They’re still standing. Why critics protesting Trump’s child detentions won’t give up

For over a year these activists have showed up every week to protest immigration policy

Local activists have been protesting the separation of immigrant children from their parents detained at the border every week for over a year. Local activist and former Star-Telegram reporter Ernie Moran talks about why.
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Local activists have been protesting the separation of immigrant children from their parents detained at the border every week for over a year. Local activist and former Star-Telegram reporter Ernie Moran talks about why.

When they saw President Donald Trump’s policy was separating children from the parents at the border last year, a group of local activists jumped into action.

They launched Friday morning protests on a sidewalk along University Drive in Fort Worth near Republican U.S. Rep. Kay Granger’s office not far from TCU.

Waving signs that read “Keep Families Together,” their message was blunt, calling out Trump and questioning Granger.

“Mothers and fathers and children weep,” stated one sign displayed a year ago. “Tell us, Kay Granger, How do you sleep?”

These teachers, speech pathologists, mental health specialists and self-described Christians who protested called themselves Patriots for the Children. They said they were fighting federal policy that separated immigrant youngsters from fathers, mothers, aunts and grandmothers.

They promised to keep protesting until immigrant children were no longer separated from their parents or detained at the southern border. Now, more than a year after they first planted their feet on University Drive, about a dozen protesters continue to take a public stand.

“The issue hasn’t gone away and I don’t think we should go away until it does,” said Walter Horton, a semi-retired real estate agent who protests every Friday.

Horton was among the protesters who walked along the sidewalk on Friday with a renewed sense of purpose. The group stood near 1701 River Run, Granger’s local office. And they delivered diapers, tooth brushes, toothpaste, baby wipes and clothes to her office.

The delivery, which they hope will end up at U.S. Border Patrol holding facilities with children, was their response to reports that young immigrant children are being held in poor health and hygiene conditions.

Some are also planning to participate in a July 12 Lights for Liberty Vigil, a nationwide event aimed at shining a light on the conditions immigrants face in detention. An event is being planned in Dallas.

“I knew it would be a marathon,” said Cathy Clark, another activist. “We know what we are up against, but if you don’t shine a light on what is rancid, it just gets more rancid.”

Families seeking asylum

The immigrant families at the center of the nation’s debate are largely Central Americans who maintain they are escaping threats at home and hoping to get asylum in the United States.

Their journeys are dangerous treks that start in El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala. Families travel through Mexico and to the Texas border, where they expect to start an asylum process after turning themselves into immigration authorities.

Last year, mothers and fathers were charged with misdemeanors and their children were placed in the custody of a separate federal agency. Pictures of parents and children being apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol filled news cycles.

Ernie Moran, a Fort Worth teacher and former Star-Telegram journalist, created Patriots for the Children in response to Trump’s policy on immigrant families. Last year, he asked himself: “They are not really doing this, are they?”

Children kept in holding areas known as hieleras, or iceboxes because they are so cold, have become part of an ongoing narrative about this nation’s immigration debate, Moran said.

The picture of a Salvadoran father and his nearly 2-year-old daughter lying dead on the banks of the Rio Grande has stirred international emotions while also placing more focus on immigration policy and the dangers families take when they reach for the American Dream.

Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told reporters with CNN the father was to blame in that case.

“The reason we have tragedies like that on the border is because those folks, that father, didn’t want to wait to go through the asylum process in the legal fashion, so decided to cross the river,” Cuccinelli said of father Oscar Alberto Martínez and his daughter, 23-month-old Angie Valeria.

Trump blamed the Democrats, telling reporters that people wouldn’t take these risks if Democrats fixed the immigration issue.

“If they fix the laws, you wouldn’t have that,” Trump said in news reports. “They wouldn’t be trying.”

Protesting on Fridays

In early June 2018, about six people showed up for the first protest organized by Patriots for the Children via Facebook.

Despite the small turnout, Moran, Clark and Clark’s husband decided to try again the following Friday.

Soon, those plans turned into protesting all the Fridays that followed.

The protests peaked at about 200 participants on June 22, 2018, when Fort Worth was the site of the Texas Democratic Party’s state convention. At that event, the subject of family separation was front and center.

Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa began the state convention by saying that history will judge those responsible for this immigration policy, which has torn countless families apart.

“There’s a special place in hell for them,” he said. “I’m going to stand up and fight but I need all of y’all to stand up and fight. When immigrants are under attack, we need to stand up and fight for them.”

But weeks passed and summer turned to fall and then to winter and the issue remained unresolved. Patriots for the Children continued protesting.

“The first month or two it felt so urgent that I wasn’t even thinking that far in advance,” Moran said, explaining that they wanted an end to the detention of children. But as immigrant children remained at the center of Trump’s immigration policies, Moran said he realized they were in for a long fight.

When the weather grew cold, the group moved the protests to the sidewalk across the street at 4 p.m. on Fridays. It allowed them to stay warm while reaching out to a different audience, Moran said. They also added a protest on Saturday mornings.

