Hundreds rally for immigrant families
Under a blazing sun at 11 a.m. Saturday, June 30, approximately 500 people gathered at the Old State Capitol plaza for a rally in opposition to current federal immigration policy. Part of a coordinated nationwide effort and organized locally by nonprofit organization Action Illinois, the speakers at Springfield’s rally mainly commented on the recent family separation policy, ordered by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which has caused children of immigrants to be separated from their parents at the border, resulting in thousands of reported separations. Saturday’s rally, under the banner “Families Belong Together,” presented several different voices, from clergy to first generation citizens to a former U.S. attorney, all calling for more humane and practical immigration policies across the board.
Springfield poet and activist Shatriyah Smith began the proceedings by first invoking the spirit of abolitionism in reaction to widely seen media images of children of immigrants being kept in cages. “I know what it means to feel unsafe,” she said. “I know what it means to feel persecuted. But I do not know what it feels like to be snatched away from my mother or to have my child snatched away from me, not knowing if we ever will be reunited.”
Veronica Espina, a course facilitator at University of Illinois Springfield and one of the leaders of the recent attempt to have Springfield declared a Welcoming City, began with a pointed question. “Where is your heart? For the past week many of us have had our hearts on pause, suspended, while the news continues to show the faces of children, their moms, their dads, ripped apart from each other.” Like Smith, Espina drew connections between the recent policy and other episodes in U.S. history, specifically relating to Native Americans and African slaves. “Taking your children away, breaking your family apart, caging you and displaying your suffering – as if wanting to survive was a crime – is deliberate. It is a dehumanizing strategy,” she said. “It has always been a tool of fear and a weapon of conquest.” Her answer as to how to address the problem is simply to vote. “Our hearts are going to take us to the polls, to the capitals and city halls where the lawmakers will be held accountable for what is happening in our country.”
Sister Beth Murphy of the Dominican Sisters addressed herself to the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the current administration’s travel ban. “The Supreme Court’s flawed ruling adds to the climate of fear and anti-Muslim sentiment in this country and threatens the values on which our nation is founded,” she said. “As women of faith, we believe that all people are created in God’s image, all are worthy of respect, all are entitled to the protection of their human rights and religious liberty. We strongly object to the president’s continued abuse of his authority to create by fiat policies that deny access to our Muslim sisters and brothers because of their religion.”
James Lewis, who was U.S. attorney for the central district of Illinois from 2010 to 2016, had some specific objections to the separation policy, criticizing what he characterized as the administration’s “zero tolerance for parents and children seeking asylum from death and disaster.” He pointed out that people crossing the border for the first time seeking asylum are committing only a federal misdemeanor as opposed to a felony. “United States attorneys’ offices do not do misdemeanors – until now, ordered by the Attorney General,” he said, asserting that U.S. attorneys’ offices are instead traditionally focused on felonies such as immigration smuggling and human trafficking. “We are being sold a policy now, by the salesman-in-chief, for political reasons,” he said. “I co-signed a public letter with 84 other U.S. attorneys, saying to the Attorney General, don’t do this. Border agents are busy, they can’t prosecute all these cases – they are busy doing serious cases. There aren’t enough defense attorneys, there aren’t enough courts. This is really an attack on asylum, one of many.”
As an alternative, Lewis suggested an asylum process, starting at the border with a “credible fear interview.” Legitimate asylum-seekers would go through a case management process. “The idea of imprisonment and internment is an idea we went through in World War II. It was wrong then and it’s wrong now. The government is doing this with our money and our good name. They are intentionally hurting people,” he said, before also exhorting those in attendance to exercise their right to vote.
Valeria Cueto, a Springfield resident also involved in the Welcoming City initiative, was joined onstage by her 18-month-old daughter and recalled stories of her mother being forced to flee Nicaragua at age nine and her father having to leave Cuba at two. “The trauma both of my parents survived was only mitigated by the fact that we were welcomed into this country, our country,” she said.
The keynote speaker was Linda Rivas, executive director of nonprofit organization Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center based in El Paso, Texas. “El Paso was dealing with this before it ever became news,” she said. “It has been confirmed by DHS that El Paso was absolutely the testing ground, ground zero, for this family separation policy.” She said that Las Americas demanded meetings with both U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) leadership and got Congressman Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, involved. But these efforts initially failed to gain traction. “The monster was to big to fight at that time – people did not believe it was happening, officials lied to our face, saying they were not separating children. We have now confirmed that they have been separating children for over a year.” Teaming with the American Civil Liberties Union, Las Americas brought a lawsuit seeking to stop the U.S. government from separating immigrant children from their parents. According to a report in the El Paso Times, a federal judge in San Diego issued a nationwide preliminary injunction on June 26, ordering U.S. immigration authorities to stop the practice and to reunite all separated families.
“Many people have asked me, isn’t this over?” said Rivas. “The executive order is only a temporary suspension, they still have the goal to prosecute, to the full extent, the misdemeanor of illegal entry, even of asylum seekers. The fight is not over. What comes next is only replacing one horror with another – family detention. Fort Bliss has already been assigned to have 20,000 beds that will hold families indefinitely. This cannot stand.”