HOUSTON — Sitting at a round table outside a cafe in the Hyde Park neighborhood, 37-year-old Frances Fisher cannot contain her tears. The subject at hand is too painful and personal for her to discuss without emotion.
Fisher and the four colleagues sitting beside her are members of the Houston chapter of Never Again Action, a nationwide Jewish effort to protest the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers and shut down Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities.
The organization was founded in June by a small group of Jewish activists who were angered by pictures that emerged in the media of cramped facilities where immigrants slept on concrete floors, covered with aluminum emergency blankets. It has since grown into a nationwide movement. Over the past summer, thousands took to the streets in dozens of cities across the United States, blocking entrances to ICE facilities and engaging in civil disobedience under the banner “Never Again Is Now” – and often getting arrested in the process.
“I feel like it’s my job almost to keep reminding people this exists, you can’t just close the door,” says Fisher, attempting to wipe away her tears under her glasses. “It’s appalling to me.”
The ‘right thing to do’
About a hundred people had taken part in each of the two Houston-based actions over the summer. They gathered on Emancipation Ave., outside a detention center housing unaccompanied migrant children operated by the organization Southwest Key, in contract with the federal government.
David Smith, a 64-year-old political scientist who has been involved in political organizing for years, was one of the organizers of the protests. “I’m not Jewish but my wife Rona is. Her ancestors are from Poland, they were driven out by the pogroms,” he tells Haaretz at the coffee shop. “When we heard about Never Again getting organized nationally, we thought this is a really important development because certainly Jewish people have a unique and distinctive take on what camps mean and what they can lead to.”
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Smith was among the five activists who got arrested for blocking the road outside the detention center. For him, it was just “the right thing to do.”
“We also want this to impact public opinion, help people be more aware and inspire other people to take political actions,” he says. “When you have large numbers of people saying, ‘we’re going to stop business as usual because freedom and dignity demand it,’ that’s when you get change.”
Beth Moore was also arrested at the action. She says she feels very strongly about the children affected by the current immigration policy, which she believes is “paving the way for unspeakable suffering in the future.”
“I am a survivor of multiple ongoing trauma as a child, for two decades,” she says. “I absolutely cannot sit by. If you have any human decency about you at all, this will make your blood boil – and should.”
When she was arrested and detained for 24 hours, Moore, who suffers from fibromyalgia, says she experienced “a little tiny bit of what those children are experiencing. … But I have the tools and resources to pull myself out of that hole. Those children are gonna take years and years of therapy if they’re ever going to function properly at all.”
The impact of the current policies on children is also very important to Fisher, who works with kids who have experienced trauma, some of whom are undocumented. She recently completed her training to become a licensed yoga teacher and use the practice to help children in her work. The experiences that detained children are going through, she says, can have consequences ranging from “suicide, anxiety, lifetime depressive disorders and addiction.”
“A lot of the kids don’t have a language for the emotion and it’s turned into ‘my stomach hurts, I have headaches’ and stuff,” she says. “Also, their sense of trust must be so shattered, and what is it going to take to put that back together?”
“I see that we are going to be dealing with the consequences of the Trump administration for generations. Probably for the rest of my life I will be working on that,” Fisher adds.
Not just words
When the office of the inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security released a July report showing that ICE detention conditions are “unsafe and unhealthy,” people across the country were outraged. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sparked controversy when she called the facilities “concentration camps,” and began a national debate on whether her comparison was minimizing the Holocaust.
Although a long list of American Jewish organizations and elected officials condemned her remarks, many Jews, including those involved in the Never Again Action, embraced them. Ruth Kravetz, whose 89-year-old father survived the Holocaust but lost many family members in it, has worked as a teacher in a predominantly Latino Houston school since 1989. She says that part of her motivation to be involved stems from her Jewish background.
“To some extent, I do this because it would be unconscionable not to speak for my dad and his family,” she says. “That there are camps in this country, in this day, this time, is unconscionable.”
“I think all of us, when we were younger and read about the Holocaust, said if we were there, we would have done something,” she adds. “Ideally, it should be part of all of our lives and we should be stomping it down and making our world more peaceful and kind.”
“All Jews on some level know that you should be opposing this horrible immigration policy,” she says, “that is not what the American Dream, the United States, is founded on.”
