May 25, 2020

Protesters gather at fed building in Williston

VTDigger photo by John Young
Protesters gather across the street from the Department of Homeland Security’s Law Enforcement Support Center in Williston on Friday.

Activists seek end to family separation policy for undocumented immigrants

By John Young

For VTDigger

Dozens of people gathered Friday in front of the Department of Homeland Security’s Law Enforcement Support Center in Williston to protest mistreatment of illegal immigrants by several government agencies.

“We are very specifically talking about the policy of detaining asylum seekers separately from their children,” said Elizabeth Deutsch, an activist and registered nurse. “(Attorney General) Jeff Sessions has come out and said that he is doing this as a way to deter people from crossing the border.”

The center, which is the regional federal facility for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), “supports enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws and plays an important role in the identification of criminal aliens,” according to its website.

This is the second demonstration in Vermont against the center and ICE in as many weeks. It was organized by the New England Organizing Committee in conjunction with other immigration policy protests around the country.

Other groups represented at the rally were Migrant Justice, Rights and Democracy, Women’s March, Peace and Justice Center, The Root Social Justice Center, 350 Vermont, ACLU-Vermont and Voices for Vermont’s Children.

“Our elected officials at all levels need to be engaged in this issue, and we need to be engaged in this issue whether we’re elected officials or not,” said Rep. Diana Gonzalez, P-Winooski. “We need to have grassroots upsurgence across the nation saying that this is not OK, and then collectively we can change things.”

Among the list of grievances raised at the protest were the separation of minors from their families at the border, unlawful imprisonment of children and what protesters called xenophobic policy coming from the White House.

A “zero tolerance” border enforcement policy recently adopted by the White House to prosecute those who attempt to illegally cross the border and keep their children in custody during the legal process has mobilized activists nationwide.

“This particular policy has resulted in over 600 families being ripped apart in just two weeks,” said Deutsch.

The ACLU, MoveOn, and several other advocacy groups held dozens of demonstrations in cities across the country for a “Families Belong Together Day of Action” last Friday.

Regional chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have also been trying to obtain more information about how President Donald Trump’s administration policies are playing out on the ground.

The ACLU of Vermont joined a lawsuit last month against the Department of Homeland Security and ICE in an attempt to get information relating to arrests made in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine in the first 100 days after Trump’s inauguration.

The ACLU claims that during that period, immigration arrests shot up by 38 percent nationwide and by 58 percent in New England. The ACLU estimates that 1,000 undocumented immigrants have been arrested in the three states, but has only received a one-page report on the arrests.

“The best way to fight it is joining together as a state, everyone in the state standing up against it and for sanctuary cities,” said Mari Cordes, an activist and registered nurse. “Many times, actually, in our history of the United States we’ve had to do things that were against the law when there were bad laws.”

Cordes is running for the House of Representatives in Addison County. She says she wants to ensure that the Vermont State Police are not cooperating with federal agents to turn over undocumented residents.

Keith Kennedy, a retired physician, said he wants Vermont’s delegation to Washington, D.C., to step up and fight to protect immigrants and refugees, whatever the cost.

“I want Pat Leahy, I want Bernie Sanders, I want Peter Welch; I want them to do something more than offer Democratic legislation that won’t pass,” he said. “I want them to be committing civil disobedience. I want them to be getting arrested. You know this can’t stand, separating kids from their refugee families cannot stand in America.”

The protesters chanted into megaphones, raised signs and sang in unison at the building, before activists and community leaders delivered a series of speeches.

Local ICE offices declined to comment on the protests, referring to contact information online.