Moran said he wanted to make sure they drew attention to the issue even as other issues overshadowed this crisis. So the group kept protesting. The only day they took off was the Friday after Thanksgiving. Sometimes, only one person was able to stand on University Drive with a sign.

“There have been days when it has just been me and it’s been lonely and strange,” said Moran, who often wears a red, white and blue soccer shirt that reads, “USA.”

There also have been days when the group felt like giving up because participation was so low. In December, as they pondered whether to keep going, they got their answer from a young woman who had felt the personal impact of deportation. She watched their protests from her work.

“What you guys are doing means everything,” she told the group.

They decided to keep going so they wouldn’t let her down.

From protest to action

Protests have been somewhat the norm since Trump took office. People have taken to the streets to voice their anger on an array of issues — from women’s rights to Russian interference in elections to tariffs.

But the immigration issue is where Trump’s campaign chant, “Build the Wall!” helped draw a staunch following. It is also where Patriots for the Children continues to push back.

“Seldom is the protest about only about the issue at the forefront,” said Jeff Ferrell, a TCU sociology professor. “It’s almost always about deeper moral and political issues.”

Ferrell said that protests can lead to a call to action. So in time, groups that emerged to protest immigration take direct action to bring about change. Sometimes, the people who end up taking action are not the same as the ones who have been protesting.

For example, people may buy and deliver supplies for immigrant children in detention because they are moved by recent reports. Others may try to sway lawmakers by borrowing the techniques of a lobbyist.

Maria Robles, a volunteer with Faith in Texas, has taken her message directly to Washington, D.C. She wants lawmakers to use funding to help the migrants instead of hiring more agents for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

“We were there to highlight our despair for all of these lives that have been lost. It’s really sad that this is a partisan issue when life is not about partisanship,” she said. “Our message was invest in love, not hate.”

Another group that is focused on immigration policy is ICE Out of Tarrant County. Their primary focus is educating communities on 287(g), agreements that allows local law enforcement officers to carry out federal ICE duties.

Recently, the group worked to persuade the Tarrant County commissioners to vote against extending the agreement. While unsuccessful — the court voted to extend it on June 18 — their efforts showed how social justice groups can move from protest to direct action.

Before the vote, the group filed open records requests, met with elected officials and voiced their concerns. The testimonials included the personal experience of an undocumented person.

Juana Guzman, a member of ICE Out of Tarrant County, stressed that they don’t protest and organize for fun but because they, themselves, are “in the mix of the consequences.”

“To me it’s not something I can forget and just move on to the next fight,” the 27-year-old said. “It’s something very concrete that’s the reality for my family.”

The group’s activism brought a sense of awareness about 287(g) to Fort Worth. Guzman said that the Sheriff’s Office was not making efforts to inform the community about the agreement.

“If we hadn’t been this involved ... we don’t think that anybody would have found out and it’d go relatively unreported,” she said.

A call for diapers, toothpaste

State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, recently sent a letter to the Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol asking for a list of items people could donate to help children in overcrowded detention centers. He posted a copy of the letter on Twitter.

“It tears at my heart to imagine these children in crowded cells simply because their families are seeking a better life,” he wrote.

State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, was among those to respond on Twitter to Canales’s request.

“Please let me know if/when you hear back,” Krause wrote. “There are lots of us who would love to help in this effort! Here to help and support.”

In Fort Worth, protesters began taking supplies to Granger’s office on Friday.

Clark and others were met at the door of Granger’s office by Josie Flores, the director of casework services. Flores wrote down their concerns about the detention of children and the dangers the families face.

Clark voiced her dismay that the president blames people and doesn’t accept responsibility for these policies. She told Flores that, as a constituent, she wants Granger to weigh in on the issue.

“I expect her to be a moral righteous person,” Clark said.

Flores said Granger is monitoring the issue even if that doesn’t make the news. She said she would present the concerns to Granger and help try to schedule a meeting with the congresswoman in upcoming weeks. Flores also said she would forward queries from the Star-Telegram to the congresswoman, who did not immediately respond to the request.

“She runs 100 miles an hour,” Flores said, alluding to Granger’s hectic schedule.

Flores took their donations and said she would try to deliver them to an entity that would send them on to those affected by the immigration policy.

Clark and others have already made plans to meet again at the same time and same place next Friday.

They want to draw the public’s attention to the issue at the border. Sometimes their critics flip them off or yell, “Build The Wall!” But often they are met with a thumbs up, they said.

They said overall, their actions are working.

“They are honking at us,” said Anita Quinones, another protester. “They are waving at us — letting us know, ‘We understand what is going on. We appreciate you being here.’”

Staff writers Anna M. Tinsley and Elizabeth Campbell contributed to this report.
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Diane Smith, a graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 1997. Smith, who has covered municipal government, immigration and education, has won multiple awards for reporting, most recently as part of a Star-Telegram team recognized by the Headliners Foundation of Texas for coverage of child abuse and Fort Worth’s Las Vegas Trail area.