• Texas Family Project

More Than 1,000 Protest Zero-Tolerance Immigration, Family Separation in Brownsville

Updated: Nov 30, 2019

Protestors from across the state rally in front of the Reynaldo G. Garza & Filemon B. Vela Federal Courthouse, demand to observe deportation and separation hearings

By Angie T., Contributor

Texas Family Project

RICHARDSON, TX, June 28, 2018 — It was 1:45 a.m. and pitch black when my friend Lisa and I pulled into St. Luke’s Lutheran Church parking lot. A small group of people were gathered in the parking lot, dimly illuminated by the church’s exterior lights.

Lisa and I lugged our backpacks from her car and joined the others gathered outside the church. Throughout the next half hour, the crowd grew — a lot. A diverse group of more than 90 people enthusiastically greeted each other and shared snacks and information, while coordinators from groups like United Fort Worth and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) checked off names and handed out snacks and water. A broad spectrum of ethnicities, races, genders, religions, and ages were represented; many hugged those they knew from other causes or groups, while the rest of us got to know each other for the first time.

We were all gathered there in the wee hours for one thing: to lend our voices to the protest over family separation and zero-tolerance immigration policies in the Texas border town of Brownsville.

When our buses arrived at 2:30 a.m., we piled on and hunkered down for the nearly 10-hour drive to Brownsville, where more than 1,000 children have been separated from their families and held in detention centers due to the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policies.

We headed specifically for the Families Belong Together Rally at the Border, organized by groups like the ACLU, the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and multiple other advocacy groups. Us Dallas-Ft.Worth-area protestors weren’t alone; within a week of the Brownsville protest’s announcement on social media, more than a 1,000 Texans signed up to attend. Buses like ours departed in the early morning from Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and Laredo, to protest a full two days ahead of the national June 30 Families Belong Together marches and rallies, which saw thousands across the country gather in solidarity against zero-tolerance immigration policies and the controversial family separations.

Almost as soon as the bus started rolling, nearly everyone aboard fell asleep. We were weary. Some of us were fresh off last weekend’s Texas Democratic Convention in Ft. Worth; others were just at Tuesday’s #StandWithMuslims event in Dallas. Still others obviously work or volunteer for Democratic political campaigns, per the buttons and shirts I saw on the bus. The work never stops in the fight for progressive values, and it showed on our care-worn faces. However, there was an undercurrent of energy beneath the fatigue, because we’re just as wary as we are weary. The stories about family separations at the border seem to change by the hour; on June 20, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to halt family separations and laid the blame at the feet of past administrations. However, Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policies have exacerbated the issue by sending thousands of migrants directly into custody and deportation hearings. On June 27, a federal judge in San Diego ordered migrant children be reunited with their families within 30 days, an injunction resulting from Trump’s zero-tolerance policy on immigration. The administration’s policy, which criminally prosecutes anyone crossing the border illegally, has resulted in more than 2,300 migrant children being separated from their parents since May (source: BBC).

So, if Trump made a big show of signing his executive order and denouncing the practice of family separations, and a federal judge has ordered reunification, why are we still wary? Why were we piling into buses long before the sun rose to head for Brownsville?

Because we don’t trust this president or many of our elected officials to uphold not just the promises they make in public, but also the very founding principles of our nation. Seventeen states agree, and have filed lawsuits against Trump’s June 20 order, citing its vagueness, as well as how its language leaves the door open for family separations to happen again in the future. Only one of those 17 states share a border with Mexico: California.

So we rode.

As we neared Brownsville, we were encouraged by a coordinator to share why we were making this trek to the border. Some were DREAMers or DACA recipients, hoping they get to stay in America. One woman shared that for most of her childhood, she and her family were in the U.S. illegally. Her reason for going to Brownsville is very poignant: “We always knew they (Immigration Enforcement) could come at any time, but at least we knew we’d be taken together.” Now, she said, migrant families don’t have that assurance.

Some speakers chillingly compared the family separations to the days of slavery, Japanese internment camps, and the Holocaust — a couple even share that their families fled Europe ahead of the Nazis, finding sanctuary in America.

Others, like me, are from white privilege. We’ve never been asked to show our papers, and we’ve never been afraid the authorities would come for us and send us back to impoverished or dangerous home countries. One woman’s family, like mine, has been in America since before the Revolutionary War.

