This is a letter to those of you who have stayed. Please: listen to me, before it’s too late.
I’m writing from the city of Vancouver, BC. The Canadians have been welcoming to the thousands of us who have fled across the border in the past seven years: immigrants, Muslims, dissenters, and those of us who are GLBT. The Canadians have accepted all of us, as far as I know. Do not believe President Trump’s incendiary anti-Canadian rhetoric. On this continent gone mad, Canada has become the last refuge of democracy.
At first, I intended to stay. Like so many other Americans, I intended to commit civil disobedience and fight the racist policies of Trump—and of his chosen vice president, Ted Cruz. When Trump and Cruz were sworn into office in 2017, I was an English teacher at a large high school in Denver, where many of my students were Muslim. Within weeks of the inauguration, Trump had ordered the National Guard to shutter all American mosques and to enforce “anti-terrorism codes” against praying to Allah, wearing identifying clothing, and quoting the Koran in public. To this day, Trump claims he has not banned Islam; people continue to be free to practice their religion in the privacy of their own homes, he has said, “just as they are free to engage in all manner of adult activities in their own homes, if you know what I mean.” But the new codes sanctioned harassment and intimidation. In many instances, Muslim people were beaten, fired from their jobs without cause, and ostracized from their communities. I joined several teachers at my school in creating secret safe spaces for our Muslim students to pray in private, and for Muslim families to meet to discuss their options. It felt right to disobey the injustice of Trump’s policies, and to act.
But then, in early 2018, Trump and Cruz unveiled their plan for mass deportations of immigrants. Most of the students in our high school were immigrants or the children of immigrants. Suddenly, our classes began to shrink: immigrant families were forced to slip away into hiding or risk becoming “disappeared.” Stories abounded of children who woke in the morning to empty houses, their parents deported in the night. Our small group who had been supporting Muslims now risked greater civil disobedience: we offered entire immigrant families refuge in the basement of our school, in our houses, and in our churches. We used Facebook to set up an underground railroad, but Trump blasted through it all, creating the Foreigner Watch in the fall of 2018 and ordering the arrest of anyone who aided or abetted the millions of immigrants he intended to deport. People kept disappearing, including three of my teaching colleagues who served in the underground railroad with me. A fourth teacher I knew was arrested and held for months in jail. For some reason, I was never caught, though several of my students lived hidden in our basement laundry room for months. Every day, the deportation buses growled south toward the gates in The Wall at the Mexican border.
Finally, in 2019, Trump and Cruz turned their hatred toward me and all other GLBT Americans. Their Supreme Court overturned the gay marriage decision that year, and the states followed obediently, declaring our union illegal and our child “endangered by an unnatural family situation.” In every speech either of them made, Trump and Cruz railed against our immorality, our “sick” desire to live outside of “normal” relationship, our “sinfulness.” They made no new laws, and yet their vitriolic words fueled their supporters’ loathing for us. By the spring of 2020, countless gay, lesbian, bi- and transgendered Americans had been fired from jobs, barred from entering public places, beaten, and in some cases killed. I lost my job at the high school. The official letter said I had been “released from duty for moral turpitude.” My wife lost her license as a psychologist. Two friends—both women—in San Francisco lost custody of their biological children after a school social worker investigated their “unnatural circumstances.” In a few short years, our government had bullied us back into the closet, slamming the door and locking it behind us. Conservative preachers gleefully praised Trump and Cruz’s “morals.” “America has suffered,” one minister told a crowd at a reelection rally in 2020, “because we have permitted such abominations, but now we are on our way to greatness.” The crowd roared its approval.
Meredith and I knew we had to leave. We were in danger. Every day, we were afraid someone would come and take our daughter from us. And so we fled north. Here, to Vancouver. We had to.
America is no longer America for me. Maybe you don’t care about this. Maybe you don’t care that my family and I will probably stay here in Vancouver, where we are safe: where our marriage is honored as legal, our daughter is protected as our own. In the composition classes I teach at this university, my immigrant students breathe easily, unafraid of deportation or state-sanctioned discrimination. Canada is not perfect, because it is a government by people, who are ever flawed. But here, people still believe progress means moving toward embracing all kinds of people, recognizing the rights of all people to live free of fear.
I know you think none of this applies to you. You think you are safe today in America because you are not Muslim, you are not an immigrant, and you are not gay. You think you are safe in America because you are a white American descended from Europeans, like Trump, a practicing Christian, a proclaimed conservative. You think you are safe in America because you cheer at the mandated Trump rallies in your town and dutifully pledge allegiance to him. When a majority of you Americans reelected Trump and Cruz in 2020, you showed the world you actually like his “moral” policies against people like me and my wife, his “pro-American” policies against immigrants, his “keep it here” trade restrictions, his unsympathetic crackdown on all forms of crime. But these are not political issues. They never have been. They are human rights issues. And now that you have begun to vote against the rights of certain groups of people, a day will inevitably come when someone will vote against you. And who will speak for you, when you have been so silent?
Trump and Cruz and their followers will tell you America never wanted people like me and my students, anyway. Good riddance. But listen in the darkness, Americans: do not burn every good intention of those people who wrote “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and “we the people, in order to form a more perfect union.” Trump and Cruz have cranked open a rusty valve in America and let the ugliness that has long simmered beneath the country’s surface surge forth. That ugliness is fueling a new regime that only mirrors Adolf Hitler’s: certain groups banished, the triumphant tide of exclusion rising. Stand in the present darkness of your country, Americans, and remember history’s grave errors. The “great” America Trump and Cruz have made is openly xenophobic, homophobic, and racist. Its current actions—including the unapologetically brutal war America has begun waging in the Middle East—only echoes American “accomplishments” like slavery, the Indian Removal Act, segregation, and lynchings. How Christian you all are, you Americans, to exclude and deny and hate! Jesus would have done the same, I’m sure.
Up here in Vancouver, my family and I have begun to make a new life. Some days, I don’t even care that America doesn’t want us. I feel relieved that we left. But then I think of everything I love—the Rocky Mountains, the open road through the high desert, the little towns in the Iowa farmland where I was raised; all the proud ideas of freedom and justice for all; all the hard work of progress American activists have achieved over the last two centuries—and I feel overcome with sorrow for my country again. America doesn’t have to continue down this path. Once, we lumbered toward light: toward a more representative government, greater income equality, increased acceptance of every human, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, religion, or ethnic origins. Did you know the founders of America even imagined their created democracy would lead to peace? America could strive to be good and whole again. You could.
Close your eyes and remember 2016, seven years ago: you could have voted against Trump and Cruz. You could have chosen a different America.
You could have. And now—all the people forced to hide or flee, disappeared, deported, beaten, killed—all because of their origin or their religion or their sexual orientation or their unwillingness to praise Trump and Cruz—now it may be too late.
But it’s up to you.