I am striving to be an upstander for the humane treatment of undocumented immigrants and their families as our country discusses immigration reform.
I learned the term upstander last year when I visited the Dallas Holocaust Museum and listened to a survivor’s remarkable story.
As a small child, he and his mother hid from the Nazis for over a year in a tiny dark hole dug into the ground. His survival depended not only on the unfaltering determination of his mother, who kept him alive and sane, but also on the courage and commitment of the farmers who risked their lives to provide food to these two Jews hidden in the ground.
Upstanders is the term the survivor used to refer to the farmers.
Upstanders rejected the Nazi propaganda of deceit, racism and intolerance. They stood up for humanity and justice, which distinguished them from the bystanders of the time.
Although bystanders did not perpetrate crimes, they were too afraid to stand up; they looked the other way, perhaps they shrugged their shoulders or simply did not care.
If more bystanders had been upstanders when the Nazis began to assemble power, the history of the 20th century would reveal a different story.
The Holocaust survivor’s message did not end with his compelling life story. As a solemn reminder to never forget, he urged us to continually reflect on our own choices in life. Are we upstanders or bystanders? What would we do?
▪ Where a crushing debt, a weak government and increasing economic disparity all contribute to growing unrest and the fervent voice of a nationalistic leader advances a nativist identity, theatrically promoting his vision to reclaim hegemony on the world stage, would we listen?
▪ If within his rhetoric there lurks an enemy, the “other,” who shares blame for the country’s decline, where his propaganda casts these enemies as criminals, rapists and parasites, where his plan to make the country great again includes purging the enemy through mass deportation, would we shrug our shoulders?
▪ Where some exclaim in dismay, “But these people contribute to our society, families have lived in our communities for decades, own property and have homes and some of them are citizens by law!” Would we stay silent?
▪ Where in response to these concerns he pledges to change the law in order to implement his plan, and his message is greeted with cheers from the swelling crowds at his rallies, would we ignore the implications?
▪ And when his name is invoked as the inspiration for the beating of an innocent man deemed the enemy, and his reaction includes the words, “The people that are following me are very passionate,” would we look the other way?
My visit to the Holocaust Museum has encouraged me to reflect on the past when evaluating the impact that our actions or inaction can have on the course of humanity.
Is Donald Trump a contemporary Hitler with genocidal aspirations? Certainly not.
Are the undocumented immigrants in this country the legal equivalent of the persecuted German citizens during the rise of the Third Reich? The answer is no.
But as history has shown, political vitriol that strips a group of people of their human identities — as children, mothers, fathers, students, workers and neighbors — is dangerous.
And it is now fostering hatred directed more generally at Latinos. It is poisoning legitimate attempts at a thoughtful and rational discussion of the needed reform of our immigration policy.
In my effort to be an upstander, I denounce reckless and heartless rhetoric targeted at undocumented immigrants and their families. I stand up for these members of my community and demand they be treated with human dignity as we embark on immigration reform.
Nancy Lea Paine is an international corporate attorney in Dallas and a past board member of the U.S.-Mexico Bar Association (formerly the Texas-Mexico Bar Association).