City of Immigrants: A Night of Support

On Monday evening, February 13, 2017, I had the privilege of joining an audience of close to 1100 people who came to hear an impressive array of Baltimore’s intelligentsia speak on behalf of the current plight of immigrants to the U.S., who have been caught in the crosshairs and chaos of #45. Sponsored and led by Baltimore author and producer, David Simon, the event was put together to rally and raise funds for four Maryland organizations that focus on justice for immigrants: the National Immigration Law Center, the Tahirih Justice Center, the International Rescue Committee, and The ACLU of Maryland.

Michael Olesker, former Baltimore Sun columnist
Michael Olesker, former Baltimore Sun columnist

Thirteen speakers and one musician enthralled the crowd with brief speeches—and a singalong—with several themes: (1) to introduce the above organizations, (2) to tell their own, personal immigration stories, (3) to provide historical, social, and public health contexts to the issue of Immigration, and (4) to rally the audience, whose price of admission was a donation to support these organizations and the critical cause these organizations represent.
My presence there was an act of largesse by a dear and valued friend, without whom I probably would not have heard about this event, and even if I had, I most likely would not have had the opportunity to attend. That being said, the issue of Immigration is high on my personal list of issues I care about (and I have many).

I would like to highlight just a few of the participants (and not in chronological order), at what was, for me, an extraordinary and, at times, disquieting experience.

The event was opened by Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am Synagogue, which was the venue. After setting the tone for the evening, that we were celebrating a better America—and making us mindful of the decorum required in a House of God, Rabbi Burg shared his own family’s immigration story. Then, he introduced the first speaker, Yaseen Shaikh, an interfaith colleague who represented the Islamic Society of Baltimore.

Imam Shaikh related a lesson from the Koran that essentially addressed a critical spiritual and human question: Why would God create people with so many differences (tribal/racial, social/cultural, etc.)? The Answer: So that we will know each other. So that we will learn from each other. He went on to explain that one of the most important lessons that humans should learn is that everyone deserves a chance, and that in our better America, we’ve expressed this basic value in the words inscribed below the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor….” The disparity between what we value and what we actually do was addressed (to varying degrees of success, in my mind) by several of the ensuing speakers, and I will discuss this disparity—and the source of my disquiet—shortly. But, first, I want to highlight another speaker, whose perspective and message were startling to consider.

Maciej Ceglowski, founder of Tech Solidarity, issued both a potent warning about and an appeal to the higher purpose of our modern technology. The warning: that the social media platform, Facebook, that so many of us (including me) rely on, already stores all the information we feed into it (i.e., our privacy rights are already compromised); and that information can be used as a weapon or a smokescreen against our best interests. The issue that the tech industry—and we users—need to grapple with is, What are the ethics of tech? [Need I remind us all about the havoc that Wikileaks and unsecured email servers and Twitter feeds, and leaks have caused, and continue to cause, in our nation—at this hour?]

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The next group of speakers crystallized for me the source of my disquiet—what, really, is the definition of an immigrant?

Oxford University Press (©; online definition powered by The Oxford Dictionaries) defines the word as

“a person born in or coming from a country other than one’s own.
informal
a person not belonging to a particular place or group; a stranger or outsider.
synonyms: alien · nonnative · stranger · outsider · immigrant ·
landed immigrant · refugee · settler · newcomer
antonyms: native”

Dr. Leana Wen, the Health Commissioner for Baltimore City, eloquently shared her personal story, one that struck me as the quintessential immigration story; and recent enough to be more clearly understood by generations younger than mine. Dr. Wen was born in Shanghai, China. Because her father had been imprisoned as a political dissident, her family had to leave China, and they were fortunate enough to receive the kind of assistance that is in peril today, because of the Executive Order of #45. In other words, Dr. Wen’s story was the clearest, most modern illustration of why this night of rallying and fundraising was so important.

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But it took the eminent Civil Rights historian, Taylor Branch, and the young, “upstart” activist/organizer/educator, DeRay McKesson, to even touch on, much less begin to address, The Elephant in the Room: Black people.

Mr. Branch, a Baltimorean by way of Atlanta, Georgia, pointed to The Elephant with his opening thoughts: that the history of immigration in America is predicated on the tacit understanding that white people are always on top—always first. He briefly discussed the shady history of eugenics, by which white people tried to support their claim of genetic superiority over any other race that sought to live in this country. [Though totally discredited by modern science, the eugenics theory still rears its head today, albeit in narrower quarters.] I have to admit that I was totally unprepared for the next history lesson Mr. Branch imparted: that it was the 1960s Black Freedom movement that opened up immigration laws that overturned the whites-first rule; and that it was Lyndon Johnson and his 1965 Civil Rights law that cemented more equitable immigration for all nationalities.

DeRay McKesson delivered an unusually terse, yet powerful, message for all of us—those assembled and those who may benefit from the night’s event. First, he cautioned us against giving in to the trauma we currently in face: Trauma = Powerlessness; and the specter of an Apocalypse signals an End. Instead, we must tell the Truth, so that we can reconcile our higher promise with our reality.

 

Now, you know by my handle that I am a Black woman from Baltimore and that, because I am Black, my ancestors (and, probably, Mr. McKesson’s) did not willingly “emigrate” to America! But what you probably don’t know is that I am a native of Maryland, by virtue of the fact that in my mother’s family, alone, my forebears have lived in Maryland for a documented 206 years! Far longer than any of the esteemed speakers in this group (or even, perhaps, in the entire panel), except for Mr. Branch and Mr. McKesson!

 

So, here is my conundrum: How can I be a “native” American (because I was born and raised here) and, at the same time, feel like I didn’t belong in that room? Especially as, from my front-row seat, I—a fellow musician (who used to perform folk/rock music while playing 12-string guitar), sang, tapped my feet, and clapped along with our musical guest, the American Rock, Country, & Singer-Songwriter, Steve Earle—whose work is represented in my personal music collection? Yet, I sang along, to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and Mr. Earle’s song, for which the event was named, “City of Immigrants.”

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As I left this event, I couldn’t help but wonder how I must have looked (1) to the few Black people in attendance—both in the audience and among the photographers’ corps, and (2) to the rest of the assembly.

 

Author’s Note: For a more complete account of this event, please click on the following article:

http://www.baltimorefishbowl.com/stories/Baltimoreans-join-solidarity-david-simons-city-immigrants-rally-fundraiser/


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