The Universal Notebook: Safety (pins) in numbers

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The Brexit vote in the United Kingdom in June was regarded by many as a harbinger of the 2016 U.S. presidential election in November.

Both votes sent a strong anti-immigrant message. In response to the Brexit vote, many people in the UK started wearing safety pins as a symbol of solidarity with immigrants. In the wake of the presidential election, some Americans are following suit.

The safety pin is a silent protest against the anti-immigrant rhetoric that fueled the Trump campaign and emboldened bigots across the country. Just as in the UK after the Brexit vote, incidents of harassment and intimidation of immigrants and minorities spiked in the U.S. right after the election. In the first 10 days after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented 867 such cases. Wearing a safety pin signifies that the wearer supports people who feel threatened by the incoming administration, among them immigrants, minorities, LGBT, women and Muslims. LeBron James is wearing a safety pin on his lapel in the cover photo as the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year.

Solidarity. There is safety in numbers. Wearing a safety pin is meant to signal to people who fear the intolerance the new administration might usher in that you sympathize, that they are “safe” with you. In a larger sense, it signifies a form of individual sanctuary.

Concerned about government mistreatment of immigrants, many cities have elected to become so-called sanctuary cities, pledging neither to prosecute undocumented immigrants simply for immigration violations nor to report immigration status to federal authorities. Sanctuary cities are a favorite hobbyhorse of the far right, but a policy of compassion toward good people seeking a better life is to be applauded. Immigration is a natural right. In 2015, a Pew Research Center poll found that 73 percent of Americans favor allowing illegal immigrants to stay.

Los Angeles became the first sanctuary city in 1979. Now there are more than 40, among them New York, Miami, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Portland, Oregon. The latest iteration of the sanctuary movement is sanctuary campuses, colleges that will not allow federal immigration police on campus without a warrant and refuse to share the immigration status of their students with authorities. To date, there are more than 200 sanctuary colleges.

In Maine, Colby College officials have pledged to protect immigrant students if the new administration makes good on a threat to cancel the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that grants deportation reprieves to young people whose parents may have brought them to the United States illegally. And there have been calls by students at both Bowdoin and Bates for those schools to declare themselves sanctuary colleges.

“We call on Bowdoin College to stand with other colleges and universities and investigate how to make Bowdoin a sanctuary campus that will protect our current and future students from intimidation, unfair investigation, and deportation,” reads the Bowdoin student petition. “We also call upon Bowdoin students, faculty, staff and administrators to stand with and advocate for the broader migrant and refugee community.”

There are also a growing number of sanctuary churches that have pledged to actually provide physical sanctuary to people in imminent danger of deportation.

Wearing a safety pin on one’s lapel may strike some as an empty gesture, but to others it is an act of conscience. Just how far people will be willing to go to keep immigrants from being harassed by the government remains to be seen. But I have heard many people say that if the government starts registering Muslims, we all must all register as Muslims.

A Trump presidency will almost certainly not be as good as his supporters think it will be and we can only hope it will not be as bad as many of us fear it will be. Just as those of us alarmed by Trump need to understand why he was elected, so those who voted for him need to understand that a great many Americans fear Trump will usher in a police state of walled borders and mass deportations. Standing up for immigrants is a first line of defense against such an abuse of power.

Sanctuary, of course, is also central to the Christmas story. Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Joyous Kwanzaa. Happy Milad un Nabi. Happy holidays to all.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.