For the past month, immigrant rights advocates nationally and in the Bay Area have been predominantly focused on one thing: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents separating refugee children from their parents.
The separations are a result of changes in immigration policy under the Trump administration, which has decided that families who cross the U.S.-Mexico border somewhere other than a “port of entry” will be automatically detained. Parents who enter the country “illegally”—even those fleeing persecution or seeking asylum—are held under federal custody indefinitely, while their children are taken and placed with the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Department of Health and Human Services.
The policy came under heavy scrutiny in June, because about 2,000 of the children were split from their parents between April 18 and May 31, a six-week window out of the several months the policy has been in place, according to Vox Media.
“This has been a continual ritual of the United States,” said Bay Area activist Cheryl Sudduth. “It goes all the way back to the Dred Scott decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, the Korematsu decision. This is nothing new for the United States, so no one should be surprised that this is what’s happening. They’ve been separating families since the beginning of time.”
Still, the audio recordings of young refugee children sobbing that were released by ProPublica, shocked the the public, sparking outrage that pushed scores of people into action.
Demonstration at Richmond detention center
65-year-old activist Lorraine Altamirano and other protestors gathered outside of West County Detention Center in Richmond on June 26 to demand that ICE—which has become a symbol of the Trump administration’s hostility toward immigrants—be demolished.
“This is just over-the-top horrible, I mean horrible. I cannot believe [what is happening],” said Altamirano. “Well no, I can believe, because since November of 2016 we’ve been going way downhill. It is not acceptable. I don’t know what is going to happen after this, and I don’t think we’re done seeing the horrible.”
Cleve Jones, founder of The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial, helped organize what was referred to as a “Day of Action,” and was one of the speakers at the demonstration.
“We’re here to oppose Trump’s immigration policies,” Jones said. “We’re here because we want the families who were separated at the border to be reunited immediately.”
According to its website, the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department has an agreement with ICE to house about 200 federal detainees per day, a contract worth approximately $6 million annually.
The Sheriff’s department has been heavily criticized by the Richmond community for allegedly mistreating inmates, and for withholding access to the facility to prevent oversight by city officials.
“Enough is enough,” said Richmond Vice Mayor Melvin Willis. “We are not just going to target and criminalize people based on where they were born. That is immoral.”
A national day of action
BART stations across the Bay Area filled with people carrying posters on June 30, bound for the 16th Street Station and a mass demonstration at Dolores Park.
Mothers and fathers brought their children to the event which proceeded down Dolores Street before turning onto Market Street and marching on to City Hall.
“I think it’s important to explain to your children what is going on right now, but with language that is child friendly,” said Gabrielle Reid, who brought her three young daughters with her.
The girls held hands and signs that that read, “families belong together.” Reid looked at her daughters marching in front of her and said she couldn’t imagine being separated from them for more than a day. “I’d honestly go crazy, I can only imagine what kind of pain that would be.”
Timothy Anderson, another demonstrator explained that his mother had been in a Japanese concentration camp when she was young.
“Every time she spoke about it her eyes would always wander off,” he said. “She’s beginning to show signs of dementia but clearly remembers her time there as being terrible.”
Elizabeth M., 57, and her best friend Nancy W.B., also 57, made their own signs for the march. Elizabeth’s read “Shame on Us” in bold red letters.
“It’s time to take accountability of our complacency,” said Elizabeth. “We allowed all the events that led to this to fly by… This protest is far overdue, we have to start asking us what else can we do, more than just march once something major happens. We gotta be more consistent.”
On of the speakers, Catherine Herrera, from the Ohlone tribe, talked about her trauma as a child when she was separated from her father when she was eight.
“So when I saw the children being separated, I was triggered like all of you, when we heard the recording of the children crying… [we] stood up,” said Herrera. “How could we [separate children]? I know how we could, because it’s been done before. When children are separated from their parents, they’re separated from their culture.”
“Why are we punishing children, why are we punishing victims of violence,” Herrera continued, highlighting the historical injustices committed against Native American people. “We’ve walked this path before … This kind of trauma goes to the roots of our country.”
Protesters ‘Occupy ICE’ in San Francisco
Following the demonstration at City Hall, people began camping outside of ICE’s San Francisco headquarters. Within a few days, about 20 tents along the block of Washington Street, between Sansome and Battery streets appeared, as part of the “Occupy ICE” movement.
A sign at the entrance of the camp read, “Welcome. But not cops” while masked occupiers stood by the opposite entrance closed off by wood pallets. In the middle of the encampment hung a banner with the message “Abolish Borders.”
Juan Prieto, a 26-year-old undocumented immigrant, was one of the people at the occupy camp. He said he was there because he wants ICE abolished, and he believes the movement needs to be led by undocumented people.
“For us, ‘abolishment’ means we get rid of the system, and free all the people that are currently being detained. We don’t mean replicating it,” Prieto said. “What we truly mean is we get rid of detention centers, we get rid of enforcement agencies that brutalizes our community, and we replace it with a compassionable alternative.”
San Francisco Police Department raided the camp in the early morning of July 9 (one week after it had been built) and arrested 39 protesters. A spokesperson from the police told the San Francisco Chronicle that the raid was launched in response to community complaints about “public urination, cooking with open flames, excessive noise and disturbing the peace.”
What happens now
The president did eventually bow to political pressure at the end of June, signing an executive order to keep families together. But there are grave concerns about the psychological effects this trauma has had on the children.
In March of last year, 184 organizations working with immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers and children, wrote a letter to U.S. Department of Homeland Security expressing their “profound opposition” to the then proposal to separate migrant families. The letter states that “Family unity is recognized as a fundamental human right, enshrined in international law,” and “separating children from their parents is cruel, traumatizing all those involved.”
San Diego Federal Judge Dana Sabraw ordered the U.S. government to reunite children under 5 with their parents within 14 days (and within 30 days for older children), but that deadline lapsed on Tuesday, July 10.
When asked about missing the deadline, the president responded: “Well, I have a solution: Tell people not to come to our country illegally. That’s the solution: Don’t come to our country illegally. Come like other people do—come legally. I’m saying this very simply, ‘We have laws, we have borders. Don’t come to our country illegally.’”
Currently, multiple agencies are working to reunite the families. But, while family separations have been suspended, the zero-tolerance policy implemented in April is still in place. More civil actions by immigrant rights advocates are expected to follow, as are more legal challenges to the president’s tolerance policy.
Story by: Jessika Karlsson and Kelly Rodriguez Murillo