Donald J. Trump — a man who clearly has too much time on his hands in the morning — began Sunday with a characteristically xenophobic Twitter rant against a group of progressive female members of Congress.
“So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly . . . and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run,” he wrote. “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how . . . it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough.”
Which is how I came to ask congresswoman Ayanna Pressley what she thought of being a target of the president of the United States.
“I never use the word you used — president — to describe him,” she said. “I refer to him as ‘the occupant.’ He simply occupies the space. He embodies zero of the qualities and the principles, the responsibility, the grace, the integrity, the compassion, of someone who would truly embody that office. It’s just another day in the world under this administration.”
Earlier, Pressley had tweeted a screenshot of Trump’s comments, along with her response: “THIS is what racism looks like. WE are what democracy looks like. And we’re not going anywhere. Except back to DC to fight for the families you marginalize and vilify everyday.”
Pressley and I had scheduled an interview to discuss the inhumane conditions she witnessed earlier this month on a visit to detention centers on the US-Mexico border — which seemed especially timely with raids to arrest undocumented immigrants scheduled to begin this weekend.
But there’s an obvious connection between a president who relentlessly attacks immigrants and these tweets, in which the worst insult Trump can think to hurl is that the representatives should go back where they came from. (Three of the four congresswomen he was referring to, including Pressley, were born in the United States. Aside from being racist, the tweets weren’t even factual.)
Pressley was part of a congressional delegation that visited three federal facilities in Texas. Though they expected terrible conditions, she was shocked to come face-to-face with the reality that incarcerated refugees are living.
“It was just sobering confirmation of my worst fears and also confirmation that the system is corrupted and broken,” Pressley said. “I hesitate to even say the system is broken . . . the design is broken, but it is doing what it was designed to do. History has proven that the most effective way to control, oppress, marginalize people is to separate families. And so the system is doing what it was designed to do, and it is painful to see up close and personal.”
She saw people desperate for hope.
“The women there, their eyes were vacant, their voices were pleading, they didn’t know us and yet they were so vulnerable immediately. And I do believe that’s because we were extending arms and words of passion and it gave them — even for a moment — some sense of security and hope,” Pressley said. “I’ve been so haunted by what I saw and what they shared.”
Pressley and her closest allies — fellow freshmen Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, known collectively as “The Squad” — have come under fire from leaders of both parties in the past two weeks — including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. That was for refusing to support a bill that would have sent billions of dollars in humanitarian aid to the border — as well as more funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which they all want to abolish. They opposed the bill on the grounds that it would simply give more funding to a system they view as fundamentally broken.
“At the end of the day, if we improve a child’s condition in a cage they are still in a cage,” Pressley said. “And I am fundamentally opposed to emboldening a system that criminalizes and vilifies migrant families.”
In defending her vote, Pressley noted that immigrants make up 40 percent of her district.
“The Massachusetts Seventh District is not only one of the most vulnerable districts from the threats of this draconian administration but has also demonstrated some of the greatest leadership in the country in staving off these threats,” she said. “So I’m going to vote my district every time. This is a representative democracy and I’m representing my district, and that is who I answer to.”
Pressley insists that the administration is walking away from fundamental American values and using a crisis of its own making to justify that.
“We must not lose sight of the fact that because of the racist and xenophobic rhetoric of this administration, we are criminalizing and vilifying migrants, families, that are fleeing extreme violence and poverty and coming here,” she said. “Because this is what America has been to the world — a beacon of light, and hope, and a place of refuge. And it is a legal human right to seek asylum. So what we need is to change the laws, to create a system that works, that supports families staying together and to settle into communities while awaiting review of their cases.”
Pressley is rightly unapologetic about refusing to support legislation that, in her view, won’t do anything to help curb the human-rights abuses she has witnessed. Or for standing with others whose values and beliefs led them to cast the same vote.
And she rejects the notion that she is part of a group of four renegades operating on the margins of respectability. She said they have plenty of company on Capitol Hill in pushing back against Trump.
“ ‘The Squad’ is big,” she said. “If you share the values and believe in working for a more equitable and just world, you are part of ‘The Squad.’ ”