On November 15, the National Immigration Forum’s annual event “Keepers of the American Dream” took place in Washington D.C. Below is a version of the comments I delivered that evening.
Usually my job as MC for our annual Keepers of the Dream event is to crack some jokes, thank our sponsors and keep the agenda moving. Yes, we are thankful for your support, incredibly grateful for your leadership and I will most certainly make some bad jokes.
But tonight is different.
So, with your permission, I’m going to talk a bit longer than usual.
Last week, in case you were unaware, America elected a new president. If this is news to you, please let me know what you are on. I would like some.
In any case, this coming January, Donald Trump will become President of the United States, commander in chief and implementer of our nation’s immigration laws. What he does on immigration has enormous implications for our economy, for the families we care about, for the work we do. It is going to be a tough four years, with complicated peaks and precarious valleys.
While I am certain a small number of Trump voters are xenophobes, represented, for example, by the awful people vandalizing Montgomery County elementary schools, requiring parents to explain terrible things to their children, I do not believe all Trump voters are racist.
Rather, I think the majority of Trump voters feel government no longer works for them. That their children will not do better than them. That they are unfairly blamed for things for which they have no control.
Through their vote for Donald Trump, these voters blamed Washington D.C. Corporate America. Liberals. Conservatives. Immigrants. Refugees.
They blamed “the other.”
So in a moment like this, when President-elect Trump has put anti-immigrant leaders in charge of his DHS transition plan, when he has said he wants to deport 2–3 million “criminal aliens,” and when so many questions, like what will happen with President Obama’s DACA program that has protected over 700k from deportation, are yet to be answered, a sense of hopelessness washes over many of us. We put on a brave face, we try to sound confident, but we are worried about what lies ahead.
Let’s be honest. It has been a tough week. All of us, including me, have asked, can I do this? Am I in?
Over the course of this last week, I have thought a lot about Spartanburg, SC, and my conversations with Norma Blanton and Harold Smith.
Earlier this year, I started to write a book. “There Goes the Neighborhood: How Communities Deal with the Prejudice that comes with American Immigration.” Even though it won’t be published till April 4, 2017 — don’t worry, you can pre-order it on Amazon now. (shameless self-promotion)
Of the 60+ interviews I did for the project, I spent a lot of time in Spartanburg. About a three-hour drive northwest of Charleston, Spartanburg is a town of just over 37,000 people. The homes are modest and low-slung with a modern small-town feel.
Arcadia Elementary, one of the city’s biggest elementary schools, captures the demographic changes of the region, if not the country. Chuck Bagwell, who was principal there for several years, told me that in 2003, the students were “24 percent [English language learners], and within about eight years the school went to 66 percent ESOL.”
In short, Spartanburg is a southern town experiencing the changes that come with immigrants and immigration to the U.S.
So, on March 1, Super Tuesday, Harold Smith and I sat and spoke in his living room. He was sitting in his plush leather recliner, his mother law on the couch next to us, and son in another recliner across the room. With CNN flickering in the background, Harold told me about growing up in South Carolina, through the years of desegregation.
He didn’t sugar coat the tension and tragedies of the time. He told me, “I do remember going to the water fountain and seeing white and colored, I remember that as a little kid.”
Harold’s life was, as he said, a “Simple life, really simple. We were sort of protected, but I do remember watching the news and seeing some of those things, thinking what is going on. Why are they beating people up with sticks? Just didn’t make much sense to me as a kid.”
These days, Harold lives in a gated subdivision where he fishes in a small lake just off his backyard deck. Over time he has realized how the changes around him have impacted the way he sees the world. He told me, “one of my sayings is, … my dad was less prejudiced than his dad. I’m less prejudiced than my dad and my children are less prejudiced than me, and their children will be less prejudiced than them.”
So I asked Harold where the political tension was coming from. He rocked in his recliner for an extra beat and said, “I think it’s the political correctness. I knew my grandpa, he didn’t own any slaves. My daddy didn’t own any slaves. I didn’t own any slaves. Somehow I owe somebody something. Nobody in my family ever owned a slave, but somehow I feel like I’m blamed for it.”
He went on, asking, “What are your needs? Your needs are the same as mine. Let’s get up and go to work. I don’t quite understand.”
His voice trailed off a bit, “I don’t know.”
There wasn’t anger in Harold’s voice. He supported immigration reform that included legal status for the undocumented. In fact, he talked about an undocumented woman he knew who was working hard to feed her family.
