U.S. Representative G.K. Butterfield walked the walk during the civil rights era, leading marches in Wilson, the segregated eastern North Carolina town in which he came of age. During his decade-plus in Congress, including a stint as head of the Congressional Black Caucus, Butterfield has been an advocate for marginalized groups, most recently helping to secure reprieves from deportation for Durham teenager Wildin Acosta and asylum-seeker Felipe Molina Mendoza.
During a Q and A with the INDY the day after President Trump unveiled his budget proposal last week, Butterfield urged his constituents to stay vigilant, to be activists, and to protect those who move the economy—and American culture—forward. And, he said, it's time to call the president's plan to deport undocumented immigrants and build a border wall what it is: "preposterous."
INDY: Trump's attacks on immigrants and refugees feel like the civil rights crisis of our time.
G.K. Butterfield: It's a big deal, for sure. We've had an immigration debate ever since I have been in Congress, and that spans more than twelve years now. And, you know, at one point, when President George W. Bush was president, I thought we were on the verge of a bipartisan compromise to pass comprehensive immigration reform. It fell apart because those who are opposed to any type of immigration reform confronted, massively confronted, the Republican members of Congress and made them back away from any type of reform. So that's the closest we've come to getting that problem solved. The divide, it seems, appears to be getting worse. And it's being fueled by right-wing propaganda, with Breitbart and other right-wing organizations. They are fueling the paranoia the American people have about undocumented immigrants. Now it's at a fever level. And it cries out for a solution. We have somewhere between ten and fifteen million people in the country who are undocumented, and the interesting thing about all of this is we have enough votes, I believe, in the House of Representatives, to get a bill passed. The problem is, Speaker [Paul] Ryan and the Republican leadership, under the influence of the tea party, refuse to let any legislation on the floor that deals with this issue.
You don't believe there's an increased threat from immigrants?
The immigrant community is not a threat to democracy or American safety. As we have said so often, there are certain elements within the immigrant community that are not good actors, who need to be perhaps removed from the community, but by and large, ninety-five percent or more of immigrants, undocumented immigrants, in our country are good, law-abiding, hardworking individuals. The immigrant community is not a threat, yet President Trump wants to spend an additional forty-four billion in homeland security, which will increase the hiring of ICE agents and border patrol agents unnecessarily. This is going to be very expensive. And that's not to mention the wall proposition.
Let's talk about the wall.
Most reasonable people would not disagree that we need some type of protection at the border. We need to secure our borders, and I think most people would agree on that. But what is disagreeable, what is in dispute, is the methodology used for it. Building a thirty- or forty-billion-dollar wall along the border holds us up as ridiculous. That's not the way you secure a border. We have technology we use that can protect the border. The wall proposition is preposterous to say the least.
Can you give us a sense of how North Carolina would function were we to deport every single undocumented immigrant?
The North Carolina economy depends on immigrant labor. That is a fact. You ask any businessperson, you ask any farmer, you ask any contractor—the North Carolina economy depends on immigrant labor. To remove that source of labor from the economy would be catastrophic. You go down on the coastline and talk to the fisheries, those who are fishing and bringing the seafood in, they depend on immigrant labor. That's a fact. The zealots are the ones talking about removing undocumented immigrants. But not only do we have the labor pool, we also have some very highly intelligent immigrants, you know, undocumented immigrants in our community. Highly intelligent. They went to kindergarten and elementary school and middle school and college in our country. These Dreamers, as we call them, are good intellectuals who contribute to our vibrant economy.
What touched you about Wilden Acosta's case?
We bonded with Wildin and are very proud of getting him back to Durham and to Riverside High School. I gave it all that I had to have this outcome. The thing that made a difference in Wildin's case was the tremendous community support that he enjoyed. There was a unified effort to support this young man because he was a victim of circumstance. You know, the case is not over. It continues to be a pending case. But that was a good outcome.
There's no guarantee that he won't eventually be deported.
Families are being torn apart. [White House press secretary] Sean Spicer, in one of his press conferences a few weeks ago, was asked by a reporter, 'How many of the undocumented immigrants in this country are at risk of being deported?' His response was, 'All of them.' It's clear that under the president's new executive order, basically any undocumented immigrant could be deported. The American people shouldn't tolerate that. We have allowed the immigration problem to intensify over the years and the solution is not mass deportation.
This latest travel ban and the refugee restrictions have folks pretty concerned.
We are a compassionate country by tradition. We welcome those who are being oppressed in other countries. We have been that way for a long time. We have a lot of refugees. That's one of the reasons America is prospering and doing quite well. Had we not had refugees come to our country for asylum, they'd be dead. Two federal courts have blocked President Trump's Muslim ban. We saw the most recent one from Hawaii, and certainly that's going to be appealed, so we'll watch that very closely, but the court cited the words of Donald Trump and members of his administration in determining the ban is clearly intended to target Muslims. We cannot have that type of racial profiling and racial discrimination in our refugee policy. The ban is just—I'm going to call it un-American.
Are there Republicans you feel will eventually stand up to Trump?
They're slowly coming around, and I believe as time goes on, more and more Republicans will distance themselves from President Trump for various reasons. Some are concerned about their own viability in the 2018 elections. They feel that this man's unfavorables are very high right now, and we know the drain that has on the down-ballot races. There's another group that will finally wake up and realize that Donald Trump does not represent the values that we as Americans represent.
You're a son of the civil rights movement. You were there for the marches and the protests and the boycotts. Do we need to take it that far at this point?
By any means necessary. That's a phrase from the nineteen-sixties. We need to reverse these trends by any means necessary. It starts off with persuasion, and then you can escalate it to confrontation and then you can do some other things. I wouldn't rule out anything that is law-abiding to prevent this problem. Massive demonstrations are just one tool. The 1963 March on Washington was a massive demonstration. The Million Man March was a massive display of activism. So yes, that needs to be a tool among the many tools in our toolbox.
This article appeared in print with the headline "By Any Means Necessary"