My Turn: Battling for America’s soul


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ...” the words by Emma Lazarus at the base of the Statue of Liberty, 1883.

“We are determined to be people … We are saying that we are God’s children.” Martin Luther King Jr., April 3, 1968, in his final speech before his assassination

“DACA is dead. . . . Democrats had a great chance on DACA. They blew it.” President Donald Trump’s Easter Sunday remarks on proposed immigration changes, April 1, 2018.

Now, 50 years after his death, it is easy to draw inspiration from the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., and to imagine him as an honored voice in a national debate. The truth is that he was often mocked, attacked, and arrested, seen as too dangerous by most white politicians and not dangerous enough by some radical blacks. I believe he was assassinated because he posed a strong threat to established American power structures.

In his final speech, not only did he establish our shared humanity as “God’s children,” but he also called on American government to “Be true to what you said on paper” in the Constitution and court decisions. He moved beyond civil rights in his last organizing efforts, intent on finding economic opportunity and justice for all in the Poor People’s Campaign of 1967-68. When he was shot dead in Memphis, he was supporting a strike for living wages for sanitation workers.

“The Promised Land” King had seen from the “mountaintop” was a country of inclusion and opportunity, where all Americans saw opportunities before them and it was the “content of their character” that determined social standing and contributed to economic success.

In candidate Trump’s very first campaign speech in 2015, he vowed to “terminate” President Obama’s executive order of 2012 (known as DACA: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) that prevented deportation of children brought to the United States by parents who were illegal immigrants. The order also provided them with opportunities to work and go to school here. At some points, Trump seemed moved by their plight and suggested that any changes would show “great heart” and be a “bill of love.” Instead, their protection has become a cynical bargaining chip in budget battles and funding for Trump’s “big beautiful wall.”

The Obama executive order provided strict rules for qualification: applicants had to have lived continuously in the U.S. since June of 2007, pass a criminal background check, and have a high school diploma or be working towards one.

In trying to understand the push to remove people who have lived in the U.S and obeyed its laws as children and young adults, I considered what a punishment under American law is intended to accomplish. In some cases, a fine or jail term is meant to send a message and act as a deterrent: Don’t commit this crime because the result will be too unpleasant. But in this case, the punishment (deportation) sends no effective message since it affects children who did not choose to break the law themselves. (New illegal immigrants already know they are subject to deportation and their children are ineligible for DACA protections.)

In other cases, a punishment is intended as retribution against an offender who has harmed society. Again, deportation doesn’t serve this purpose since it is the children who would be punished for “harming society,” not their parents.

As always these days, people on both sides of an issue quote competing statistics. However, in studying the roughly 700,000 people actually given DACA protection (not the estimated total of 1 million to 2 million who might qualify), some facts withstand their own background checks.

Young people protected by DACA are similar (or slightly ahead) of their young native-born counterparts in most ways we consider valuable as a society. They are employed at about the same rate and have roughly equal earnings, even though they are prohibited by law from receiving any type of government assistance such as SNAP (food stamps), housing assistance, or college financial aid. They are less likely to spend time in jail, and are pursuing higher education at about the same rate as others their age. Currently, it is estimated that more than 90 percent of those protected by DACA are working, attending school, or both.

So why are Trump and others so intent on undercutting young people who show what we consider core American values — hard work and education to achieve social and economic success? It is a question which points to the dark heart of many Trump and Republican policies. The America imagined by the words on the Statue of Liberty and those of Martin Luther King Jr., the America that is exceptional in its offer of inclusiveness and opportunity, is not the America they envision. Theirs is an America that excludes and diminishes, one that focuses only on self-interest and narrow paths to achievement.

Although there are many details up for debate, policies that involve give and take and half a loaf rather than a full one, the DACA debate symbolizes a deeper struggle. It is a struggle for America’s soul, for America’s vision of itself established in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution and implemented, very imperfectly, ever since. I grew up believing that America was great because it alone was strong enough to offer welcoming arms to the tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to breathe free. I have seen with my eyes and know with my heart that America gets stronger because of its inclusiveness. I hope the current battle for the soul of America can yield the same results for children today.

Allen Woods is a freelance writer and author living in Greenfield.