His boss had given him an oh-by-the-way that the next day’s work at Montana’s Department of Labor would include assembling workers’ information for an Immigration and Customs Enforcement subpoena. Jordon Dyrdahl-Roberts had no doubt that ICE would use that data to try to find undocumented workers and boot them out of the country. And he wanted no part of that. So he quit.
Now, as the Montana snow melts into spring, Dyrdahl-Roberts turns his hand to doing more for those immigrants, heartened by a public response that’s gone a long way to restoring his faith in America.
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One day you're a legal secretary in the Montana Department of Labor, and a week later, you're a hero of what people call the resistance. What happened?
When I had sent out the tweet discussing why I had quit my job, I thought I was just talking to the 50 or so people who I converse with regularly on Twitter — just like, “Hey, I quit my job, here’s why.” I sent out that message to my friends. Then I turned off my phone and had dinner with my in-laws. Then, just before we were about to get my kid to bed, I quickly checked Twitter and something had happened. This had resonated with people.
What did you see on Twitter that night?
When I turned my phone back on, Twitter was barely functional. When a tweet goes that viral that fast, you can't use Twitter — your mentions are going so fast that it literally will not load. I got messages from all sorts of people, words of encouragement, people asking to talk to me about what happened. It was a lot to take in.
One of the reasons why I hadn't expected anything to come of it is, one, I had a fairly small audience. And also, I thought, this was the plan, right? Everyone talks about the resistance. And then I was actually presented with a choice; it’s like, OK, time to do it. It was a hard decision in that I knew what it meant for my family, but it wasn't a hard decision to actually choose.
So you made the decision knowing the economic consequences that were likely to befall you. Were you kind of surprised at yourself?
No; there was no way that I could live with myself, [if I had] done that [ICE paperwork task]. ICE has never been my favorite part of the government, but they've become this entirely different agency under Trump. To have been part of that, to have knowingly handed this information over knowing what they would do with it, was just not a thing that I could have done.
One of the things that has upset me is the lack of defections you see from a place like ICE.
People whose only crime was overstaying a visa or crossing the border or seeking asylum — and they were rounding these people up. We’d seen families torn apart. There had also recently been that video of the Border Patrol agents kicking over water that people had left in the desert so asylum seekers could make it across the border, and it wasn't just that they were removing the water — some of them looked like they were doing it with a sadistic level of glee. And I was like, I can’t be part of that.
What did you feel when you saw this reaction?
Panic! Then when I realized what was going on, I had to put that in the back seat and deal with this, because while people were paying attention, I thought, I’ve got to be able to use this to point out what's going on. Because I think a lot of people have been watching this progression with our immigration policy not necessarily understanding what it means. There was a survey that people now don’t understand what happened in the Holocaust.
That recent survey found that about 40% of Americans, and 2/3 of millennials, don’t know what Auschwitz was — the most notorious of the Nazi concentration camps.
And right now, the last survivors of the Holocaust are all dying of old age. The understanding of this — these things don’t start with one big move. It's all little steps. And while you can't draw a one-to-one comparison, there are some really uncomfortable historical parallels. You have a historically maligned group being unfairly scapegoated for a nation's ills. And the laws now are being more and more targeted against them. I have been saying for a while, before this happened, that this started with a discussion about undocumented immigration, but it's not going to stay there and it hasn't stayed there. There’s attacks on work visas. It's expanding to be not just simply anti-undocumented immigration, but anti-immigration.
You were surprised by the viral responses to your tweets, but also by the fact that people were voting their support for you with their dollars.
I was humbled. What that has allowed me to do is to turn this into my job right now. What I’m trying to do is stay on top of immigration news.
I had what you might describe as a really rough childhood. It was a lot of chaos. It was a lot of moving around. It was a lot of abuse, and neglect. But it's kind of a lesson in radical empathy. So I feel very deeply for people who might feel like they don't have control of their life right now. I understand very intimately what that feels like, to not know where you're going to be in a week, to really understand that those in authority over you may not have your best interests at heart. So if I can do anything to make it less awful for people, I'm going to do that.