When it was my turn, I tell my story: yes, I was born here, and I’ve never had to be afraid. But my father was a career Navy man who spent his adult life protecting the freedoms America is supposed to offer. Were he alive, I tell my peers on the bus, he’d be sickened by what’s happening. I spoke of my great-grandmother, who immigrated to New York in steerage from Ireland at the turn of the 20th century. As she entered New York’s harbor, she would’ve seen the Statue of Liberty from her ship, a symbol of American freedom that greets immigrants with the New Colossus: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Was my great-grandmother not escaping civil unrest, poverty, and the dregs of famine to come to the United States to live out her long life as a hardworking American? She made it through the Ellis Island checkpoints and worked as a seamstress in lower Manhattan’s infamous sweatshops, and eventually had a family of her own and a longtime home in the Bronx. She marched with the suffragettes in the 1910s and 1920s, she prevailed despite discriminatory practices against the Irish, she paid taxes, and was responsible for generations of American-born descendants. She came here for the American dream, she worked hard to keep it, and I daresay she’d be disgusted that the opportunity she was given is now being so callously denied to these desperate people at the border.

If she was allowed in to pursue the American dream, I asked the bus, why aren’t the people at the border being afforded the same?

At the Border

It’s 94 degrees and the unforgiving summer sun glared down on Brownsville. Hundreds of people spilled out of buses. Many, like those of us from the Dallas area, had been traveling since the very early hours of the morning.

Toting hand-made signs and donning shirts with slogans of resistance, these long-distance travelers seemed energized as they hurried to Brownsville’s Linear Park, across the street from the Reynaldo G. Garza & Filemon B. Vela Federal Courthouse, where immigration and family separation hearings were being held. Brownsville sits on the Texas-Mexico border and has become an international focal point for the immigration fight.

Speakers took the stage at Linear Park, rallying the more than 1,000 protestors with personal stories. Some told of crossing the Rio Grande to escape the poverty, civil unrest, and corruption in their Latin American countries; others recounted years of living in fear as illegal immigrants. A group of small children beseeched the crowd to “reunite families now,” bringing the crowd to tears and chants of “Si se puede!” (“Yes, we can!”). Jay Ellis, an actor in the HBO show “Insecure,” addressed the crowd, crediting his success to the immigrants who impacted his life, from bus drivers to resident advisers to tutors, and said that as a person of color, he comes from a “legacy of family separation...at the hands of this government.” Ellis railed against the conservative slant that the border detention centers are like summer camps, stating unequivocally that they are detention centers where babies and children are being torn from their parents and traumatized.

“Behind us is a courthouse where people are being targeted for the crime of wanting a better life for their children,” Ellis said. “For the crime of seeking asylum. That is not a crime!”

One brave 9-year-old boy told the crowd his grandfather, who takes care of him, came here long ago for a better life — which meant, largely, jobs that paid less than minimum wage. He admitted he’s afraid his grandfather will be taken away from him because “this country does not want people like him to live here.” The young boy fears his grandfather will be deported and he’ll never see him again.

“I am only 9 years old and I know this is wrong,” he said. “Why is our government causing so much pain?”

He roused the crowd with a closing statement: “Humanity has no borders!”

(Watch the speakers here.)

Hundreds of signs dot the landscape. “Familias Merecen Estar Juntas” signs are hoisted alongside their English-translated counterparts: “Families Belong Together.” Slogans like “We Should All Care” or “I Really Do Care” are painted on umbrellas, shirts, vests, and signs — a direct response to the jacket First Lady Melania Trump wore on her June 21 trip to McAllen, Texas, a jacket which read “I Really Don’t Care. Do U?” The First Lady visited McAllen under claims that she was dismayed by the family separations and detention of children, but many saw this as a statement of the opposite.

Other signs accuse the administration of terrorizing families for profit, a statement about private companies profiting by detaining immigrant children — which is troubling enough, but even more so when you realize those private companies offer no transparency into their detention center practices. This means the American public has no idea how these children are being treated.

At the Courthouse

The energy and outrage were palpable as the more than 1,000 protestors crossed the street from Linear Park to the federal courthouse. Rally leaders with megaphones led the crowd in chants and demanded to be let inside to observe proceedings. The protestors pushed toward the courthouse, with only a handful of police officers attempting to keep them from opening and rushing through the courthouse doors. The protestors didn’t let up, and finally it was announced five people would be admitted inside to observe proceedings. This didn’t go over well with the crowd, which chanted, “This is the people’s house, you cannot keep us out!”

“Everyone who’s getting prosecuted here has heard us,” a rally organizer assured the crowd after confirming more spots were opening to observe the hearings inside the courthouse.

As the select few were allowed inside, rally leaders encouraged the crowd to cross back to Linear Park. The protestors reluctantly crossed the street, continuing their chants, wanting the migrant families inside to know we were there to support and fight for them. Unfortunately, 2 p.m. came too quickly, and those of us who’d traveled from afar had to board our buses and return home.

However, the rally served its purpose: local, state, and national news teams were on site, making the protest international news by the afternoon. The long ride to and from the border all in one day was not for nothing; our voices were heard by the migrant families at the border, and Texas showed the world it does not support the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

Dr. Shirley J. McKellar, a veteran running for U.S. Congress in District 1, told me she made the trip to Brownsville for many reasons. One reason is because she owned a school for 20 years, which made children a primary concern for her: “One of my mantras has always been reach one, teach one, and that children have to be taken care of 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she said. One of her major concerns is if the children in the detention centers are receiving adequate care.

