HELENA – Hundreds of people gathered Saturday morning in Women’s Park in downtown Helena. They brought a single message: “Families belong together and free.”
Organizers estimate at least 350 to 400 people took part in the Families Belong Together rally, one of hundreds being held nationwide to protest the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, called on the federal government to end its “zero-tolerance” policies on unauthorized border crossings, and immediately reunite migrant families who have been separated at the border.
“This is a humanitarian crisis,” she said.
Until this year, immigration authorities released many families caught crossing the border while their cases were processed. But in April, the U.S. Justice Department announced the zero-tolerance policy, meaning that any adult caught entering illegally would be criminally prosecuted – including those seeking asylum in the U.S. That means many parents were placed in detention, and their children sent to other federal facilities.
Jorge Quintana, who represents Montana on the Democratic National Committee, is Cuban-American, and said his own parents came to the U.S. seeking a chance to work for a better life.
“It wasn’t easy, but at least they weren’t being treated the way immigrants are being treated today,” he said.
He called on those attending the rally to take action and ask the federal government for change.
“You know it’s wrong: That’s why you’re here today,” he said. “Let the politicians know it’s wrong. They work for you – make them listen.”
Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins, who came to the United States as a refugee more than 20 years ago, remembered being separated from his own family, by choice, as he went through the admission process.
“Can you imagine other families not knowing where their five-year-olds are?” he asked the crowd. “It has to stop, and it stops with you. It stops with us.”
Many people attending the rally held signs, calling for changes in detention policies and praising the contributions of immigrants.
“We’re stronger when we are welcoming; we’re stronger when we’re not afraid of our neighbors,” said Eric Meyer.
Meyer, who attended the rally along with his three-year-old daughter, said the reports that several thousand children had been separated from their parents at the border troubled him, as a father and as a person of faith.
“When I think of them traveling thousands of miles to get to a people who tells them that they’re not welcome here, a people who tears their mothers away from their children and fathers away from their children and brothers and sisters apart from each other, I can’t stay home,” he said.
Earlier this month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to end the practice of separating parents and children in immigration detention. However, it maintained the zero-tolerance policy, so that may mean families will be kept together in detention facilities while the parents’ prosecutions move forward.
Carroll Rivas said she doesn’t believe that step is enough.
“We would never imprison children for their parents’ offenses,” she said.
Carroll Rivas also said she’s concerned that the federal government has not announced a plan for immediately reuniting migrant families already separated.