DISSENT: During COVID-19, showing solidarity is even more important

We are in a frightening time. Some 135,235 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and an untold number are battling infections. Meanwhile, the rest of us must protect ourselves whenever we venture out in public — not just from the virus, but also from racist anti-Asian suspicions and sometimes even violence.

But we are not the only ones who are exhausted and scared. The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified existing inequalities and injustices in America.

People of color are more likely to live in viral hotspots, more likely to have lost their jobs during the pandemic, and more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people.

What’s worse, some pre-existing systems of oppression are using the virus as an opportunity to inflict even greater harms.

Take, for example, immigrant families in ICE detention centers. At the end of April, citing the rising risks of COVID-19 infections in detention facilities, a federal judge ordered ICE to move more quickly to release immigrant children from its custody. ICE responded in the most inhumane way possible. In May, at family detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania, ICE officers called detained mothers into meetings and told them to make a choice between signing two forms: One authorized the rapid release of their children, but separated the mother from her children and left her detained; the other kept the family together, but would detain them all indefinitely.

Releasing the families together, which ICE has the authority to do, was not one of the choices the officers gave to the mothers.
As Japanese Americans know, this is hardly the first time that the U.S. government has presented a similarly cruel and false set of choices. During World War II, the government’s so-called “loyalty questionnaire” forced Japanese American families into frantic discussions about which responses could keep them together and which might lead to them being split up, with some family members deported to Japan and others left behind in America.

Even with public health restrictions on mass gatherings, we can stand in solidarity with those trapped in such terrifying circumstances. In April, Tsuru for Solidarity and others used car caravans instead of marches to demand that ICE detainees be freed from the Yuba County Jail in California.

And even without leaving our homes, we can press our elected officials to free people from prisons, jails, and detention centers where they face imminent risks of COVID-19 infection. The Tsuru Rising virtual gathering on June 6-7 was an opportunity to hear from national partners in the immigrant rights movement and to build new regional strategies in the face of the pandemic.

These acts of solidarity make a tangible difference. As one Latinx activist told me last year at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, witnessing our Japanese American movement for immigrant rights provided her with a unique source of hope. When she saw multiple generations of Japanese Americans — with our history of racist mass incarceration and government suppression of dissent — coming out to draw connections between our past and the present-day mistreatment of immigrants, she saw what her family’s future, and the future of millions of Dreamers, could look like in a future America. Having this vision in mind, she told me, would help her maintain hope amidst the darkness and fear of the present.

Such hope was badly needed last year, but it’s needed even more today. The COVID-19 pandemic has left immigrants even more vulnerable than before.

In both New York and California, ICE continued carrying out raids even after stay-at-home orders went into effect. Many feared the Supreme Court will terminate DACA status for Dreamers during the pandemic. And ICE detention centers are especially dangerous places to be right now, given the combination of crowding, denial of access to basic hygiene products like soap and hand sanitizer and lethally substandard medical care.

This is not the time to retreat into our own fears. It is the time for us all to stand up, offer a beacon of hope, and be the allies that we never had during World War II. Together, we can envision and build a world without cages or concentration camps.

Carl Takei, a Yonsei, is a senior staff attorney at the ACLU, co-chair of Tsuru for Solidarity, and a board member for the New York Day of Remembrance Committee. He now coordinates the ACLU’s national strategy on police practices, and previously conducted ACLU litigation and advocacy on prison privatization and immigration detention. You can follow him on Twitter at @carltakei, or reach him at nichibei@carltakei.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly nor the ACLU.

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