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Kerry Kennedy and Dolores Huerta rally supporters of immigrant family reunification

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Labor activist Dolores Huerta, center, joins other protesters Saturday in McAllen, Texas, to demand the government reunite families apprehended by immigration officials.
(Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, joined labor activist Dolores Huerta at a park in this border city Saturday to announce a hunger strike to demand the government reunite immigrant families it separated.

“Reunify these families now,” Kennedy told a crowd of hundreds. She called on lawmakers to “end this humanitarian crisis of their own making.”

Behind her was a large black-and-white photograph of her father fasting 50 years ago with farmworker activist Cesar Chavez in Delano, Calif., a protest Huerta also joined.

Under a “zero tolerance” policy that took effect two months ago, the federal government has separated children and parents accused of entering the U.S. illegally. The policy requires federal criminal prosecution of all adults who cross the border illegally, regardless of whether they are traveling with children. In the past, most of those cases were treated as administrative matters in immigration court.

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Taken to federal criminal court without their children, many parents only later discovered that the Department of Health and Human Services had placed the youngsters in federal shelters or with foster families — and that getting them back would not be easy.

Though President Trump issued an executive order Wednesday that would purportedly end family separations, it wasn’t clear Saturday what would become of families arriving now and those already divided. Border Patrol officials confirmed late Friday that some parents will still be charged in federal court with illegal reentry, but said they were still determining whether parents caught crossing the border illegally for the first time would be referred to the U.S. Justice Department for prosecution.

Officials have said that of more than 2,400 children separated from their parents, about 522 have been reunited. On Friday, a Health and Human Services official told Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas during a visit to the Rio Grande Valley that it could take months to reunite families. Last week, Health Secretary Alex Azar activated the agency’s emergency management group, a spokeswoman said Saturday. The group is normally called upon to deal with public health crises and disasters such as epidemics and hurricanes.

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan was due to visit McAllen on Monday to tour the processing center where families have been held and separated.

As officials from Washington arrive on the border to investigate the effects of family separation, protests have been steady.

Kennedy read the names of 44 of her relatives joining the hunger strike — her 90-year-old mother, Ethel Kennedy, brother Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-Mass.) among them — as well as those of two dozen celebrities and lawmakers, including Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove), and actors Alec Baldwin, Alfre Woodard, LeVar Burton, Martin Sheen and Keegan-Michael Key.

More people at the rally added their names to a sign-up sheet.

Each participant — starting with Kerry Kennedy and Huerta — plans to fast 24 hours. The entire strike will run 24 days in honor of the 2,400 children who had been separated from their families.

Huerta recalled fasting with Robert F. Kennedy, credited the recent public outcry with forcing Trump to backtrack on his new policy, and said continued protests are the only way to ensure families are reunited.

The two women plan to travel west to the town of Tornillo, Texas, on Sunday for a protest outside a 400-bed air-conditioned facility erected earlier this month for immigrant boys who crossed the border without adults. Last week, Health and Human Services officials said they planned to create additional shelters on military bases to house up to 20,000 children.

Some of those protesting in McAllen on Saturday said they have been working to reunify families, but it hasn’t been easy. Martha Sanchez, an organizer at La Union Del Pueblo Entero, a Rio Grande Valley community organization, said the group spent three days trying to find the 8- and 9-year-old sons of a Mexican father detained in the Rio Grande Valley.

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On Friday, the boys turned up in a shelter for deported children run by the Mexican government across the border in Reynosa.

Efren Olivares, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, told the crowd that of 381 parents he interviewed at the local federal court, none have been reunited with their children.

Norma Pimentel, a nun who runs a migrant shelter in McAllen and attended the meeting with Sens. Cruz and Cornyn on Friday, said that was accurate, and signed up to join the fast.

“This is what we need to do to make a difference in the lives of so many moms and children who need us,” she said.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Twitter: @mollyfh


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