I've been working on trying to organize on the ground with people here in Montana, but the biggest problem is we have a lot more ground than we do people. Montana is a predominantly white state, which means if you’re an immigrant, even a fully documented, fully naturalized immigrant, you stand out here. There's a danger for anybody in any state who steps forward. They put a bit of a target on their back. If you step forward, you stand out.
And so it really becomes the work of very, very white people like me to try to take some of that heat off those people, trying to get legal counsel, trying to organize so that there's a place for them to go. Out of Somerville, Mass., there's this group who set up a text warning system about ICE raids. I ended up talking to some of their people, trying to figure out what it would take to bring that here to Montana.
Like I said, it’s a big state. It's not like you can necessarily mobilize a bunch of people right away to stop someone from being deported. But then we have to figure out a way to help their family in the aftermath.
The people you were hearing from, what were they telling you?
I got some messages that cut me pretty deep. There were [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program] recipients; there were their parents, too. They keep getting kicked in the teeth during this debate because all they were trying to do is get a better life for their family, for their children, and they get villainized, like, “Well, we like these DACA kids, but their parents, you know, they brought them here.”
There was someone who was the grandchild of Holocaust survivors who said fewer Jews would have died if more people made the choice that you did. That leveled me. It really helped me realize that yes, what I had done was the right thing, messages like that, that said, “This is what more people need to do.”
Do you think more people did do that, too, in the wake of your doing it?
One of the things that has upset me is the lack of defections you see from a place like ICE. I think there should have been more people looking at what they were doing and saying, even if you believe that our immigration laws are just, you should understand that they are being unjustly applied. We are going after people who pose no threat. We are going after people who have been here for decades. But every time [President Donald] Trump talks about closing immigration loopholes, what he refers to as loopholes are just things that allow immigrants to stay.
He wants to set quotas for immigration courts so that they will speed up this process — which means he just wants them to deport people, even people who would have a right to be here under our current law. We have an asylum system for people to be able to come here and say, “I cannot return to my home country without threat of dying.”
I can't imagine that the reaction you got was universally positive. What were the negatives?
For the most part it was overwhelmingly positive, and the negative reactions were fairly toothless — insults about my character and masculinity, and trying to say that my wife was going to leave me. I’m sort of protected because I'm a white guy on the internet. I don't get the same sort of targeted hate campaigns that pretty much anybody else would.
Even the on-the-ground stuff here in Montana, people who disagreed with my politics could respect what I did, taking a stand on what I believed in.
The paperwork that you quit over rather than do — presumably someone else did it. So what difference do you think you made?
Now that it’s gone viral, I alerted a bunch of people to what was going on. Our undocumented population is 0.3%, maybe 5,000 people. We have 90-some DACA recipients in Montana. I gave them a heads-up that this could be coming.
What did you learn about your fellow Americans?
I was pretty close to giving up hope on America, because we were marching towards authoritarianism. A lot of people are looking for something right now: Everyone is standing in line, waiting for someone to step forward. You’re watching it in the teachers’ strikes. But all you need is the numbers. You get a certain percentage of people to walk out — they can't do anything. The strike in West Virginia — that was a wildcat strike. That was technically illegal. They should all have been fired. But there were so many of them that, had they fired everyone who was part of the strike, they’d have no teachers. There was no way they could handle that. If we could all just join hands and step over the line and say, “We're not going to put up with this.”
Your wife was fine with this. How did you explain this to your 4-year-old?
The night I quit, as we were driving home, I'm trying to explain, we may have to do things a little differently at home. I think my kid is brilliant, but I understand there’s certain language things that haven’t quite happened yet. And I got the famous toddler question, “Why?”
I said, “I had to make a choice because I didn't want to help break up families.” And the response I got turned me into a blubbering mess: “Why would anyone want to break up families?” My kid already gets it. My child understands that you don't break up families.
As parents, we're supposed to do the right thing. And — with the full understanding of the historical context of these words — had I just followed orders, I couldn’t tell my kid, you have to do the right thing even if it’s hard, [but instead say that] you have to do the right thing unless it’s really difficult, and thenj ust fold.
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