Yuanen Alvarado from Texas State University chants into a loudspeaker during a demonstration against U.S. immigration policies at Linear Park in Brownsville, Tx.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Mothers and children sit under space blankets during a demonstration at the Families Belong Together rally at Linear Park in Brownsville, Tx. where hundreds protest U.S. immigration policies.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
A group of clergy lock arms and advance toward the Reynaldo G. Garza & Filemon B. Vela Courthouse in Brownsville, Tx. in front of hundreds of demonstraters protesting U.S. immigration policies.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Alicia Limon protests U.S. immigration policies at Linear Park in Brownsville, Tx.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Camilla Sanchez protests U.S. immigration policies at Linear Park in Brownsville, Tx.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
A Department of Homeland Security police offier watches as hundreds of demonstraters gather outside the Reynaldo G. Garza & Filemon B. Vela Courthouse in Brownsville, Tx. to protest U.S. immigration policies.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
The rally had the hallmarks of most any protest — chants, handmade signs, impassioned speeches. But then something extraordinary happened when Lorella Praeli, director of ACLU’s immigration policy and campaigns, asked the hundreds of people at the rally to close their eyes.
Then she started the now familiar audio of immigrant children at shelters crying for their parents. The audio had gone viral recently after it was leaked to the media. The crowd gathered at Linear Park in Brownsville quieted down; people closed their eyes and they began to listen. Many began to cry.
They had come from as near as across town and as far away as New York — immigration advocates and supporters who gathered to protest the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that has led to the separation of children from their immigrant parents.
The rally, across from the federal courthouse where immigration cases were being held, was hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union and a number of immigration and civil rights organizations. It also comes ahead of a nationwide protest Saturday in response to the separations.
More than 2,000 children were separated from their parents when the policy was put into effect in May. On June 20, Trump signed an executive order ending the family separation policy. This week a federal judge in San Diego ordered the government to reunite families within 30 days.
Under the blistering sun in Linear Park, hundreds held up printed red signs that read “Families belong together,” and others held signs they had made at home. They chanted “Si se puede” — “Yes we can” — and “Refugees are welcomed here; immigrants are welcomed here.”
Nearby stood a giant inflatable ice cube that said “Smash ICE,” a reference to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“It’s very tragic that moms and dads are being separated from their kids and that we have people in that court that are being criminalized for just seeking asylum, for seeking our protection,” said Astrid Dominguez, director of the Texas ACLU’s Border Rights Center. “But we’re happy to know that all of you are with us — the people on that border are not alone, the mother and the children that have been separated are not alone, because y’all are with us here today.”
“We’re here to continue the fight until the administration reunites all the kids and the parents that have been separated. We’re also here to send a message to Washington that we’re not going to back off,” she added.
Another speaker, Amber Arriaga-Salinas, assistant executive director of Proyecto Azteca, read a letter written by Lionel Cucul, a Guatemalan man who had been separated from his 11-year-old son. Others joined her onstage to read letters from other parents.
“He’s devastated because he hasn’t heard from his son,” Arriaga-Salinas said of Cucul. “He fears that if he’s deported, he will be inconsolable. It’s such a sad and tragic thing that is happening.”
The rally was nearing its end when Praeli played the recording of the crying children. Before it started, she asked who in the crowd had already heard it. Most hands went up.
As the recording played, people looked down, wiping tears from their eyes. Some used their T-shirts to wipe their noses. Sitting near the front of the crowd was Katey Dyck, 37, of Philadelphia. She was sobbing.
“I’m a mother of two daughters,” she said with tears in her eyes. “I know where they will be when I get back. I know losing them would break my heart, so I feel for the mothers.”
Dyck had flown to Texas from Pennsylvania on Wednesday to lend a hand and moral support to immigration advocates at shelters and centers.
She and her friend Kateland Knorr, 28, had spent most of the day before in McAllen at the Humanitarian Respite Center overseen by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. It provides services for immigrants released from government custody. The women said they spent time meeting and playing with the children and talking to their mothers. Both said it was necessary to come to south Texas to help out.
“I didn’t feel there was an option not to be here,” Dyck said. “It felt like a moral imperative.”
At the center, Knorr met a 2-year-old girl who clung to her.
“She’s the one I’m always going to remember,” Knorr said.
“Did you hear that? Those are our children,” she said, adding that the government is “betting on us going home and forgetting what is happening to families as they make plans today to jail families together.”
“Not a chance,” she said.
The crowd began to chant “Not a chance” before the wave of demonstrators marched across the street to the courthouse. Then the crowd took up two new chants: “Si se puede” and “Shut it down.”
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