four panelists and moderator on seated on stage
Panelists (from left) Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, Madihha Ahussain, Grisel Ruiz, Jonathan Blazer and moderator Peter Waldman (Courtesy/JCCSF)

Panelists preach unity to confront Trump immigration ban

How to understand and resist the Trump administration’s executive orders on immigration was a central theme at a JCC community forum this week in San Francisco.

About 100 people gathered on Feb. 21 for a panel discussion of civil and minority rights in the Donald Trump era. Moderated by Peter Waldman of Bloomberg News, the panel featured four members of the community whose paths don’t ordinarily cross in daily life.

an inscription on the wall: "welcoming strangers -- let your house be open wide, pirkei avot"
Inscriptions on the wall of the main lobby of the JCC of San Francisco, including “welcoming strangers — Let your house be open wide.” (Photo/Joyce Goldschmid)

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan of Lehrhaus Judaica sat next to Madihha Ahussain, staff attorney with Muslim Advocates, an organization that supports that community, especially when dealing with hate crimes. “I kind of expected to be with a Jewish lawyer from the ACLU, and I expected an immigration attorney,” Wolf-Prusan said, referring to the other two panelists, but “I didn’t expect this. Here’s a trajectory of history: We’re sitting here together.”

Bringing up the widespread airport protests earlier this month as a moment of unity in the anti-ban campaign, Wolf-Prusan asked Ahussain what she now made of her appearance at a Jewish community center. “An attack on any community is an attack on all of us,” Ahussain replied. “I hope that collaboration and our unity can also be done in a time of celebration and not just a time of difficulty.”

The panelists spoke at length about the impact the travel ban might have on Californians and immigrants, especially as the Trump administration is preparing a new series of executive orders. They also offered advice on how to take action or resist.

The executive orders discussed included the travel ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries (temporarily blocked by the courts), the construction of a border wall with Mexico and the broadening of federal deportation authority.

“When bullying and bigotry become enshrined in the law in the president’s executive orders, and more so in today’s deportation guidelines from the [Department of Homeland Security], the effect is sort of like a ‘fog of war’ disorienting, and rendering a feeling of helplessness,” Waldman said.

The panelists also discussed historical parallels — such as the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II, the Chinese Exclusion Act and the ban on Jewish immigrants beginning in the 1920s — as well as personal anecdotes about their own immigration experiences.

“I am an immigrant myself,” said Grisel Ruiz, a staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco. “I am certainly sitting in more of a position of privilege because I am a U.S. citizen today — but when I first came to this country when I was 2 years old I was undocumented, my parents were undocumented. Because of what some people call amnesty, [what] I call luck, I am sitting here now with status.”

I am certainly sitting in more of a position of privilege because I am a U.S. citizen today — but when I first came to this country when I was 2 years old I was undocumented.

The most contentious issue raised came from an audience member who expressed concern about the potential terrorism threat from refugees and how much weight President Trump’s authority should be given.

Attorney Jonathan Blazer, advocacy and policy counsel to the ACLU, said the courts recognize that the president has a great deal of discretion, despite the string of appellate court decisions halting Trump’s travel ban.

However, “President Trump and his lawyers were not able to offer any rational basis or shred of information that would enlighten the court as to why this particular policy makes our country safer,” Blazer said. “They told courts across the country, ‘I don’t have to tell you anything … and we’re not sharing why.’ ”

Wolf-Prusan called the audience member’s question “anxious,” and while acknowledging that anxiety as legitimate, offered a cautionary note about the perils of marginalizing minorities with the words of German Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller: “Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

For those interested in taking action, Wolf-Prusan announced a number of rapid response trainings hosted by Faith in Action Bay Area that prepare communities to respond to Immigration and Customs Enforcement actions. He particularly encouraged attorneys to participate — “ ‘I am a lawyer’ works in all languages,” he quipped.

The original conception for the panel discussion led to a controversy earlier this month when organizer Barbara Lane, former director of Arts & Ideas for the JCC, resigned her post. At the time she told J. that the JCC had canceled the event because there were internal concerns about alienating the organization’s conservative donor base.

CEO Marci Glazer told J. that it is JCCSF policy not to comment on employment matters but posted an open letter to the community, which said the decision to delay the panel was due to the need for additional planning and security concerns.

At the event, Waldman thanked Lane for her work putting the evening together.

max cherney
Max Cherney

Max Cherney is a staff writer at J. He can be reached at max@jweekly.com.