It wasn’t anger in Harold’s voice. It was confusion, frustration, and pain.
Just like he hoped his grandchildren would be better people, less prejudiced, than him, Harold wanted to make sure his children and their children prospered. Demographic change and racial equality weren’t necessarily a threat to Harold. They were points of confusion.
And to help him understand and the country understand these questions, Harold felt his best choice for president was Donald Trump.
The next evening, I went to visit Norma Blanton, at Arcadia Elementary.
Around a makeshift registration desk just inside the school’s front door, a handful of children, teenagers, and adults milled. Soon, Norma arrived and we walked to the other side of the school. We stepped into a small classroom where we sat in child-sized chairs. You know. The chairs where your kneecaps are at your chin.
Norma arrived in Spartanburg in 1999 with her husband, a southern Baptist pastor, just in time to help Arcadia Elementary deal with a rapidly diversifying student body. She told me, “They were starting a program of foreign language. Just having come back from Ecuador, they thought I knew Spanish. The funny thing was nobody asked me to speak Spanish or say anything. They just said, ‘We’ll hire you.’”
Over time, her Spanish language class became an ELL class for students, then it became a popular after school program for parents and their children.
Later, we stood outside a new financial literacy class as it was ending. Every woman who walked by knew Norma. More than one, she pointed out, had already “graduated” from another class but kept coming back to learn more.
This was a community isolated by language, transportation, and poverty. Arcadia Elementary had become a touchstone for the parents as much as it was for their children. These Latino families saw this building as a place where they could be with their community and learn how to integrate into American life.
But, as a town, Spartanburg made it difficult.
Norma told me that a few years earlier, “They put a [new] stop sign right out here [in front of the school.]” It was a trap, she said, “They put it there with the expectation to catch people from the community to check their papers. And we lost several families. Dad is here one day, gone the next.”
As I saw that night, in spite of these pressures, the programs went on.
We went back to Norma’s office and talked about the political rhetoric that dominated the news. Norma told me, “We talk a lot about it in my class, because [the students are] just fascinated with the politics. We talk about Trump. And a little guy who is a brick mason said, ‘Why does he hate me and he doesn’t even know me?’ I said, ‘Jose, if he knew you, he’d like you because you’re a hard worker.’”
From these conversations, Norma came to better understand the fears. She told me, “I thought, this is the United States of America, for heaven’s sakes. Nobody should be afraid to drive to Walmart to buy food for their children.”
My conversation with Norma was special because it was my last interview in South Carolina. I had met incredible people, eaten great food and learned more than I ever imagined. But each conversation surfaced a tension and a sadness.
So I asked, “Norma, what gives you hope?”
Norma paused, looked down at the table. Her eyes teared up, she looked at me and said, “They keep coming back.”
They keep coming back.
The night after the election, Harold called. He asked me what I thought about the results and I admitted I was surprised. That he was right. People were frustrated and angry in ways that were difficult to understand.
We started talking about immigration and Harold said that he didn’t think Trump would follow through on his campaign rhetoric. I replied, “Harold, if Trump turns his campaign promises into administration policy, you are the one who has to speak out to stop him.”
He paused for a second and said, “I know.”
At this moment, what gives me hope is the families I met at Arcadia Elementary School — who kept coming back. What gives me hope is Norma Blanton who is teaching these families the skills they need to reach their fullest potential. What gives me hope is Harold Smith who understands he is as big a part of fixing our immigration system as any of us in this room.
Look, I know a lot of good people who voted for Trump. They aren’t against immigrants and immigration. But they sought a different direction for America.
And I don’t believe 2016 was an election about policy or politics. It was an election about culture, values and who we are as a country. It was an election determined by voters who don’t think government works for them. We have to meet people where they are, but we can’t leave them there.
In closing, let me share an email exchange I had with one of the best political organizers in the country. On Wednesday morning after the election, he emailed me that engaging conservatives and moderates are no longer the priority.
To be honest, at that moment in time, I wasn’t sure he was wrong.
But two days later, after both our heads had cooled, he wrote to me that the Forum has to, “keep a candle lit in the darkness,” to keep building support among a broad set of Americans for immigrants and immigration to the nation.
Well, I am incredibly hopeful because tonight I know I am not holding that candle alone.
All of us in this room are holding that candle.
And, I truly believe the majority of Americans, conservative, liberal, independent, are holding that candle in the darkness.
Tonight, let’s commit to work together till the candles we hold are no longer necessary and the immigrant communities we care so deeply about see the light of day.