Irishman in Atlanta on undocumented immigrants: ‘I get a pass’

‘Imagine if the Irish were characterised as murderers, rapists and drug dealers by the country’s leader’


Cormac Lambe, from Dundalk, Co Louth who works as a university lecturer in Atlanta, Georgia, writes about the people of Atlanta standing up to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid on undocumented migrants in the city.

“I pray for a day when this country truly offers liberty and justice for all,” lamented one of the speakers at Lights for Liberty demonstration in Atlanta, Georgia last Friday.

The United States is a cut-throat society, long a bastion of individualism. Many among of the country’s right wing political class not only discard the needs of the vulnerable, but seemingly thrive on making life harder for people less fortunate. But with the advent of the Trump administration’s undocumented migrant “deterrence” policy, a new hardheartedness has been excavated, one that calls into question the most basic, fundamental decencies expected of - and routinely trumpeted as by US television media of every bent - “the great experiment in democracy.”

On the day vice president Mike Pence belatedly toured a migrant detention centre in Texas (videoed observing a cage of more than 300 adult men), a coordinated series of rallies, Lights for Liberty, took place in locations across the country to express anger and disbelief at the treatment of migrants by government institutions. At the demonstration I attended in Atlanta, the atmosphere certainly reflected this.

The Atlanta Liberty for Lights protest on Friday evening took place at Plaza Fiesta, a Latin-American themed shopping centre and meeting place on the outskirts of the city. Brightly adorned with artistic representations of Hispanic culture, the Plaza is a focal point locally for immigrant communities from Central America and elsewhere. Frankly speaking, it is an otherwise aesthetically mundane place on the side of a rather isolated highway, yet there is a palpable sense of cheery community that might remind an Irish emigrant of the sanctuary of a genuine Irish pub or a GAA club - a comparison that is not intended with the slightest flippancy.

In the past week, Atlanta’s undocumented communities have been preparing for so-called “round-ups” by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) teams, having been alerted to the operation a second time by a Trump Twitter announcement. The mayor of Atlanta has refused point blank to assist deportation enforcement, going as far as to publicly express concern that ICE were on Sunday planning to raid a block party at a city park where Latino communities gather.

Meanwhile, Atlanta Public Schools officials have sought to assure families that they too are unsupportive. In the recent past, ICE officers have reportedly targeted Buford Highway where Plaza Fiesta is located and has a concentrated Latino population. The choice of location for Friday’s protest in Atlanta seems, in equal measure, practical, symbolic and defiant.

I attended the Lights for Liberty demonstration out of a mixture of frustration, appal and empathy for those who, like me, arrived in the US as a foreigner. I’ve found the transition challenging at times, and know what it feels like to be an outsider - the stress and expense of paperwork, the yearning for home and the familiar, the cultural divergences that create misunderstandings and confusion. I’ve known all of this well, but I was lucky to have been well-educated in Ireland before I came here. I speak English fluently, with an accent that locals kindly compliment, and in terms of my identity as an immigrant, it is not a stretch to suggest that I get a pass on much because I am a white European married to an American.

I can only imagine how challenging my experience would be if Irish immigrants here were blithely and sweepingly characterised as murderers, rapists and drug-dealers by the country’s leader, with the residue from such toxic and inaccurate sentiments observably trickling down through institutions and society.

The past three years have electrified those whose racism and ignorance was probably once dampened by social stigma, but who now appear emboldened since US president Donald Trump’s winks and elbow-nudging inferred that it was all good.

Positively, however, the crowd of hundreds that braved sweltering heat and rush hour traffic to attend the Atlanta Lights for Liberty demonstration was as far a cry from Trump’s base as one could hope to find. The diversity of the crowd gave a truer reflection to the demographic and societal reality in this country. Particularly, I was encouraged by the large number of white people - young, old and in-between - who shouted with the same vigour as those with Hispanic accents. There were songs, prayers, cheers, and chants in both English and Spanish.

Placards ranged from fierce denunciation of the Trump administration, to images of tearful children behind wire mesh. Civil rights groups and lawyers were on hand to provide free assistance and advice to those concerned about deportations, and volunteers waded through the throng to ask attendees if they were registered to vote.

It was an all-round spiriting example of civically-minded people of all hues and backgrounds uniting around a common cause: that of basic human decency and rejection of creeping fascistic upticks that prey on the weakest and, indeed, on the insecurities and vulnerabilities of a proportion of Americans.

From reports and photos on social media, the Atlanta Liberty for Lights demonstration was by no means the largest of the coordinated protests across the US that evening, and there is an argument to be made as to why there is not more routine mass mobilisation here against the ill treatment of migrants. After all, there is a deep history of diversity in Atlanta, which is also home to Clarkston, a long-established government settlement point for refugees and reputedly “the most diverse square mile in the US”.

Nonetheless, when news reports from this side of the Atlantic are negatively focused, it is important to shed light on the efforts of ordinary people to call out injustice and stand next to the vulnerable when the powerful fail them.

Events of recent years here have been difficult to grapple with at times, and it is easy to become despondent by the relentless scouring of norms, attacks on progressive gains, and unacceptable treatment of people escaping destitution, lack of opportunity and violence. Nevertheless, continuously increasing numbers of Americans, horrified by outrages in their name, are alert to the urgency to cry out against the cementing of that which is “not normal,” and it is right to acknowledge that.

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