On Monday, activists with Puente protested the Trump administration's family-separation crackdown at the border outside of the federal courthouse in Phoenix.EXPAND
On Monday, activists with Puente protested the Trump administration's family-separation crackdown at the border outside of the federal courthouse in Phoenix.
Joseph Flaherty

'Kids Like Me Should Not Be in Prison': Activists Condemn Family-Separation Crackdown

Eleven fidgety kids stood on Washington Street, each of them holding a piece of paper with a different letter.

Together, they spelled out a phrase that has become a two-word manifesto for activists opposed to the Trump administration's immigration crackdown: A-B-O-L-I-S-H I-C-E. The last child in the row held a sheet of paper with a double-exclamation point. 

In the late-afternoon heat outside Phoenix's federal courthouse, migrant-rights activists with Puente condemned the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" policy toward families who cross the border illegally.

Clutching the microphone and reading from a sheet of paper, a second-grader named Akemi Vargas asked Trump to stop separating families. Her father was deported just before her birthday, she said: "I was really sad because I didn't have a present from him," she said.

"Kids like me should not be in prison," Vargas told the crowd. "They should be free and play with their brothers and sisters, go to school, and get a college degree."

Reading the statement for a second time in Spanish, Vargas broke down and sobbed.

Children stand on Washington Street to protest the Trump administration's policy of family separation, in an event organized by the migrant-rights organization Puente.EXPAND
Children stand on Washington Street to protest the Trump administration's policy of family separation, in an event organized by the migrant-rights organization Puente.
Joseph Flaherty

Under the administration's harsh new enforcement strategy, families have been broken up and thousands of children detained in shelters across the Southwest.

The decision to prosecute and imprison all migrants who cross the border — a priority spearheaded by Attorney General Jeff Sessions — has led to the separation of nearly 2,000 kids from their parents between April 19 and the end of May, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Under Sessions' new policy, the government will criminally prosecute and imprison migrants for illegal entry — even if they are first-time migrants or asylum-seekers who did not enter through an official port of entry.

This approach requires splitting up families, because parent and child can't stay together if the parent is thrown in prison.

Holding her 2-year-old daughter, Puente organizing director Francisca Porchas said that she can't imagine being separated from her child inside a prison.

"We are not going to allow President Trump and Attorney General Sessions to use our children as hostages," she said. "As a bargaining chip to do terrible things to the migrant community, in order to pass laws and more policies that will criminalize our people further."

Porchas promised that activists will resist the plan, and "will shut down the whole damn country if we have to." She also broadened the call for action, saying that there should be no detention centers or prisons for adults, too. The solution is not to detain adults and children inside one cell together, Porchas explained.

"That is not family reunification for us," Porchas said. "They need to be free."

Last week, authorities in Brownsville, Texas, led reporters on a tightly monitored tour through a child detention center where 1,500 kids are being held inside a former Walmart Supercenter.

Among the facility's series of murals is a sketch of Trump next to an American flag and a line cribbed from The Art of the Deal in English and Spanish: "Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war."

The Trump administration's decision to split up and prosecute all families who cross the border illegally was met with immediate condemnation from immigrant-rights organizations.

Criticism of the new policy has come mostly from Democrats, but also some Republicans and conservative religious leaders. Arizona Senator John McCain called family separation "an affront to the decency of the American people," and said the Trump administration should rescind the policy now.

The backlash crescendoed over Father's Day Weekend. On Monday, ProPublica released a harrowing recording from inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facility, where sobbing children can be heard asking desperately when they will be reunited with their parents.

The Department of Health and Human Services has resorted to "tent cities" to house more unaccompanied minors, which sparked a protest on Sunday at the first tent city constructed in Tornillo, Texas, near the U.S.-Mexico border.

At Monday's protest, 67-year-old Laurie Rosales, a licensed social worker and counselor, described the constant surveillance and stress she witnessed at detention facilities. Now retired, Rosales previously worked as a counselor in Arizona shelters that handled unaccompanied minors.

Rosales said that the new policy from Sessions has undoubtedly escalated the stress on children and parents beyond anything that took place before.

"I can't even imagine the babies and mothers I met in that situation being torn apart, so I can't imagine what these kids are going through," Rosales said.

"There's no real law that says they have to do this," she added. "It's more a matter of policy, and to use it as leverage to get the money for the wall. That's my feeling."

Jovana Renteria, a legal director with Puente who has worked with the organization for 10 years, called the practice "horrible" and "xenophobic." However, she said that family separation is nothing new. Renteria described it as an extension of mass incarceration policies that target black and brown communities.

Watching the "zero tolerance" policy unfold and seeing the images filtering out of the child detention centers deeply touched Renteria, she explained.

"I know what family separation feels like, and it's not pretty," she said.

A Phoenix native, Renteria expects that Puente will start to handle more reunification cases as a result of the separation policy.

"We're definitely going to have to assist," she said. "At the bottom line, we need to reunify these families."

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