On International Human Rights Day, which also marks the 70th anniversary of the United Nations signing onto the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, I traveled with the California Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations to join over 400 faith leaders and activists on the militarized San-Diego/Tijuana border zone to seek the protection of the human right to migrate, and to draw attention to the dangerous precedent of the militarization of our border communities.
Arms-locked, we marched along the shore, over the wet sand, toward the massive border wall topped with concertina wire. Border guards packed with military weapons and gear stood in a tight formation shoulder-to-shoulder, blocking our access to the wall. On the other side, refugees pressed their bodies into the gaps between the iron slats — men, women, children. We could see their traumatized bodies, watching our movements — curious expressions on their faces. Guards who have been authorized by our president to shoot mere stone-throwers pointed machine guns in their faces.
Our government’s effort to thwart safe passage is an egregious violation of the human right to migrate on the grounds of seeking political asylum. Furthermore, the notion that we are facing an unprecedented immigration wave that will cripple our economy and must be stopped to support our own survival may have gained traction in populism, but it is not backed by data. According to the Pew Research Center’s key findings about U.S. immigrants, the number of new immigrant arrivals has actually decreased.
I knelt in the wet sand, holding hands with a Jewish rabbi and a Christian pastor as we sang: “We are not afraid!” and I tried to make myself believe that I am brave. All our religions enjoin us to “Love thy neighbor.” We understand that commandment to be an injunction for action, not only an expression of feeling, which is why we put our bodies on the line. I glanced over at the embroidered stole of one of the pastors, the hem of her robe caked with sand and salt water; it reads: “Jesus was a poor man.”
Just beyond that wall, thousands of refugees have set up encampments. Seeking safety in numbers, over 7,000 people, including over 2,000 children, walked toward our border on the “migrant caravan.” Though our own promise calls out to them: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” they find our promise to be only empty words.
We gas their children with chemical weapons. If we can catch them, we separate the parents from the children to brand their memories with our cruelty. We want to scar them and to send their people a message: that we are a nation, guided by the ideology of white supremacy, not compassion and principles.
As they bear witness to our inhumanity, we came to bear witness to their suffering and to declare: “Not in our name.”
Guards shouted, “Move back!” as we sang words of peace. In lock step formation, they pushed us back. And as often as they moved us farther way from the wall, we walked and sometimes crawled back. Guards threw some of the faith leaders and activists to the ground before arresting them. They reached over the first line of faith leaders to try to grab a Quaker man. One guard caught his backpack, but the man released himself by pulling his arms out of its straps, letting the backpack roll over his head. Other demonstrators tried to pull him to safety, but the guards pursued him. Later, they claimed that he has assaulted one of their officers, despite clear video evidence that he never touched a border guard.
Love moved us to action. I will not be silent while my own children are afforded privilege, yet across the border, our neighbors are condemned to a fate of poverty and violence. I cannot rest knowing that while I tuck in my children at night, another mother’s child is forcibly removed from her arms and cries, panic-stricken in one of our concentration prisons. The fear that we experienced, as un-armed citizens waging a war of peace in the spirit of nonviolent resistance, is but a drop in the ocean of tremors felt by our border neighbors who cling to the hope of our promise.
While we may fear military weapons pointed against us, even more we fear policies aimed at the normalization of white supremacy. The people will not collude with injustice. We will continue, and more will join the call. As Omar Sulieman, one of the Muslim faith leaders called out: “A nation must protect its borders, but more importantly, a nation must protect its soul.”
Danette Zaghari-Mask is an attorney for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation's largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.