More than 150 people rallied and held signs along Ocean Beach Highway on Saturday morning to “Keep Families Together,” a rallying cry of critics against the Trump administration’s policy of separating asylum-seeking families at the U.S.-Mexico border from their children.
“My grandparents were immigrants from Poland, and they were allowed to come into this country for a better life for themselves and their children,” said Sue Rutherford, organizer for Lower Columbia Indivisibles, the group that coordinated the rally. “And that’s what these refugees are going through. They’re trying to escape a situation which is life or death.”
Ralliers met at the Safeway parking lot and took to the intersection of Ocean Beach and 30th at 10:00 a.m. Many chanted “Who cares? “We care,” or held signs that read “I really care, do u?” referencing a jacket First Lady Melania Trump wore while boarding an Air Force plane to visit migrant children in Texas that read “I really don’t care, do u?”
Longtime political activist, Indivisibles member and Kelso resident Judy Baker wore her own version of the controversial jacket, emblazoned with the words “I care.”
Trump’s administration “is just dead wrong” on immigration, Baker said.
“He just doesn’t care,” Baker said. “I am really afraid for our country. We are turning into a really divided society. My relatives are pretty Republican, but they’re common sense, loving people. I can’t believe that they are in favor of what’s going on at the border.”
She said she was energized by the number of peaceful demonstrators, many of them unfamiliar faces, who came out Saturday morning.
Saturday’s rally was one of more than 700 that took place across the country Saturday. The national campaign was organized by the ACLU and other political action organizations.
Ralliers yelled and cheered for about an hour, holding signs that read “Where are you from?”, “Ballots before bullets,” and “Reunite families.” The rally drew cheers and honks from cars passing by.
John Steppert and Ron Naff, both members of a local Presbyterian Church, said they were especially concerned with how elected officials have been turned away from visiting ICE detention centers.
“I’m in my eighties, and this is the worst thing I’ve seen in this country,” Steppert said. “The way we’re treating people, refugees from other countries who are getting away from violence, rape, joblessness and fear. They come to this country, and gosh, look at the way they’re being treated. ... These kids and families are going to be traumatized for life.”
Rutherford said she wanted people locally to sit down and have a conversation about how to allow in people who enter legally without harming those who don’t.
“I understand that we have to protect our borders,” Rutherford said. “That’s first and foremost. But we also have to not just automatically assume that everyone who enters this country, undocumented, is a threat. … As a grandmother and a mother, I cannot imagine the torture those parents are going through without their kids around them.”
Other ralliers took a harsher tone against Trump and his policies. Sherry Davis, president of the Cowlitz County Democratic Women’s Club, compared the practice of family separation to Nazi practices of separating families in concentration camps.
“Hitler did this very same thing. He divided families,” Davis said. “They’re doing the same thing — taking nursing children from their mothers. And what’s happening to these children is going to cause a lifetime of damage. America should be better than that.”
The legal history of family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border is complicated. In 1997, during the Clinton administration, an agreement settling the famous Flores v. Reno federal lawsuit affirmed that unaccompanied immigrant children must be released from immigration detention to parents, or the “least restrictive” setting appropriate if parents or guardians are not available.
During the Obama administration, family detention centers kept families together while their cases were processed. But in 2016, a federal appeals court ruled that children could not be detained indefinitely even if they were with their parents. For many years, it was up to the discretion of immigration officials what to do with families caught crossing the border illegally. But this April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero-tolerance” policy towards those not entering the country legally.
“If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you,” Sessions said, “and the child may be separated from you as required by law. … If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
The Trump administration is calling for construction of a multi-billion dollar border wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, saying a country without a secure border is not a country. Trump also opposes so-called “chain migration,” which gives immigration preference to relatives of people already here. The White House’s border policy calls for ending “catch-and-release,” a policy of releasing immigrants into the community while they await a hearing in immigration court rather than holding them in detention.
Government agencies have struggled to end catch-and-release for years because of limited spaces available to detain immigrants and court decisions, such as the Flores case, which put the administration in a legal bind. The government can construct more facilities to house immigrant children and their families, but those children still cannot be held indefinitely. Officials must still decide whether to release the parents as well, or keep them detained and thus separated from their children.
In early June, Trump called on Democrats to take legislative action to stop family separation, saying he was enforcing the law. However, no federal law requires undocumented children and parents to be separated at the border.
Democrat leaders responded by demanding that Trump and Sessions end their own policies towards separating families, and on June 20, Trump signed an executive order calling for federal services to provide emergency facilities to reunite migrant parents with their children. A federal judge Tuesday ordered all children be reunited with their parents within 30 days or less.
Ralliers on Saturday expressed both skepticism and hope toward orders from Trump and the federal judge to reunite families. Naff said he didn’t trust Trump to actually accomplish his June 20 executive order, which called for existing government agencies to construct new detention centers or make use of existing facilities to house alien families.
“The only persons more dangerous, to me, than our president are the Republicans who are not standing up against the president,” Naff added.
Greg Lapic held a sign that read “Terrible Ripping Up Migrant People (TRUMP).” He gave credit to rallies like this one, which was “only a drop in the bucket,” for pushing Trump closer to ending the practice of family separation.
“I look at it from the point of view of being a parent. I can just imagine the impact on the children, who are torn away from somebody who cares for them,” Lapic said. “It defies common sense for me. Children haven’t done anything wrong.”