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If They Are Not Coming for You Today

A conversation with Murad Awawdeh

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. Since election night 2016, the streets of the United States have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talking with experienced organizers, troublemakers, and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fighting for a long time. They’ll be sharing their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed, and what is still the same.

Sarah Jaffe with Murad Awawdeh:

Murad Awawdeh: My name is Murad Awawdeh and I am the Director of Political Engagement at the New York Immigration Coalition.

Sarah Jaffe: They are back in court this week—you have done a bunch of work around the Muslim ban. Can you tell us where things are with that and where organizing around it is right now?

MA: Right now, May 8, we kicked off the week of resistance against the ban and we are titling it “No Muslim Ban Ever.” May 8 was the first hearing at the Fourth Circuit Court and what we are thinking about doing now is continuously elevating the impact of the Muslim ban and that is what we have been doing since the start of this, because when you hear of a travel ban of a Muslim ban, if you really kind of feel detached without knowing the real human impact and the human impact is really detrimental. Especially to a place like New York where we have a huge amount of folks who are Muslim, who come from these six or seven Muslim countries that have been impacted extremely. We are not even talking about folks who are pretty much coming here as a tourist, because the tourist economy is really built off of a folks from the Middle East here are now going other places, because they don’t want to deal with coming and getting hassled in the States.

The human impact is when we are talking about people being barred from coming here from Yemen, a war-torn country that has been in conflict for years now, uh, the impacts aren’t just as simple as, “Oh, well, they can go somewhere else.” No, they can’t. And the reality is, if they stay there, they are going to die. That is the same thing in most of Syria. We have been watching Syria unravel, seeing it go from devastation to even worse devastation. Seeing folks who are Syrian who are here as refugees, who are here as green card holders, as students, and hearing their stories about how this has impacted them in a way in which they have no other place to go and if they stay there, their life is in danger. So it’s either going back to Syria and essentially being killed or going to a refugee camp, which is another huge issue in another country where they are not allowed to work or go to school and they are pretty much just in internment camps, or come here to try to build a new life for themselves. The human impact from the Muslim ban is actually core to what we are doing and what we have been doing since it came down in January until now.

SJ: Talk about some of the organizing and the actions that are going on this week for this week of resistance.

MA: [Tuesday there was] a Twitter town hall answering any questions people may have about the Muslim ban. I think you are going to see a bunch of media from our Facebook and Twitter and Instagram the elevation of people’s stories who are impacted and why, not only the human impact, but also how this goes against everything that we are as Americans and goes against our core values of freedom and fairness. We are going to be having different events across New York State, as a whole, from Buffalo down to Brooklyn really bringing people together and then letting them hear from each other and understand what it means for these folks who are impacted to have to deal with the anxiety and the uncertainty of something like this, because let’s just say the court comes back and reversed the injunction, the ban goes back into place automatically. At the New York Immigration Coalition, if that were to happen, we are ready to go back to JFK and provide 24/7 legal assistance to people who are impacted to try to get them out if they are in flight and get detained when they land. And to turn up the heat and the pressure in the street so that the resistance movement that we have been building since December is actually activated to show up, to turn out and show what our American values and what our New York is about and showing the world that this is our New York and it is not reflective of this Muslim ban.

SJ: Talk a little bit about the history of the New York Immigration Coalition.

MA: The New York Immigration Coalition was founded in 1987. We are turning thirty this year. We are the largest coalition of our type in the nation. We have over two hundred members across the state of New York. We have groups that we work with in western New York, in the east end of Long Island, and everywhere in between. We are in a particularly interesting position within New York where a lot of folks think the immigrant New York population is located in New York City primarily, but that is not the case [anymore]. We have member agencies who are refugee resettlement organizations in the southern tier, in western New York, and what we know is that after 2000, there has been a huge flight from those areas and the way it has been repopulated has been through the resettlement of refugees, as well as new immigrant communities really reviving the economies and having them become thriving in these areas that have been pretty much in a recession for the past twenty or thirty years.

SJ: Talk about where things were before this election, for the work you are doing, and what has changed since.

The reality was that whoever won, it was going to be a difficult fight. It is just a different fight now.

MA: The work prior to Election Day was planned out for us well in advance of the election. We had a “What if Hillary Clinton Wins?” and “What if Donald Trump Wins?” At first people thought we were crazy for doing scenario-planning for both, because everyone thought it was clear who was going to win. Just erring on the side of caution, we decided that it was really important that we do that. Prior to the election, we were looking at “What can real immigration reform at the federal level look like?” and “How do we revive those thoughts in a way where we are providing eleven million undocumented people a pathway to citizenship and to status in the United States?”

The reality was that whoever won, it was going to be a difficult fight. It is just a different fight now. As opposed to just thinking about “What is that pathway?” now we have to think about this large scale enforcement apparatus that is being created, that is building off of the huge enforcement apparatus that President Obama already had in place. With Donald Trump being elected, we dusted off our “What if Donald Trump Wins?” scenario plan and started to spruce it up. Then, shortly after that, we kicked off our This is Our New York campaign, which really was to illustrate the values of New York and how immigrants have been the backbone and the foundation of building this great state.