For Elizabeth Haberer, a Jewish Houston-based psychotherapist who also has Mexican heritage, “Never again” is more than a phrase. “I think that the words speak for themselves, they are so powerful,” she says. “This is the moment where we get to do what we wished others would have done for our families, for our ancestors.”
Over the past months, Haberer has adopted this motto and started a network of 18 psychotherapists who provide pro-bono services for asylum seekers and those who have been separated at the border. She hopes to continue to grow the team over the next few months.
Not all of those who took part in the Houston protests this summer identify as Jews. Nevertheless, the message of “Never again” resonated with them. Moore, the woman who was arrested and detained for 24 hours, isn’t Jewish, but says the words hold meaning for her as a mother and a grandmother. When she saw that migrant children were being separated from their parents, she says, “I just felt it was like touching a hot stove.”
Putting her body on the line at the protest was “not about ideology – it’s about human decency and I am angry that this is happening in our country and that people are not in the streets over it. What kind of people are we?” she asks.
“I think it's really important for people of Jewish ancestry to remember and to say, ‘Never again,’ to explain what that means,” Smith adds. He believes that “the stench of fascism is definitely in the air” and it’s impossible not to sense it.
From red to blue?
There is no question that Texas is the epicenter of the current immigration crisis. Images of the border with Mexico and talks of a wall along it have made countless headlines since President Donald Trump took office three years ago. Although the state has been a Republican base for over two decades, recent figures suggest this might be changing.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the state’s Hispanic population will outgrow the number of white Texas residents by 2022. Between 2010 and 2017, the number of Hispanic residents increased by 18 percent, to over 11 million people (the total state population in 2017 was 28.3 million). Meanwhile, the white population only grew by 4 percent.
With the Hispanic community on its way to becoming a plurality of the Texan population, the Republican hold on the state may very well shift, especially given the Trump administration’s stances on immigration and the rhetoric the president uses when it comes to Hispanics.
According to an October 2019 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, 48 percent of the voters surveyed said they intend to definitely or probably reelect Trump in 2020, and 52 percent said they will definitely or probably vote for someone else. Among those who said they will definitely vote for someone else, 81 percent are black and 56 percent are Hispanic.
Many see the rise of political candidates such as Beto O’Rourke, who set a record for most votes cast for a Democrat in Texan history when he ran against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018, as a testimony of the changes the state is undergoing.
“Texas is not like it used to be,'' Smith says. “Even though large pockets of especially rural Texas are still pretty conservative, Trump is not particularly well loved here. You can get Trump supporters and even armed fascists into the streets here and there but Texas is definitely changing.”
In large Texas cities such as Houston, Smith says he has observed plenty of opposition to the Trump administration's immigration policies. “Houston is really incredibly diverse demographically and we have a lot of people of Mexican descent here, a lot of people from Central American descent, so the incarceration of youth and other migrants has really touched our core.”
Still, the political divide is strongly felt – as it is nationwide. The activists say they often find themselves in difficult conversations or having a hard time interacting with those on the other side of the political spectrum.
“I’ve lost many Facebook friends and acquaintances over my voicing my opinion online,” Fisher says. “I think we live in a sort of a nice bubble in Houston because it is so diverse and I think a lot of people have a more open-minded bend, but certainly it’s too easy for this culture to look away.”
Although demographic changes suggest that the Democratic Party may rise again in the state sooner than later, the activists are not excited about the current pool of Democratic candidates in the race for the 2020 presidential election. “There is no consistent message in the Democratic Party,” Fisher says. “That’s dangerous. That will open a path for Trump.” Fisher is supporting Sanders for 2020, but says she will “vote blue no matter who.”
After a whirlwind summer of protests, Never Again Action announced on its website that it will be back in December “in bigger and bolder ways than ever before,” and listed dozens of upcoming actions across the country. The organization says it is now focused on creating “a blueprint – a strategy or a structure ready to support tens of thousands” of participants.
Kravetz says her sense of urgency on the matter largely comes from her seeing the effects of the current immigration crisis in her daily life as a teacher. “Because of the harm being done to undocumented students and their families, ... there is a heightened degree of social emotional pain and trauma in our schools now,” she says. “You can feel it - More kids are sad, more kids have stomach aches, more kids have physical manifestations of mental health issues that they can’t understand and we need to do more.”