McKellar was able to observe some hearings in the courthouse that day. The saddest case she saw was a man whose parents were born in the U.S., but he was born in Mexico; his family failed to file the proper paperwork, so while he was raised in America, he was technically an illegal immigrant.

“The system failed him,” McKellar said. “He should’ve been a citizen since his parents were citizens.”

A bad homelife led him to a life on the streets by age 16, though he’s now a grown man with a wife (a U.S. citizen) and U.S.-born children.

“His children had to see him in shackles,” McKellar said, with a haunted look in her eyes. “The judge gave him 30 months, but nine times out of 10, he’ll be deported rather than serve the time.”

Jan McDowell, who is running for U.S. Congress in District 24, was one of the protestors who has never been directly affected by immigration, but she sees America as shaped by immigrants.

“There’s no moral justification for not letting these people into our country,” she said on the ride back to Richardson.

McDowell was heartened by the number of people willing to “stand up and fight back” and make the situation at the border come to the forefront of international attention.

As candidates for Congress, McKellar and McDowell have ideas for immigration reform: McKellar said an immigration reform bill needs to come to the table immediately, as well as process put in place to implement laws we already have.

“It just takes too long and costs too much,” she said, referring to the notoriously backlogged immigration courts and sluggish system.

Many advocacy groups, like the Human Rights Initiative, consistently lobby for more judges and courts to process immigration claims due to a staggering backlog that practically ensures migrants will be deported or detained before due process.

McDowell believes a clean DREAM Act should be a congressional imperative. She also wants to see Temporary Protected Status (TPS) reinstated; Trump rescinded TPS at the end of 2017. McDowell wants elected officials to return to the constitution for laws regarding asylum seekers, and in her discussion with me, she responded to conservative claims that immigrants bring crime into the U.S.: “There’s a balance between acknowledging immigrants and the good they bring to our country against acknowledging we need to safeguard against potential harm,” she said. “But I’d rather lean toward the Statue of Liberty and us being who we say we are.”

McDowell hopes rallies like the one in Brownsville will spur people to action, especially people who don’t have the “lived experience” that immigrants go through.

“And families should be kept together, full stop,” she said firmly.

Emma Olvera of United Fort Worth said the rally was powerful, even intense at one point, and she was inspired by all the people who came from across Texas for the same cause. As someone who wasn’t involved in politics before issues like Trump-era immigration arose, Olvera hopes others will get involved and “politicians start acting on their constituents’ concerns and actually listen,” she said.

“I feel like the people who hold the power need to see that we, too, united, have power,” Olvera said on the way home. “And I had to see it for myself. It had to be tangible. I had to place myself there.”

In Retrospect

As a member of the fledgling Texas Family Project and a longtime progressive, traveling to Brownsville and back in one day was a no-brainer for me. I don’t have children. If I did, I’d do anything in my power to protect them and keep them in my care. The images I’ve seen of children crying as they’re forcibly separated from their parents turn my stomach, and I spend most of my time lately looking for ways to fight what’s happening at the border.

While my long trip to a three-hour rally in Brownsville was certainly driven by my politics, my reasons were also personal and about family; remember the story about my great-grandmother? These controversial separations crack the very foundation of the notion of family. For decades, the Republican party has touted “family values” as a pillar of its platforms and policies. However, their actions are so anti-family that they’d be laughable if they weren’t so terrifying. Surely, forcibly separating children from parents who are simply seeking a better life in America is as anti-family values as it gets.

By rallying in Brownsville, progressives and those who oppose the cruel measures being carried out at the border are reclaiming “family values.” That phrase doesn’t belong to the president and party that consistently claw back health care and veterans’ benefits and stomp on civil and equal rights. The party and the president who deny entry to people from war-torn places like Syria, and who detain babies in border detention facilities, don’t get to claim they represent family values.

And so we left our houses at 1:15 a.m., bleary-eyed, emotionally and physically exhausted, to get on our border-bound buses. In Brownsville, we rallied. With every anti-family separation sign that we hoisted, with every chant we shouted, we reclaimed family values.

You don’t have to have children or a big family to know that family separation is truly evil. You just need common sense, compassion, and the values we’re supposed to hold dear in this country, such as equality, opportunity, and justice.

Texas Family Project won’t give up in fighting family separation and advocating for progressive immigration reform. Get in touch with us to find out how you can help. I also suggest checking out this comprehensive list of other organizations involved in the fight against family separation.

Don’t disappoint these detained kids. Don’t let regressive policies take over our country. Let your elected representatives know you demand comprehensive immigration reform and an end to family separations.

Help us take back “family values.”

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