My job as a legal secretary for the Montana Department of Labor and Industry was not an easy one. I juggled a long list of constantly shifting priorities, and if I missed a deadline, we could lose a case. But it was also repetitive: updating case management software, drafting motions, revising motions, adding new court dates to the calendar, scanning in copies of documents, opening new cases and processing subpoenas. It was tedium compounded by volume. So when an attorney stopped by my desk one Tuesday afternoon and said, “Keep an eye out for some ICE subpoenas coming in tomorrow,” I barely processed it. My brain heard “subpoenas” and “tomorrow,” and I squeezed it into the ever-expanding mental list of tasks I would need to complete.
It wasn’t until I’d gotten home that evening that I fully comprehended what I had been told. Had the attorney really said “ICE subpoenas”? Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency rounding people up for deportation? I knew our department had plenty of data that could be used by ICE to track someone down, but I still doubted my ears.
After a fitful night’s sleep, I went back to work at 7:30 a.m. and began combing through emails, asking myself what I was going to do if I had heard the attorney correctly.
I stepped away from my desk to talk to my wife on the phone. “I may be asked to help process some subpoenas for ICE, and I don’t think I can do that,” I told her. I braced myself for A Conversation. My wife was still in graduate school, with 15 more weeks of late nights and frantic scrambling to turn in huge projects while caring for our toddler. We were hoping her master’s would lead to a new job, which could upgrade us from drowning in debt to merely struggling financially. Me quitting my job was not in the plan. I prepared to explain that I didn’t want to participate in preparing information for ICE, nor did I want to sign my name to the cover letter I would have attached to whatever I had to put in the mail. But my wife just said, “Okay.” We didn’t discuss it further.
I tried to get some work done while I waited for the attorney who had mentioned the subpoenas would arrive. By the time he did, the nerves that had been nagging me had turned to resolve.
I stood in the attorney’s office, and I said, “About those subpoenas you mentioned yesterday.”
“Oh, yes, thank you for reminding me,” he said.
“Actually, I wanted to clarify. When you said ICE, you were talking about Immigration and Customs Enforcement, right?”
“I don’t think I can do that.”
From there we had a short conversation, but I had made my decision.
I also spoke briefly to my manager, and after explaining that I couldn’t be complicit in sharing information with ICE, he asked, “So are you quitting?”
“If I have to turn over this information, then yes.”
“Let me make some calls.”
On the way back to my desk, I dashed off a quick tweet. Three simple words. “Seriously, f— ICE.” It was some needed catharsis. I attempted to get some work done, but my heart wasn’t in it.
I’ve always believed in the mission of the Department of Labor. Ensuring people are protected in the workplace and are paid for their work is something I can get behind, but it felt tainted now. All the data that was part of keeping the department running was going to be turned from a tool used to protect workers into a weapon used to hunt down some of the most vulnerable among us. I’d seen it in the news: a working father of three in New Jersey, whose wife is now terrified of also being deported; the people without criminal records who were supposedly “low priority” for deportation.
I had recently seen the video of Border Patrol officers dumping bottles of water that had been left by humanitarians in the desert to stop people from dying of thirst. The apparent glee with which some of them were condemning people to die sickened me. It didn’t seem like an agency of people reluctantly doing a job or making a tough choice because they had to feed their family. They were enjoying it.
I was asked to attend a meeting with human resources, where it seemed like people were trying to talk me out of what I was about to do.
“You understand that processing subpoenas is part of your job?”
“Yes.” I most certainly understood.
“And you understand if you quit you will be ineligible for unemployment insurance?”
I found this question a little funny since I had been handling unemployment insurance appeals and fraud cases since 2011, and I was well-versed in what was considered a valid reason to apply for unemployment insurance. I said yes, I understood.
I give credit to the department for how they handled the situation. They gave me time to think about it. There were some on and off discussions about maybe moving me around in the department or me holding on until I had found another job, but I knew what I had to do.
Anything I did in the department would forever make me a part of a machine that was going to be used to break up families. I thought about how I had struggled, as a child, to find anything resembling stability; how I found a family as a teen and held on tight. My best friend’s mom had a soft spot for stray cats and stray kids, and was more of a mom than the woman who birthed me was ever capable of being. I thought about my own child and how I couldn’t comprehend us being separated. There was no way I could have a part in this and live with myself.
I went home and picked up my wife. We drove to my in-laws, who had been watching our kid. From their driveway I emailed my manager, formally putting in my two weeks’ notice.
Then I went inside and hugged my child before explaining to my mother-in-law that I had just blown a massive hole in my family’s future. Things were a little muted as we were invited to stay for dinner. While my mother-in-law started cooking, I went to Twitter to write out my frustration, then I put my phone away and went to set the table. I had no idea that while we ate waffles and talked about new plans for a new future, the magic of Twitter had already started.
When we got home that evening, my phone began seizing. My Twitter app kept crashing. I had no idea what was going on. My mentions and DMs, when I could manage to access them, were flooding with words of encouragement. People were telling me my action had restored some of their faith in humanity. In turn, their responses have restored mine. I had started to give up hope that the actions of everyday people could possibly mean anything or make a difference. I have never been so happy to be wrong.
Even as I’m surrounded by the warm glow of love and support from strangers, I still have a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach. I wonder how many other people, working in other government offices, have unwittingly or unwillingly been drafted into ICE’s service. How many felt trapped by circumstance, or found a way to justify it to themselves. I stumbled into public service, but I stayed because I felt like I was doing something good. With the specter of ICE looming over all of that now, it has a chilling effect on the good work public servants are trying to do. But they don’t have to comply. They can say no. They can refuse to work with an agency that taints everything it touches.