When we did that, people were pretty much really taken aback by it because a lot of folks who are native New Yorkers just were like, “Oh, well my family came here three generations ago, or four generations ago, and I don’t really think of immigrants as a way we built the city.” This city and the state were built on the back of immigrants and continues to be. The hard work, the blood, sweat and tears of everything that was built, these skyscrapers in New York City or these cities in upstate New York were built primarily by folks who are immigrants.

We kicked off with a march on December 18 . . . and we marched from the UN to Trump Tower to illustrate what the diversity of New York looks like. That was a really empowering and amazing feeling to actually see the diversity that came out that day because the reality was that everyone was still dealing with the shock of the election and the outcome of the election. We had really done our due diligence in ensuring that every aspect of our communities were represented.

When we did that, it set the stage for us to continue to be able to build upon the movement that we have been building for thirty years. Shortly after that, we were able to respond quickly to every single instance and every negative anti-immigrant policy that Donald Trump put forward. It started off with his announcement that he signed the executive orders [to radically increase] Customs and Border Patrol, especially Border Patrol, and . . . ICE enforcement officers.[*] Then shortly after that, a couple of days later, that is when he signed the Muslim ban. In every single instance we have been able to respond in a way that really demonstrates how people in New York refuse to acknowledge and accept the anti-immigrant, anti-American policies he puts forward.

We have been able to build up our resistance movement built on people from all walks of life coming together to say “This is not right. This goes against who we are.” You can see through the actions that we have done at JFK when the Muslim ban came down, where five to ten thousand people showed up in a span of four hours. The next day we had a march from Battery Park, which overlooks the Statue of Liberty and marched straight to the DHS building at 26 Federal Plaza in New York City and [perhaps as many as] thirty thousand people showed up to that.[**] After that, we had about twenty other events that drew thousands of people consecutively. It became this huge resistance force on the ground. And not only on the ground, but in the courts and providing people with the legal assistance that they needed for free. That was something where we were able to demonstrate as an organization our ability to really put pressure on the streets, but also provide the legal expertise that was needed at that point to help people get out of the situation they were in when they were stuck in JFK.

If they are not coming for you today, they will be coming for you tomorrow.

SJ: The conversation about the JFK protests in public was very much, “These are spontaneous protests.” I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the way that people who had been doing this immigration work for a long time were able to bring in new people and capitalize on this energy that people have now for wanting to resist Trump.

MA: The fact of the matter is that folks are now realizing that we are all linked and our issues are all linked together. So, if they are not coming for you today, they will be coming for you tomorrow.

I think that we have been able to really put the pieces of the puzzle together to illustrate how every issue, reproductive rights, healthcare, women’s rights, the ability to travel freely, the ability to practice your religion, the ability to fight for economic justice are all interlinked and we all have a shared common target. It now is the presidency and the administration, because the reality is that the same people who are coming after the immigrants and the Muslims are the same people going after women’s rights and reproductive rights and trying to destroy our economy. All of this is interlinked because we are all connected and we are all on the same page where if one person is hurt, it is like hurting one part of the body. Then, another part of the body gets hurt and then another part of the body. We are one living organism and we have to stand up or each other.

I think that is really what has been resonating with people. This goes for people who have been active in civic life and for people who have never been active. The reality is that the people who have never been active have now really felt the burden and the pressure of their lives being impacted and are showing up because it is the right thing to do and to illustrate that our values are not similar at all to the man who is president right now—who comes from our city and our state and was born and raised here. That has been the connector for everyone who has been able to start coming out and has continued to come out.

There has been a lot of talk of protestor fatigue. The reality is we are not seeing that. We keep seeing people continue to show up and more people coming out to support. We been in a pretty interesting position where the work that we have been doing prior to this year is really coming to the forefront, because we have been saying this for a very long time. Under President Obama, we had the most people deported under a single president and we were fighting back against that. Now we are seeing it even more accelerated and looking as if Trump is going to surpass potentially what Obama was able to do.

We want to make sure that what we have been doing continues to grow, and grow in a way where it is sustainable and intentional and meaningful for the people who are coming out and supporting these issues, because if one person is getting hurt today, someone else will be getting hurt tomorrow. That is what we saw when we did the protest in December, launching the This Is Our New York campaign, and then what we saw at JFK and what we saw the day after in Battery Park and what we saw at the next twenty events that we did every day until the first Muslim ban executive order was pulled back. The reality is that what is really bringing people together is that all these issues are now resonating with people in a way in which it never did before.

SJ: Speaking of protest fatigue, as we are talking [on Tuesday, May 9] there are people in front of Harlem Success Academy because Paul Ryan is there.

