On Aug. 24, roughly 150 people gathered in Oak Park’s historic Unity Temple — the Unitarian Universalist church that worships in the century-old World Heritage Site designed by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright — to commemorate a historic milestone.
Four hundred years ago, “about the latter end of August,” according to the early English settler John Rolfe, a Dutch ship carrying “20 and odd Negroes” arrived in the colony of Jamestown — the first documentation of the arrival of Africans to what would become the state of Virginia.
For Harvard philosopher Cornel West, the ministers of the Leaders Network (the West Side faith-based social justice organization who invited him to speak), and immigrant rights activists, that moment in Jamestown was part of the long arc of injustice that bends toward the Mexican border today.
Diego Amite, 19, migrated to the United States from Colombia nearly two years ago to find a better life. Equipped with a temporary visa, Amite secured two jobs to pay for school and living expenses, and to send some money back home to his family in Colombia.
“I can say that I made the right decision to stay in this country,” he said, before adding that his optimism is tinged with fear that he might be deported at any moment.
“Immigrants and communities of color are historically made the scapegoats of our problems,” said Mony Ruiz-Velasco, executive director of PASO West Suburban Action Project, an immigrant rights organization based in Melrose Park.
“White supremacy is at the core of this country’s founding,” she said. “The Constitution was not written for someone like me — a queer Mexican woman. It was written by and for white men who came to this country to seize the land from those who were here and commit genocide on our first nations.”
Amite said he joined PASO to help fight for other immigrants who live in perpetual fear, some in literal cages at the U.S.-Mexico border, because of President Donald Trump’s policies.
Ruiz-Velasco said those policies were created by the cadre of “smart, calculated racists all around” the president, such as Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior advisor who was known to be hostile to Hispanic and other minority students while in high school and has argued that the Statue of Liberty “should not be seen as a symbol of welcome to immigrants,” according to the New York Times.
Ruiz-Velasco said the Trump administration’s effort to end “chain migration” will disproportionately impact the most vulnerable immigrants in the country.
Chain migration is a visa program that allows documented immigrants living in the U.S. to bring their spouses and children. Ruiz-Velasco said the program allows families to reunite. Trump has called the program “terrible.”
“As long as the leader of the free world is breaking up families, don’t shut up!” said Rev. Ira Acree, pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin and co-chairman of the Leaders Network. “As long as he is destroying homes, don’t shut up! As long as he’s fanning the flames of racial hatred, don’t shut up!”
Rev. Marshall Hatch, a Leaders Network co-chairman and pastor of New Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield Park, who has taken groups of people to Ghana and stood in slave castles, framed the country’s immigration crisis in historical context.
“It is estimated that the average captured African’s age was 13 to 19, but the Transatlantic Slave Trade was more diabolical than we’ve been taught because it was literally the trafficking of children,” Hatch said. “We can see from what’s going on at our southern border that America has a long history of abusing working children in factories and building our wealth on the backs of those who are disenfranchised, poor, young and vulnerable. We’re not just here for the people on the southern border, but we’re here for ourselves. We will not go backward divided, we will go forward together.”
During a prayer, Rev. Alan Taylor, the senior minister at Unity Temple, called for blessings on the multiracial, ecumenical crowd of people gathered “in shared lamentation at the inhumanity of our nation’s policies in dealing with human beings seeking a better life than they have known.”
Cornel West, the Harvard philosophy professor and public intellectual, spoke moments before Amite and railed against the government’s treatment of immigrants, including many women and children who are being detained in overcrowded and dangerous facilities at the border.
“The condition of truth is always to allow suffering to speak,” West said during a roughly 6-minute soliloquy, adding that his analysis doesn’t begin and end with Trump.
“There’s a fascism in all of us,” West said.