Wednesday, February 24, 2021
Feb. 24, 2021

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‘I feel as if I’ve been set free’: Washingtonians who felt hostility under Trump find emotional release in Biden inauguration

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Another day, the Rev. Kelle Brown predicts, President Joe Biden will enact policies she disagrees with, ones that will prompt her to march in protest to protect the vulnerable.

“However, as of today I am celebrating with everything in my body, with every fiber of my being, because this is a reset of what democracy means,” said Brown, senior pastor of the Plymouth Church United Church of Christ in Seattle.

Like many who spent the last four years alienated and alarmed by the Trump administration, even feeling under attack by the rise of white extremism the former president provoked, the African American pastor said watching Biden assume office Wednesday and deliver his first speech as president provided an emotional release.

“I feel as if I’ve been set free,” Brown said.

The perception of a new dawn, as many put it, including SeaTac business owner Abdulhakim Hashi, was heightened by Biden’s immediate moves to dismantle many of Trump’s signature policies, including on climate change, the pandemic, racial justice and perhaps most notably of all, immigration.

Donald Trump came to office promising a crackdown on immigrants living illegally in the U.S., often portraying them in derogatory terms. During his term, he moved to restrict legal immigration as well. One of Trump’s first orders was a travel ban on immigrants and visitors from mainly majority Muslim countries.

On Wednesday, Biden reversed the ban as he signed a flurry of executive orders and proclamations. One order directed his administration to work to protect the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which gives quasilegal status and work permits to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. The U.S. Supreme Court blocked Trump’s attempt to end the Obama-era program, but it still faces a Texas court challenge.

Even before Biden took office, he let it be known he will push a sweeping immigration bill that would give a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented people.

On Tuesday, Wenatchee nurse and DACA recipient Jessica Esparza said she had to stop herself from reading about the proposed bill. “Is this going to happen? Do I bother getting my hopes up?” Esparza said she asked herself.

But after the inauguration, she sounded more hopeful. “I was just so excited watching it,” she said. Not only did she see a new president with an agenda diametrically opposed to his predecessor’s, but a Latina woman, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, swearing in a woman of color, Kamala Harris, as vice president.

“I thought that was pretty awesome,” said the 27-year-old, adding this would show her younger sister that women can rise to the highest of positions.

As a DACA recipient, she said that over the last four years, “it just felt like there was always something coming for me.” Now, said the nurse who spent the previous night caring for COVID-19 patients in a hospital ICU, she doesn’t feel like her work permit is going to be taken away at any moment.

Paul Quinonez Figueroa, a leader in local and national organizations advocating for DACA recipients, noted the president’s proposed immigration bill — sent to Congress on Wednesday — would allow so-called Dreamers, as well as some immigrant farmworkers and Temporary Protected Status holders, to apply immediately for a green card and, in a few years, citizenship.

It would take more time for everyone else, too long in Quinonez Figueroa’s view. Even so, he said the bill is far from assured passage, noting Democrats have only a slim majority in Congress and votes on this controversial issue don’t strictly go along party lines anyway. The last big immigration reform bill in 2013 had bipartisan support but failed, he noted, in part because some Democrats voted against it.

Similarly, Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said he was trying to manage expectations given the likely tough road ahead in Congress.

Still, both Quinonez Figueroa and Baron said they were pleased to see Biden use his political capital on immigration reform. That didn’t happen under the last Democratic president, Barack Obama, they said.

Many immigrant advocates, Quinonez Figueroa said, “have been really worried and skeptical of Biden, given that he was part of the Obama administration that deported so many.” But he added the president has made immigration one of his top priorities.

Married couple Mohammad Taha Bahadori and Sama Ghoba were outright celebrating the inauguration, sharing a pizza in the afternoon at a cafe picnic table. The two had been separated for more than three years by the travel ban. Bahadori, who works for Amazon, lived in Seattle while Ghoba lived in Iran, one of the countries named in the ban.

After years of meeting in Iran or other countries around the world, they moved to Vancouver, B.C., so they could be together. The U.S. government finally granted Ghoba a visa last year, then a green card; she assumes she got a waiver from the travel ban although she never heard for sure.

Still, they said Biden’s presidency, and the end of the travel ban, is a relief. Their parents, still in Iran, haven’t been able to visit them. They plan to have kids and would like Ghoba’s mother to come when they do.

Despite the ban, they said they didn’t give up hope on their adopted country. The American people, if not the government, “treated us very well,” Bahadori said. People commiserated with him when Trump enacted the ban, including African American staff at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he was then a post-doctoral fellow. “They said not everything is ideal in the U.S. but … we have to always work to make things better.”

Yet, the past four years have made some people wonder about their fellow Americans. Seeing Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol, some of them allegedly current or former law enforcement officials, made Ollie Garrett nervous. “You don’t really know who’s one of them and who’s not,” said Garrett, head of a Bellevue debt collection company and president of Tabor 100, a group that promotes African American businesses.

“What are they really angry about?” Race? Something else? Whatever it is, it isn’t going away soon, she said. “Trump was elected for a reason.”

Still, she said she was hopeful of getting back to … “I won’t say normalcy.” But something like it. And she approved of Biden’s emphasis on unity in his address . To heal the country, she said, Democrats need to be open to looking at at least some of Trump’s policies supported by millions of Americans.

Dee Simon, executive director of the Holocaust Center for Humanity in Seattle, also applauded Biden’s call for unity, as well as what she called his focus on personal responsibility. She repeated the words Biden used, as he quoted President Lincoln: “My whole soul is in this.”

“It was exactly what we needed to hear,” she said, and a lesson from the Holocaust. “Each person could have made a difference,” and many did, including those who risked their lives to rescue Jewish people and others targeted by the Nazis.

“I think the prior administration did sow seeds of hate,” Simon said. On a recent flight to New York, her daughter saw a man wearing a hat with the slogan “6MWE,” which stands for “6 million was not enough,” a reference to the number of Jewish people killed in the Holocaust. One of the Capitol rioters wore a T-shirt with the same slogan.

“I was shaken,” said Simon, whose mother survived two years in a Czech concentration camp. Her daughter was “on a plane with someone who would like to see her dead.”

“We’re at this point in history, almost this foundational moment,” Simon said. “Our better selves have to come out, as Biden said.”

“I didn’t think it was lip service,” said Brown, the pastor, reflecting on Biden’s speech, including his promise to work for people who didn’t vote for him as well as those who did. Whatever else, he seems to her a man of faith and honor. “I believed him.”

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