Earlier this year, a newly formed coalition of Jewish people opposed to Immigration and Customs Enforcement organized their first action in New Jersey alongside movement partners Movimiento Cosecha. The New Jersey protest sparked Never Again Action, the largest ever mobilization of American Jews and allies against the persecution of immigrants. More than 40 actions have now taken place nationwide.
This interfaith, intergenerational, cross-movement campaign is gaining steam in the South, a region with record numbers of newly arrived immigrants—and a place with the country’s toughest immigration courts, where some of the most notorious detention centers dot rural landscapes. In North Carolina, the Jewish-led movement has joined forces with immigrants’ rights groups to combat anti-immigrant sheriffs who partner with ICE.
On November 22, more than 20 Jewish activists and allies gathered in a Durham, North Carolina, church fellowship hall. As they shuffled inside, greeting friends and “comrades” warmly with hugs and laughter, somewhere in the kitchen, a Shabbat potluck was waiting. But real work was to be done before dinner. There were zines to fold, plans to finalize, and questions about risk, safety, and security to grapple with. First, the night began with a song.
Carol Prince led the group in a freedom song. After the group formed a circle, Prince discussed the work of Bernice Johnson Reagon, who was literally a voice of the civil rights movement as an original member of the Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Freedom Singers. Prince, who is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace Triangle NC, explained that singing is a way of reclaiming space, which she said “can be useful if a cop or Nazi gets in your face.” Under Prince’s direction, the group practiced singing the chorus from Reagon’s “There’s a New World Coming.”
There’s a new world coming
Everything’s gonna be turning over
Everything’s gonna be turning over
Where are you gonna be standing when it comes?
Two days later, the people in the room reclaimed space in front of a line of law enforcement officials outfitted in riot gear. Wearing kippahs and tallits, Jewish prayer garments, they gathered at the intersection of Maple Street and McAden Street in rural Graham, North Carolina, and sat shiva for immigrants who have died in federal immigration custody. (Eight immigrants have died in ICE custody this year alone.) Much of the protest was directed at Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson, who detains up to 60 immigrants a day on behalf of ICE.
At the Graham action, deputies with the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office demanded that the protesters in the street disperse, threatening them with tear gas as local White supremacists stomped around recording videos and mocking the Jewish ceremony. Sheriff’s deputies and police officers from multiple counties blocked the surrounding roads, including the one that led to the facility where Johnson spearheaded a multimillion dollar contract with ICE to detain immigrants.
During the day, hundreds watched from the sidelines as those willing and able to get arrested performed an act of civil disobedience in the form of prayer. During the tenser moments of the day, protesters and members of Carolina Jews for Justice, Siembra NC, Down Home North Carolina, and Southerners on New Ground relied on songs that were both affirmations and declarations of their growing movement, one in which Jewish, Black, Latinx, and undocumented communities fight alongside each other.
The people gonna rise like water
Gonna face this system down
Hear the voice of my great-granddaughter
Saying never again is now
‘I Do This Because I’m a Jew’
Leah Fuhr, who has been organizing in progressive Jewish spaces for 15 years, helped organize an Atlanta Never Again Action in July. Fuhr said that when Donald Trump came down a golden escalator in 2015 to launch his presidential campaign, “it was like a match being lit.” She threw herself into organizing work with the progressive Jewish organization Bend the Arc and began actively seeking out opportunities to protest the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
“I do this because I’m a Jew. This happened to my people and I will fight to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else,” Fuhr said. “Six million of my people died because of fear and hate directed at them. As Jews, we cannot allow fear and hate to be directed at immigrants, Muslims, and refugees. We know how this ends, and we can’t allow this to happen in our country.”
Many of the Jewish members of Never Again Action see their activism as an extension of their Judaism and weave together their religious and cultural practices with protest. Some protests with Never Again Action fall on Jewish holidays, including mass, nationwide protests planned for December that will coincide with Hanukkah. Protestors often incorporate prayers and ceremonies into their actions.
