BRATTLEBORO—Residents and regional activists gathered to fill up Pliny Park on June 14 for a vigil organized by Families Belong Together, in support of the more than 11,000 children who have been separated from their families and held in confinement at the Mexican border.
The protest organizers described themselves as families touched and outraged by the stories of the events down at the border — “fathers, mothers, people from all walks of life who are outraged...we are coming together to turn our outrage and heartbreak into action,” said organizer Nancy Braus of Putney.
The protestors believe that taking children from their families is simply wrong, and this issue is about children and families, and not about politics. They urge the Trump Administration and Congress to understand that taking children away from their parents and holding them for undisclosed amounts of time is traumatizing for young children.
On this front, they have the support of the American Academy of Pediatricians, an organization that has insisted that “this is a child health issue.”
“We need a presence down at the border of people willing to witness this and spread it,” Braus told approximately 75 people attending. “Take photos, write about it, and get [your voice] out there.”
“This is as unacceptable [...] as the other types of family separation we’ve had here,” she continued, citing “Native Americans whose families were separated, and the slave trade.”
“America has had family separation in the past, and this cannot happen again,” she said.
Braus also predicted that the policy change represented the first step in dismantling the asylum program — “a way that people have come into the United States forever” — which provides an internationally protected right for immigrants in danger.
She told the assembled crowd that the Trump administration’s clear goal with the family-separation policy is “ethnic cleansing.”
“They don’t want brown-skinned people coming into the country,” Braus said.
‘Zero-tolerance policy’ and its consequences
Brattleboro was one of more than 50 locations all across the country who organized rallies, marches, and vigils to protest the treatment of young immigrants.
The number of children being held in the United States is well over 2,400, including more than 1,300 children who have been separated from their families since October.
On June 20, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to end family separation, just five days after claiming, falsely, that the separation policy comported with a law created by the Democrats, therefore only the Democrats could put an end to it.
The Trump administration has recently adopted a “zero-tolerance” policy concerning people and families caught crossing over unlawfully into the U.S. at the Mexican border. This means that any adult caught crossing will be prosecuted.
Prior to the executive order, under the Trump administration policy, a parent with a child would be considered to be smuggling the child and separated. Even when the families come to the U.S. as refugees seeking asylum, children have still been separated from their parents under the legal argument that they are being removed from the custody of a criminal.
Children in their early teens have been separated from their parents and siblings, and infants as young as nine months have been taken from their mothers.
The children are placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, charged with placing them with the nearest family member or friend in the U.S. For however long this process takes, or if there is no such person in the U.S., the children are held in facilities en masse.
Despite Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) claiming that parents and children are kept in communication during the entire legal process, many parents have reported that they were never told where their children were being taken and had no way of knowing when they would see each other again.
In some cases, detained parents claimed ICE was forcefully taking away children. And, in some cases, parents said that they were lied to about where their children were being taken and didn’t realize they wouldn’t be coming back.
As the parents are prosecuted and taken to await a court hearing, their children are classified as unaccompanied migrant children and, while their parents are placed into detention, they are placed into holding facilities.
Due to the number of children in custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, many of the facilities are makeshift, like a vacant Walmart, the largest licensed shelter for immigrant children in Brownsville, Texas, or temporary tent camps such as the one set up in Tornillo, Texas.
ICE has stated that the agency would make efforts to reunite a family once the parent’s immigration case has been decided, despite the lack of a formal protocol or system in place to track the children and families.
Where are the kids?
Now that the policy to separate families has ended, the focus of the Families Belong Together movement has shifted to demanding families be reunited, as well as protesting the leeway the executive order now gives ICE in regard to detaining families for undefined amounts of time.
Attempts for reunification of families may range from challenging to near impossible, as it can even be difficult to determine which facility a child is being held in. In several cases, immigration lawyers have reported that parents have been deported without their children, leaving them essentially orphaned in the custody of a government of another country.
Meanwhile, Trump’s executive order states, “The Secretary of Homeland Security shall [...] maintain custody of alien families during the pendency of any criminal improper entry or immigration proceedings involving their members.” This essentially permits ICE to keep families in detention indefinitely until their immigration case has been decided in court.
Law prohibits the holding of a family with children for longer than 20 days in an immigration facility, but the family’s immigration case could take several months or over a year to be concluded.
Rally set for June 30
Another nationwide rally, organized by Everyone’s Books, the Putney Huddle, and Brattleboro Rights and Democracy, is planned for Saturday, June 30 will focus on prioritizing the reunification of separated families and enforcing laws protecting families with children from indefinite detainment in poor conditions.
In Brattleboro, the Not in Our Name: A Families Belong Together Solidarity Gathering will take place on the Town Common, at the intersection of Park Place and Route 5, at 2 p.m.
The groups hope to “display 2,000 pairs of children’s shoes to represent the children of asylum seekers,” organizers wrote on a Facebook event posting.
Donations of shoes for the visual exhibit can be left at Everyone’s Books, 25 Elliot St., and in a bin in the driveway at 7 West St., Putney.
Similar rallies will take place regionally in Bennington, Manchester, Greenfield, Mass., and Keene, N.H.