Washington, DC – Thousands of people have rallied in cities across the United States, calling on President Donald Trump to reverse a policy of separating undocumented parents from their children.
The protests on Friday, organised by a coalition of groups, was part of a National Day of Action dubbed “Families Belong Together” after it emerged that children were being separated from their families while trying to cross the southwest border with Mexico.
In two weeks of May alone, some 658 children were separated from their parents.
Carrying posters, placards and chanting slogans, protesters demanded that the Trump administration end funding to the controversial Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs Border Patrol. They also called on Trump to end family separations through the policy of prosecuting undocumented migrants.
Reverend Jennifer Butler, from Faith in Public Life, called the policy as a “moral abomination”.
“The country is polarised, but we are here to win hearts and minds and to push back on immoral policies,” Butler told Al Jazeera, on the fringes of the protest in Washington, DC, where about 400 people gathered outside the Department of Justice.
Thousands of people were expected to rally in nearly 30 cities across the country, including Oakland, Las Vegas, Allentown, Miami, Cleveland and New York City.
Activists said the practice of separating families has existed since the George W Bush administration (2001-2009), but had not been used as a matter of policy until the Trump era. In the past, families would be held and often deported. Under the new policy, parents are charged with “illegal entry” even if they are asylum seekers.
“It happened under [George W] Bush and under [Barack] Obama. Trump has basically taken the worst policy and made it evil,” Jess Morales Rocketto, chair of We Belong Together, a campaign that pivots women to the centre of immigration policies, told Al Jazeera.
Though Trump has publicly admonished the practice, members of his administration continue to justify it for acting as an effective deterrent.
In March, the Department of Homeland Security announced they were considering separating undocumented children from their parents. In May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy. He said adults would be criminally prosecuted while children would be separated and placed in alternate care.
“If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally,” Sessions said.
Immigrant rights activists argue that many of those coming to the US through the southwest border are fleeing violence in Central America and deserve to be treated as asylum seekers.
The prosecution of asylum seekers is in contravention of the 1967 Refugee Convention to which the US is a signatory.
Rocketto, the campaigner, says that sobbing children, including toddlers, have been “ripped away” as their parents are being handcuffed.
The children are passed on to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services.
The separation can last months while parents are charged with “illegal entry”. First-time offenders can face up to six months in jail, while repeat offenders are charged with “illegal re-entry”. Those found guilty can be imprisoned for up to two years.
Butler, the reverend, said treating asylum seekers with such cruelty “was evil”.
“We are the richest country in the world, there is no way anyone can ever agree with such a policy,” Butler said.
Before being implemented, the policy was piloted in New Mexico between July and November 2017. According to immigration officials, the number of families attempting to cross without documents decreased by 64 percent.
“Trump has a mission. It goes back to his statement of making America great again,” Christopher Enriquez, a protester in DC, said, referring to the US president’s campaign slogan.
“It appeals to his base. He is really trying to whitewash the country.”
Enriquez told Al Jazeera that undocumented migrants were “at the crosshairs of his policy”.
Across the US, the move to separate children at the border has been condemned by activists and some segments of the media.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board wrote that the Trump administration “has taken an immigration process that was already maddening and added an extra layer of cruelty … the result will be a generation of traumatised and scarred children – and a shame upon our nation.”
Likewise, the Seattle Times’ editorial board described the policy as “the very definition of inhumane”.
In a statement, Efren Olivares, the racial and economic justice director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, accused the Trump administration of taking “American Exceptionalism to a whole new level: no developed democracy in the world systematically separates children from their parents simply for coming into the country.”
Exel Estrada, 19, from Guatemala, told Al Jazeera that he had come to the US as an undocumented minor in 2013. He was detained for a month before he was able to apply for asylum, the decision of which is still pending.
“I thought it was hard for me. I can’t imagine what these children and families are going through.”
The protests come as Trump continues to call for tougher border security amid reports of an increase in undocumented border crossing in April. Immigration rights activists said Trump’s continuous vitriol towards immigrants, especially Mexicans, has emboldened border patrol agents, allowing them to intimidate and profile at will.
In 2017, Trump signed an executive order that gave enforcement agencies expanded powers to focus on most undocumented immigrants, including those with no criminal record.