“To me, it’s important to show other Jews that our religion and culture and values actually tell us that we should welcome the stranger and fight for justice. When I protest, it’s important to me that I look visibly Jewish, to show that this is a movement of Jewish people showing up for immigrants because our Jewish values and history tell us that what happened to us can never happen again,” Fuhr said.
This approach hasn’t been without controversy. Some Jewish people, including those behind the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, object to comparisons between the Holocaust and the Trump administration’s dehumanizing treatment of migrants. In this political moment, as Jewish and immigrant communities become primary targets of White nationalist violence, organizers say the comparisons are clear, and it’s imperative their communities join forces.
Organizers such as Brandon Mond makes direct comparisons between his family fleeing the Holocaust and migrant families seeking asylum. Mond was one of the organizers behind the first Never Again Action. He now works with Carolina Jews for Justice, where he helped lead the direct action in Graham against Alamance County’s Sheriff Johnson.
The action did not go as organizers had hoped. The original plan was to march three blocks to the jail behind black coffins representing migrants who have died in custody, but law enforcement officials showed up in full force as the march began. Apparently, Sheriff Johnson was confused as to the purpose of the protest, assuming it was just as much about the local confederate monument as it was the jail where he detains immigrant community members. He told a local news outlet, “We’ve got to protect the monument, and we’ve got to protect the jail.” Law enforcement officials in riot gear stood outside both locations.
Sheriff Johnson is a notorious racist who once called Mexicans “taco eaters” and said that “criminal illegal immigrants” are “raping our citizens in many, many ways.” His deputies were also between four and 10 times more likely to stop Latino drivers, according to a lawsuit by the Department of Justice that was settled in 2016.
Alamance County used to have a 287(g) agreement with ICE, which is a contract between ICE and a law enforcement agency that essentially deputizes law enforcement officials to carry out immigration enforcement on behalf of the federal immigration agency. But Johnson’s discriminatory practices were so extensive that ICE was forced to cancel Alamance’s 287(g) agreement. That was more of a technicality, however. Alamance has become a “processing center” for ICE after the federal agency negotiated a $2.3 million contract to detain immigrants at the Alamance County Detention Center, according to the Greensboro News & Record.
Fighting the detention and deportation machine in North Carolina was never going to be easy. Charlotte has one of the toughest immigration courts in the country, and ICE has carried out unprecedented immigration enforcement across the state. Agents have posed as day laborers during raids. They have apprehended recently arrived Central American youth on their way to school. When newly elected sheriffs decided to no longer contract with ICE, the federal immigration agency retaliated by carrying out large scale enforcement in rural and urban areas. Last year on the day after Thanksgiving, undercover ICE agents tackled a sanctuary leader to the ground in front of his family when he appeared at an appointment at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. He was swiftly deported.
Alamance has recently been a hotbed of White supremacist activity. In 2016, the group Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County was listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, though the designation has since been removed. The Alamance group was founded in 2015 to protest the sale of a church property to a local Muslim community for use as a mosque. According to the law center, several early members of the Alamance group were also members of a closed page run by the North Carolina chapter of the neo-Confederate hate group the League of the South. According to a local outlet, members of the League of the South were present at the Never Again Action.
Before the Never Again Action in Graham, which was the first in the rural South, Madeline Reyes, a Latinx Jewish organizer handling logistics, said White supremacist violence was a concern, but it wasn’t enough to keep protesters away. To Reyes, the most important part of the action was for immigrant communities affected by Alamance County’s immigration enforcement to know that they are seen and they are loved.
Before the November 24 action took to the streets, activist Roshan Panjwani said it was important to note that rural and Southern communities have a long history of being rooted in resistance. Panjwani, a Muslim immigrant in North Carolina, said those at the action were from rural and urban areas, “united in a fight for justice.”
“So many communities get pitted against each other. It’s intentional. They don’t want us working together to dismantle the systems that harm us all,” Panjwani said. “But powerful things happen when we stand together and say never again is now.”
Tina Vasquez is an award-winning journalist focusing on racial injustice and the intersection of immigration and reproductive justice. Formerly, she was a senior reporter covering immigration at Rewire.News. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, NPR, and the New York Review of Books. She is based in North Carolina.