Immigration activists swarmed Beacon Hill on Wednesday to protest the Trump administration's policy of separating families crossing the southern border, forcefully demanding action in Massachusetts to protect immigrants as outrage has swelled in recent days across the country over the White House's approach to enforcing immigration law.
Hundreds of demonstrators rallied outside the capitol grounds and temporarily blocked Beacon Street before flooding the State House, their voices thundering through the marble halls as they waved signs that read, "Families Belong Together," and shouted chants outside the governor's office challenging Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican who has denounced the Trump border policy, to leave his office and address them.
"Our politicians are playing games with children's lives just to erect a wall that, in and of itself, is unethical," said Dr. Rand Nashi, a doctor at Boston Medical Center and the daughter of Iraqi immigrants.
The rally was organized, in part, by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition. While the situation on the border served as the rallying cry for protestors and their supporters, the demonstrators were also looking to put pressure on House lawmakers and Gov. Baker to include immigrant protections in the state's annual budget.
Organizers said they were specifically targeting House members after the Senate included sections in its budget bill that mirrored proposals in the "Safe Communities Act," which would restrict cooperation between local law enforcement and immigration agents.
Baker has vowed to veto the immigration proposal if it is included in the final budget, but earlier this week he reversed himself and said that he had told the National Guard not to deploy a high-tech helicopter and two national guardsmen to the southwestern border to help with border crossing surveillance. The governor said he made the call to revoke the state's cooperation with the Pentagon because of the "inhumane" policy of separating children from their families when the adults are criminally prosecuted for crossing the border illegally.
That didn't stop protestors, however, from taunting Baker, chanting his name outside his office and phrases like, "Baker, where you at?,""Governor Baker, come out," and "We want Baker."
Senate President Harriette Chandler at one point came out to address the protestors, telling them that later in the day the Senate would vote on a resolution condemning the family separation policy at the border. The Senate ultimatley voted 38-0 to have a letter written by Sen. Julian Cyr critical of the policy printed in the official Senate journal as a matter of record.
Sen. Kathleen O'Connor Ives, a Newburyport Democrat, and Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat, also addressed the protesters gathered outside Baker's office together. Chang-Diaz had her toddler son strapped to her chest.
"We want to thank you for coming out today to say, 'Stop this sick policy,'" O'Connor Ives said, moved to tears as she began to speak.
Despite being elected senators who represent 160,000 people each, O'Connor Ives said even she and Chang-Diaz feel "powerless" as she called on Congress to reverse the family separation policy and on the Trump administration to reunite separated families.
"Anyone with any modicum of authority needs to be on the record against this policy and that is the least you can do as an elected official," O'Connor Ives said.
Chang-Diaz said someday she will try to explain to her son what happened during this period. "It's a day and a set of weeks that I was ashamed of my country," Chang-Diaz said.
President Trump, however, beat the state Senate to the punch.
Before the Senate could take up a resolution, Trump had signed an executive order to stop the practice of separating children from their families at the border after weeks of saying that only Congress had the authority to change the law and blaming Democrats for inaction. The president said his administration's "zero tolerance" prosecution policy will continue, according to reports.
The executive order states that it is the policy of the administration to "rigorously enforce" immigration laws and policies at the border.
"It is also the policy of this Administration to maintain family unity, including by detaining alien families together where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources," the order reads. "It is unfortunate that Congress's failure to act and court orders have put the Administration in the position of separating alien families to effectively enforce the law."
The president signed the order in the Oval Office, flanked by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Vice President Mike Pence.
"We're signing an executive order. I consider it to be a very important executive order. It's about keeping families together, while at the same time being sure we have a very powerful very strong border," Trump said in the Oval Office, per CNN. The president added, "So we're keeping families together and this will solve that problem, at the same we are keeping a very powerful border and it continues to be zero tolerance. We have zero tolerance for people that enter our countries illegally."
Trump also said that he would prefer to deal with the family separation issue through Congress and said his administration is working on a bill it will send to lawmakers.
"We're working on a much more comprehensive bill," he said. "A lot of good things are happening towards immigration and proper immigration."
The groups rallying in Boston said they also want to see local police blocked from inquiring about someone's immigration status, an end to 287(g) agreements that allow police and corrections officials to be deputized as federal immigration agents and a guarantee that immigrants in police custody are informed of their legal rights, including the right to have a lawyer present for an interview with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The Senate budget bill would also bar state resources from being used to create a registry based on ethnicity, religion, country of origin and other criteria, which the immigrant protection groups support.
In late April, House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he did not envision bringing the Safe Communities Act to the House floor for a vote this session because he said there was no consensus in the body.
Sen. Barbara L'Italien, who is running for Congress in the Third Congressional District, spoke to the protesters outside the State House and again in front of Baker's office where she was joined by her 20-year-old son. She egged the crowd on to make sure Baker heard their chants.
"We all come from somewhere and we all wanted a better life and we can't forget that," L'Italien said.
Before Trump's executive action, the Massachusetts Bar Association called on the Trump White House to rescind the "zero tolerance" policy that has led to parents and children being separated at the border, and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and the Massachusetts Business Roundtable issued a joint statement calling the separation policy "even more abhorent" than the White House trying to ban certain people from traveling to the United States.
"Any attempt at immigration reform must recognize the valuable contributions that immigrants make to our nation, to the vibrancy of our economy and communities, and must adhere to the basic standards of human decency," the chamber and the business rountable said.
Massachusetts Bar Association President Christopher Sullivan the policy "denies asylum seekers the due process that is at the heart of our fair system of justice."
The president of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester also spoke out against the administration on Wednesday, echoing the words of Pope Francis in calling on the White House to stop fracturing families.
"With thousands of families displaced from their homes each day, many fleeing devastating violence, it is inconceivable that the U.S. government is compounding their misery with an ill-conceived 'zero tolerance' immigration policy responsible for separating children from their parents. This policy must end," the Rev. Philip Boroughs said. "I am personally appalled at the use of children for the sake of achieving political goals. Even as we enforce laws, we must do so in a humane way, one which recognizes the human dignity inherent in every person, particularly those who are most vulnerable."
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“It has been a long, long road for this bill,” Sen Chang-Díaz said. “This bill means trust and dignity for immigrants in our state who lack federal status.”
“Without a license, a routine traffic stop can have a lasting and traumatic set of repercussions: arrest, ICE detention, deportation. It can tear families apart, and that is a heavy, heavy burden to carry."