Sunday, February 19, 2017

Days of absence: Trump galvanizes
the immigration identification movement

IF THINGS AROUND you seemed to be a little different on Thursday — your favorite restaurant closed, the workplace less populated, the businesses you frequent more at a loss for customer service than usual, maybe even less art on the walls of the museum you love — it wasn’t your imagination.

In response to POTUSINO Donald Trump’s attempted travel ban of people from seven Muslim-majority nations and the blitzkrieg ICE raids on undocumented immigrants across America last weekend, some institutions and ordinary everyday people have hit on the idea of letting the nation know, at least for a brief while, what America without immigrants looks like.

Immigrants across the country missed work, skipped classes, closed businesses and refuse to patronize businesses on Thursday. It was a full-on wildcat national event, with restaurant closings in Philadelphia, Washington, New York, San Francisco, Boston, Indianapolis (Mike Pence country), Roslynn, Va.; Dallas and Austin, Texas.

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The "Day Without Immigrants" protest stepped off across the country, showing in unmistakable ways just how valuable and necessary immigrants’ contributions are to the economic lifeblood of the United States. The immediate impact is necessarily more symbolic than anything else. But it taps into a wider pro-immigration narrative, still largely unspoken, that could galvanize Latino voters and younger voters — and more besides — in the runup to the 2018 elections.

“Immigrants are the backbone of this country and the heart and soul of the service industry," said Matt Carr, owner of Little Red Fox, a restaurant in Washington, D.C., to CNN.

"Without them, our small businesses would crumble. They are also part of our family here at Little Red Fox, and I, too, am worried about their future under this administration." Carr’s immigrant workers took the day off, but not before working extra the day before, making sure the restaurant was good to go in their absence.

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IRONICALLY, SOME employers validated the very point of the protest, confirming in punitive ways the centrality of the immigrant workers' importance. In Lexington County, S.C., 21 workers were fired from their jobs at Encore Boat Builders LLC for taking the day off to attend the protest there. They may or may not have legal recourse; South Carolina is a right-to-work state, a fact that gives employers a lot more latitude in dismissing workers who don’t toe the mark for any reason.

Whitney Falloon wrote a great day-of story in Eater, a piece that details how it is for one man with another kind of skin in the game.

“Busboys and Poets, one of D.C.’s most political restaurants that once hosted President Obama for lunch, is closing all six of its locations today, a move that owner Andy Shallal says will cost “tens of thousands of dollars.” For Shallal, who was born in Iraq and once ran for mayor, the choice was clear.

“As an immigrant myself, I have to speak up,” he says. “Staying on the sidelines in these times is no longer an option. We need true immigration reform that considers the human aspect of immigration — not just building walls, hiring agents, and expanding prisons.”

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The ascension of Trump and his repressive policies vis-à-vis immigration, race and ethnicity have also sparked reactions, panoramic and passionate, from the art world. Maybe none's been more dramatic and visceral than what the Davis Museum at Wellesley College is doing.

Katherine Brooks of The Huffington Post reported Wednesday on the Davis’ initiative to alert the public to immigrant contributions to art: the museum has either temporarily taken own or shrouded all artwork by immigrants, as well as any art donated to the Davis by immigrants, from Thursday, until Tuesday, Feb. 21.

Under the protest, called “Art-Less,” the museum has de-installed or outright concealed 120 works of art, including paintings, sculptures and other works from its American, African and European collections, and others.

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APPROXIMATELY twenty percent of the works of art on view in our permanent collections galleries were created by artists or donated by collectors who immigrated to the United States,” the museum said in a statement on its web site.

“For the days leading up to and including the Presidents' Day holiday weekend we have removed or cloaked these works to demonstrate symbolically what the Davis Museum would look like without their contributions to our collections and to Wellesley College, and to thereby honor their many invaluable gifts.”

“The impact of “Art-Less” on the African galleries will be particularly stark,” Brooks reported. “[N]early 80 percent of the galleries’ objects were donated by the Klejman family, who immigrated to the U.S. from Poland after World War II.”

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Champions of modern American theater will remember Douglas Turner Ward’s celebrated 1965 “satirical fantasy,” “Day of Absence” in which virtually all the black people on one Southern town inexplicably disappear. A gradual chaos ensues over the course of the play, as the white Southerners who remain discover the myriad ways their lives were dependent on the people they were predisposed to dismiss.

Imagine Ward’s scenario writ large, across the country, other such wildcat actions happening every now and then. The numbers are there; National Restaurant Association figures from 2016 found that 14.4 million people work in the restaurant industry, and 23 percent of them are foreign-born. If you’ve been to an American restaurant any time, anywhere in this country in the last 20 years, you’ve eaten the food they prepared.

The short-term analysis for the impact of Un Dia Sin Immigrantes was predictably downbeat; analysts and boycott-impact specialists reflexively dismissed its impact. And they completely miss the point. Such events like what happened on Thursday shouldn’t be seen as an event, an end in itself. Not if you’re paying attention.

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THE EMERGING immigration-rights movement is newly energized — height of irony: We can thank Team Trump for that — and something more: It’s expanding its hold on the national conscience because it’s expanding the idea of immigration in the broadest sense. The debate’s evolving; it's not just about Trump’s Public Enemy #1, the kid who arrived here last month from Guatemala; it's also about the kid who came in 60 or 70 years ago on a steamer from Ireland or Germany.

With the Trump White House as an unlikely spur to action, the immigration rights movement is expanding on who we talk about when we use the word “immigration” in almost any real-world context in 2017.

The breadth of the protests on Thursday, their pacifist spirit are leading indicators of — let’s say it plain — a sense of civic duty, a moral obligation. We’ve seen this already in social media, with non-Muslims announcing their intention to identify as Muslim if House Trump follows through on plans for a national Musllim regiustry.

One unifying principle — the immigration experience is wider than we think, and wider than our government would have us believe — is as organically resonant and powerful to a restaurant in East Harlem as it is for the museum at Wellesley College. There are the seeds of a movement in the process of becoming big enough for all kinds of people, from all walks of the national life, to get their heads and hearts around.

Image credits: Protester with big sign, top: LM Otero. Se Cerrara: WLTX. Eater logo: ©2017 Vox Media Inc. Art-Less graphic: The Davis Museum. Day of Absence cover: Detroit protest: Todd McInturf/Detroit News via AP. Panaderia sign, East Harlem: Claudia Torrens/Associated Press.

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