WASHINGTON - More than 200 educators and activists, along with presidential candidate Jay Inslee, rallied outside the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) office Friday to protest the Trump administration’s continued detention of children and separation of families.
Organized by the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union in the country, protesters donned white shirts reading “CLASSROOMS NOT CAGES.”
“Whatever it takes, let’s do [immigration] right,” AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus told VOA News.
“But, until then, these kids are dying. These kids are suffering. These kids are not getting schooling the way they should,” DeJesus added. “And the teachers are here, ready to school them, to teach them, to love them.”
During President Donald Trump’s time in office, at least 24 migrants, including seven children, have died in U.S. custody. Detention centers at the border have come under fire for overcrowding, extended stays, and limited access to showers, clean clothing, hot meals, basic medical care and other provisions mandated under CBP standards.
“When detainees observed us, they banged on the cell windows, shouted, pressed notes to the window with their time in custody, and gestured to evidence of their time in custody [like beards],” a Homeland Security report released in early July said.
Days ahead of planned raids
The protest comes days before a set of raids has been announced by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Beginning Sunday, ICE will conduct mass deportations in 10 cities nationwide. Individual cities have not been identified yet.
Protesters decried the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration enforcement.
Linda Lindsey, a teacher from Massachusetts, described how her mother emigrated from Italy at the age of 6, fleeing Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Lindsey’s grandfather had papers that allowed the rest of the family to join him in the United States, she said.
“I probably wouldn’t be here if these stricter [immigration] laws were in place,” she told VOA. “This issue is near and dear to my heart.”
Lindsey recalled a student this year whose uncle was detained for weeks after entering the U.S. for a family vacation. Another student stopped talking in class after revealing he wasn’t a citizen.
Inslee, the governor of Washington state, also spoke at the protest. He told VOA the legal clampdown on undocumented migrants was “both wrong and unnecessary.”
“Prosecuting a mother who has walked across the border with a 3-year-old is not a good use of our criminal justice system,” he said. He stopped short, however, of supporting decriminalization of border crossings.
Remain in Mexico
Toughened policies apply to asylum-seekers, too. The Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy forces asylum-seekers to stay in Mexico while their cases are decided.
“They have a legal right to come into this country and claim asylum made by international laws,” said Jose Antonio Tijerino, president and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, a leadership nonprofit. “What’s happened is that they’ve been conflated (with criminals) — every time (Trump) talks about immigration, he immediately starts talking about (the gang) MS-13 and all of these other things.”
The Trump administration has said this prevents migrants from using asylum to stay in the country illegally. Opponents argue the policy endangers migrants and could therefore violate international law. The policy is being challenged in court.
Influx of migrants
Protesters called for a more robust path to residency and citizenship to manage the influx of migrants. Tijerino also pointed at foreign investment as a way to stabilize Central American economies and reduce the number of border crossings.
“Investing in the home countries will make people have the opportunity to stay there,” he said, and give governments the resources to “make sure that people are safe in their home countries.”
Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have some of the highest rates of homicide and gang violence, with much of the population living below the poverty line. Rule of law in the region, known as the Northern Triangle, has largely disintegrated.
Trump ordered aid cut to the countries in March. He reversed course in June, but only partially. The $432 million allocated in 2017 will be disbursed, but another $185 million will be withheld until the U.S. decides the three countries have done enough to reduce migration, according to CBS.
The $370 million allocated in fiscal 2018 will not be disbursed. Aid in the future will be conditional as well.
Advocates and policymakers have argued that reducing aid will only reduce each government’s resources and worsen the poverty and violence that drives migration. The administration has used the aid as an incentive for the Northern Triangle countries to prevent citizens from fleeing to the U.S.
Asked about the future, DeJesus, of the American Federation of Teachers, said the group would continue its efforts.
“We’re going to look for legislation. We’re going to keep fighting. We’re going to knock on every door,” she said. “We are serious about this because this could be you. This could be me. They all look like us.”
AFT members and other advocates protest again at a larger vigil Friday evening, one of nearly 800 sister events worldwide.