1 in 8 households do not have enough to eat, and the finish line, Nov 3rd, doubles as a starting line for another unpredictable phase of American politics.

After a few hot August weeks of turning our own strategic approach over and over in my head, I remain convinced there is a path — a difficult one — to systemic change.

Let’s talk about why.

Over at the Washington Post, Greg Sargent digs into recent ABC/Ipsos polling to suggest voters may be linking uniting the country with keeping the country safe, and “drawing a link between further dividing the country on one hand and … making us less safe on the other.”

The polling, of course, is more encouraging than the headlines. With his language, photo ops and exhortations of “GREAT PATRIOTS,” Trump clearly believes the idea of communities on war footing to defend their “way of life” is a winning strategy.

But, remember, one of Trump’s first efforts to test this approach came in the fall of 2018, along the U.S.-Mexico border. Weeks before the midterm elections, the administration announced “Operation Faithful Patriot,” and the deployment of 5,200 active-duty U.S. military.

As Mayor Art Garino of Nogales, Arizona, told me last week, in early January 2019, just after he took office, he was surprised to find concertina wire on the top, and at the base, of the bollard-steel fencing cutting through his downtown.

While the operation was not a winning electoral strategy, it did not deter the administration. But, Trump’s focus on immigration enforcement, the World War I-concertina-wire-militarization of the border, and the separation of families reshaped the way many Americans view the immigration fears presented to them.

Yes, for a minority of Americans, these fears are threats to their way of life. They support anything and everything the president does on immigration. Okay. Fine.

But, on the left, immigration is no longer the third rail of politics. Candidates do not shrink away from the topic or rely on an enforcement-first approach.

And among many conservatives, our polling shows double-digit improvement in the belief that immigrants and immigration are good for the U.S. when respondents were presented with a core message of the AllOfUS campaign: Immigrants are partners standing shoulder to shoulder with native-born Americans to help our economy recover and get us through this pandemic.

Over August, my colleague, Bri Stensrud, who runs the Women of Welcome campaign, told me about Carla, a woman in her late 50s who lives in a Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of approximately 2,000.

Carla described herself as a “complacent Christian, content with just going to heaven,” who,

when it came to immigration, “didn’t know a lot about it” before running across Women of Welcome on her Facebook feed.

“What you think is what you see on TV,” she told Bri.

As Carla learned more, through webinars, films and recommendations, her feelings shifted. She realized, “I’m a minority with my family and friends since my heart has changed.” Which meant, “I feel alone a lot of the time.”

But Carla visited the camps in Matamoros, Mexico, where migrants wait for their court dates. “When you realize these families are trying to survive, they’re fleeing violence, it changes how you see them.”

Now her mother and daughters are starting to understand. And her husband, a Trump supporter, is supportive of what she is learning and doing. But, “He’s just not sure how to reconcile the issue with his support of the Trump administration.”

Reconciliation, personal or political, does not come without realizing the dignity of the other. Michael Rosen, in his book Dignity: Its History and Meaning, illustrates this as: “The idea of dignity as status, the idea of dignity as inherent value, and the idea of dignity as behavior, character, or bearing that is dignified.”

Through separations, razor wire and, now, racial strife, Trump wants his base to see the other as without status, value or humanity. By creating this fear of the other, he creates a threat to a “way of life.”

In the process, Trump strips Americans and America of dignity. Of pride in ourselves, in our country. Or, as Rosen puts it, “In failing to respect the humanity of others we actually undermine the humanity in ourselves.”

I asked Mayor Garino how the concertina wire changed Nogales, a community that has lived with a fence for generations. What broke his heart, he said, was when he talked to, “The abuelitos.” They would tell him, pointing to the wire, “This is not my Nogales.”

Which brings me back to Carla. “I love America,” she told Bri. But, “We’ve allowed ourselves to be divided. We have let politics become a part of our communities and church.”

And, she told my colleague, “I didn’t see that before and now I do, and it breaks my heart.”

Fears are not just threats. They are also opportunities for change.