MA: Yes, people are out there today at Harlem Success Academy 1 because the man who wants to destroy healthcare is meeting with the woman who wants to destroy public education. The intersections there are immense. We want to make sure that we are not just asking people to show up to our stuff, but we are showing up to other issues that do impact our communities as well.

SJ: In New York, on the one hand, you have a Democrat-controlled mayor’s office and legislature and all of the important positions in the government. That means that a lot of them have come out and made the right noises about wanting to protect immigrants from Trump and things like that. On the other hand, we still have these ongoing fights around things like broken windows policing. I wonder if you could talk about the challenges of negotiating with both the national government that is just completely hostile and then a local government that sometimes is not hostile and sometimes still is.

The very basic things: get to know your neighbors, get to know their stories, understand where they are coming from.

MA: I am just going to put it out there: It is completely different. I don’t want to compare and contrast, because they are extremely different. But, the reality is that there are similarities.

In the city, we have a mayor who is extremely supportive of immigrant communities and a speaker of the New York City council who has been the biggest advocate and the biggest champion of immigrant communities ever. If you look at how much money has been invested in immigrant communities under New York City Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, you will see that she has really been innovative in thinking about ways that we can best use public dollars to bring together all of our communities. She has really been a champion on that front. The mayor has, for the most part, been extremely great on the immigration front, but the reality is that we can’t just talk about immigration siloed anymore when we have policies that criminalize people for very miniscule things. That then puts them on the pathway to deportation.

The fact of the matter is that when we made our New York City priorities this year, ending broken windows policing was part of our recommendation to the city. The recommendation wasn’t just put in there because we thought it would be great to have intersecting priorities. It is in there because it is impacting all of our communities. The reality is that if broken windows continues to be a practice that the city does not end, then we are going to continue to put people who are already vulnerable in potentially deadly situations [as they become] targets for deportation. So, while we have these great initiatives that the mayor is rolling out, we also have moments where there’s been clashing where we are like, “Well, you are understanding we are going to defend our immigrant New Yorkers, but we also need to defend them by ensuring that our Black, Latino, and other immigrant communities aren’t being impacted by these policies that have been put into place during one of the most racist and bigoted, xenophobic administrations ever. To have someone like our mayor now to continue to support broken window policing is really a detriment not only to the immigrant communities, but low income communities across the city.

SJ: If you are talking to people who want to get involved in organizing around immigrants’ rights, around fighting the Muslim ban, things like that, what advice would you give people? Especially if they are maybe not in New York City or in a big city where the groups to join up with are immediately obvious?

MA: If you have noticed what is happening across the nation—I have never seen anything like this in my life. People in communities are now coming together and meeting their neighbors, specifically getting to know their neighbors so that they know who they are living next to; which kind of seems like a very easy thing to do and something that is very common sense-ish, but for the most part has not been happening. The very basic things: get to know your neighbors, get to know their stories, understand where they are coming from. If you are living somewhere where there isn’t any big group organizing around immigration, create your own group. I have seen that hyperlocal organizing across the city and the state and literally across the states that surround us where these groups have formed to fight back against hate or these groups have been created to really take to task and hold elected officials accountable.

Join a group. Understand what policies that Congress and the Senate are introducing that will impact immigrants’ lives. Then, if you are living in a big city or a big state that has immigrant rights organizations, contact them. See if there is a way that you can volunteer. If you have a speciality that you do, if you work in tech, every organization needs tech support. If you work in graphic design or in the design world, help organizations create materials that make it exceptionally streamlined for them to get their message out. Or, donate. I think donating is a very simple and easy way that people can really be involved in an organization’s longevity, as well as showing up to events, showing up to protests, showing up to actions.

We don’t have the courtesy of right now providing people with accepted notice of protests anymore because things are happening at such a fast pace. These protests are created within minutes of each other so that we can really step up and fight back. The reality is if we don’t put pressure in the streets or in the courts, then we are in a losing battle. We are in it for the long haul, so thinking about it as a way of “How do you take care of yourself to ensure that you can continue doing the work that you want to do” is very important, as well. If you are really interested and you are in New York and you want to sign up for the New York Immigration Coalition’s action alerts, it is easy. Text NYIC to the number 864237 and you will be receiving constant updates of our actions that we are doing across the state.

SJ: You gave us the action alerts, but what other ways can people keep up with you and your organization?

MA: Follow us on Twitter. I really great conduit for getting information out has been Twitter. You can definitely follow us there. Personally, I am on Twitter. My handle is @HeyItsMurad and follow the New York Immigration Coalition Twitter which is @TheNYIC. Like us on Facebook. Figure out how you can participate in the stuff that we are doing. We don’t tell people, “You have to show up to everything” but it is great when we have a strong network of people who are willing to stand up and fight back for all of us.


[*] The executive orders in question declared that the government would hire five thousand more Border Patrol agents and ten thousand more Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents.

[**] Reports of the turnout range from ten thousand to thirty thousand.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.