I found myself at a bench in the Boise Airport, asking a man if he would like to read an immigrant's story aloud from a slip of paper. The crowd around him hushed as another woman stood to read one of the stories. The man shook his head and said, "No, I am a story."
And he was.
Ours is a young democracy. Many of us approach this new presidency with a sense that it will pass; that it is a two- or four-year terror, aggravation, disillusionment or inconvenience. We believe it will end when Americans hold another presidential election or after we labor to change Congress so it represents us as a force set on the values of liberty, equality, justice and hope.
The man on the bench showed me another side. In his eyes was the same terror I'd seen in a student from Myanmar. She sat in my office, hair covered by her hijab. She sobbed, trying to explain to me that she's seen this kind of hate before. This is how it starts, she said—with words. She was a student who had fled a country where religious conflict has led to civil war. She's lost family and seen hate as I never have, even as a gay person who's seen it in plenty of eyes.
Violent uprisings, military coups, detention camps, ethnic cleansing and genocide grow out of hate. The man on the bench at the airport watched 600 people sing and tell stories of immigrants on Jan. 28. Still he could not tear his mind from the travel ban on seven Muslim-majority nations imposed by President Donald Trump. He looked at me and said, "It's happening again." He said it over and over and it wasn't an abstract fear. It was terror. His own two small children sat next to him on the bench.
I pleaded with him that we would fix it, elect someone else, stand up and resist. He said, "You won't be able to stop him. I've seen this. This is how it starts."
Ruling by fear leads to hate. Indelicate policy will tear the fabric of trust we wrap around ourselves, smiling at each other as we pick vegetables from overflowing shelves at the grocery store.
What of the wall and spending tens of billions of dollars on a structure few really believe will work? Other nations share borders and workers without criminalizing passage from one country to another. Why can't we?
Idaho in summer is a state crowned with snowy peaks and river valleys hemmed by vast aprons of green irrigated farmlands. Our economy still hinges on agriculture. Technology companies, our national lab, Micron, and Hewlett Packard rely on engineers, programmers and translators who hold nothing but work visas or green cards. We all want to see manufacturing jobs return, but using a chainsaw rather than a scalpel will make our economy hemorrhage instead.
Agriculture, especially industries that need year-round labor, already face shortages. They take workers without visas because they have to, because we don't issue enough, because the system is broken and punitive—but fixable. Why aren't we doing as U.S. Sen. Larry Craig once did: Trying to fix what's broken about immigration, rather than punishing and demeaning those caught in the brokenness; those putting food on our tables and sacrificing so we have milk, meat and vegetables we can afford?
In the desert southeast of Boise sits the shadow of barracks and tar paper shacks. Buildings circled by barbed wire fences only decades ago incarcerated our nation's Japanese Americans—not for their actions or any crime or evidence of threatening intent, but because of their national origin. Families were sent from their homes and taken in cattle cars to remote places like the Minidoka War Relocation Camp because, in fear, Americans allowed their government to make a gross judgement, presuming that heritage alone could make people abandon their love of a country—a place where they had raised children, opened businesses or arrived to fulfill a dream.
Trump has issued orders banning and detaining people based on their race, religion and national origin. It runs counter to the fundamental principle of our democracy that all are created equal and endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the right to seek happiness.
This is reckless. It leaves vulnerable men, women and children in the path of violence and puts at risk the lives of Americans. It creates fear in communities that deprive good people of the ability to fully participate in society, in work and the economy. It creates fear that is not based on reason but bias. We do not want a generation living in fear of violence and escalation—fear that, if it is reinforced with discrimination, could turn to hate. These policies do the opposite of everything we know about preventing war and violence in the era of terrorism.
Tears on my face, I leaned down to the man on the bench and his children and thought of the future he is terrified is repeating itself, a future he has lived and watched unfurl and I have not. I said the only thing I could think of to convey the depth of my commitment to avoiding that future. I said to him and to all the others like him who came here seeking refuge, hope and a place away from violence, "I and many like me would stand in front of tanks for you and your children."