Wyoming Marches to Keep Families Together

By on July 3, 2018

From Jackson to Cheyenne, people protested the separation of migrant families at the border and advocates say the fight has just begun

People wrote messages in chalk outside of ICE’s Cheyenne office on Saturday as part of the nationwide protests against Trump’s immigration policy. (Juntos)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Hundreds of thousands of people in more than 700 American towns and cities took to the streets on June 30 to protest President Trump’s immigration policy. That policy, which Trump halted June 20 with an executive order, has separated more than 2,300 children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexican border. Among Wyoming’s participating towns and cities were Jackson, Pinedale, Gillette, Sheridan, Casper, Cheyenne and Laramie.

According to Customs and Border Protection, 522 children have been reunited with their parents since the executive order was signed. But the order has left many questions. This American Life reporters spoke to lawyers that are representing hundreds of parents and children who say that there seems to be no plan for reunification, and that none of their clients have reconnected with their children. Many also do not know where their children are being held.

About 50 of the parents of those children are being detained at ICE’s Aurora, Colorado, facility, the same facility most immigrants arrested in Wyoming are detained, according to CBS Denver.

Trump’s executive order says families, many that are seeking asylum, will now be detained together but protesters reject that plan. They are calling not only for children to be reunited with parents, but also to end all migrant family detentions.

Far From the Border, But Close to Home

In Wyoming, lawmakers have sent mixed messages about Trump’s immigration policies.

“Congress must provide the full funding President Trump has asked for in order to build a wall and truly secure the southern border,” a spokesperson for Rep. Liz Cheney told the Casper Star Tribune on June 20. “Democrats in the House and Senate should stop using children as political pawns,” she continued.

Sen. Mike Enzi wrote that “we need to protect our borders … but I do not like seeing children involuntarily separated from their parents.”

Yet neither Enzi nor Sen. John Barrasso signed the Keep Families Together Act, which was proposed before Trump’s executive order. Every Senate Democrat signed it but the bill received zero Republican support, underscoring how polarized the issues surrounding immigration have become.

Some of the protests in Wyoming demonstrated this polarization.

In Jackson, about 200 people in the Town Square held signs demanding that families be reunited. A group of four counter-protestors gathered on the opposite corner, holding a large “Trump” flag. Several passersby told the counter-protesters that they were on the right side of the street, and some drivers shouted their support for Trump.

Planet Jackson Hole contacted some of those counter-protesters after the demonstration but did not receive a response. PJH also did not receive a return phone call from Paul Vogelheim of the Teton County Republicans, which has diverged from some Trump administration policies, like the administration’s stance on public lands.

The majority of people passing the Town Square honked and waved, signaling their support for those protesting Trump’s policies.

Dr. Lisa Ridgeway, a valley pediatrician for nearly 30 years, attended the protest because she is concerned with “state-sanctioned, documented child abuse” at the border. From her years of practice, she knows that this kind of trauma can have lifelong impacts. “I think that is unconscionable,” she said.

The unpredictability might be the most damaging for these young children, surrounded by strangers in a strange place. “No one can tell these kids ‘You’re going home, you’re going to see your mom on Tuesday.’ That uncertainty is so hard. I see what it’s doing to them physically and emotionally, and what it will do for the rest of their lives. Are we going to send them back to Mexico and they’re going to have to deal with it, or will we keep them here and we’ll have to deal with it?” she asked.

To her, it seems that President Trump has not thought about the long-term effects of his policy. “He shoots from the hip. He has no follow-up, how are we going to do this, how are we going to pay for it, how are we going to resolve it.”

While Ridgeway has medical concerns, Leah Vader of Gillette, Wyoming, cited religion as a reason she attended the march in Gillette’s Lasting Legacy Park.

Her sign quoted Jeremiah 31: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and a great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” As she thought about the terror of the children and parents taken from one another, this was the passage that would not leave her mind.

At the height of Saturday’s Jackson protest, nearly 200 people filled Town Square. (Anne Marie Wells)

As a Catholic, she has been disturbed to see members of Trump’s administration use Bible verses in ways that she sees as inhumane, such as when Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 to defend President Trump’s immigration policies.

The story of the immigrant should be close to every Christian’s heart, Vader said. “It is the exodus story of our faith,” she told Planet Jackson Hole. “Catholics have always been a part of the immigration story. Think about how we came into the US, and how we suffered.”

Vader estimated there were about 30 people at Gillette’s protest, primarily women, many Catholic. Some have been politicized by this immigration policy, she said. One of them told Vader that she is terrified for the country: “She keeps thinking of Normandy. She was saying some other country needs to come save us from this leader. If I read that some other country was doing this to protect their border I would say it was horrendous.”

The Gillette protesters held signs, and many people honked in support. However, some trucks flying Confederate flags drove back and forth, seemingly to make a point. A couple men walking past the protest had some heated conversations with participants. Vader saw that one of them carried a gun at his hip—not necessarily uncommon in Wyoming, but still disconcerting to her. She heard another say, “Are you people even from here? Where are you from?” suggesting that they were paid protestors.

She wasn’t necessarily surprised. Some Trump voters in Gillette have “doubled down” on their support for the president as some progressives become increasingly outraged, she said.

Only about 4 percent of Gillette is Latino, but Vader said she still wanted those who may be more directly affected by Trump’s policy to see that they are supported. “I can’t imagine how beleaguered they might feel, and I want them to drive down the street and see a bunch of wacky white ladies holding signs.”

While Jacksonites congregated in the Town Square, and Gillette residents in Lasting Legacy Park, about 80 protestors in Cheyenne joined outside of the state’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) building, at an event organized by Juntos, an immigrant advocacy group.

Juntos founder and ACLU organizer Antonio Serrano said the protest was peaceful but pointed. Some attendees wrote “Abolish ICE” on the building in chalk, and others wrote “stop separating families.”

Nobody from ICE responded and there was no resistance, though Serrano noticed a police officer parked nearby, and several unmarked cars circling the block. “We were definitely being watched,” he said.

Serrano is not new to community organizing. For the past few years he has helped create Juntos’s rapid response network that supports undocumented immigrants during interactions with ICE, and he has spearheaded the WyoSayNo campaign against the proposed private immigration detention prison in Uinta County.

But, Serrano has noticed that something has shifted since this most recent immigration policy change. “It’s like this is a breaking point. They have pushed and pushed and this is just too much,” he said.

For the first time, community members have reached out to Juntos, asking if they were planning a protest, asking what they could do. “That’s never happened before,” Serrano said. Juntos will continue to step up. “We strongly feel that we have an obligation to lead the way. When the nation is rising up, Wyoming has to go along with them … We will answer to the community and the nation.”

When PJH contacted ICE’s Cheyenne office, two employees said they were not authorized to speak about the protest. Carl Rusnok, a regional ICE spokesperson based in Texas, would only answer questions via email. In response to two questions, he emailed links to ICE’s website, one of which is defunct.

When asked how ICE responds to the national protests, he wrote: “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) fully respects the Constitutional rights of all people to peacefully express their opinions. That being said, ICE remains committed to performing its immigration enforcement mission consistent with federal law and agency policy.”

While Wyomingites join together, many children still wait in facilities across the border, without their parents. Their future is uncertain. Some of them, as young as 2, are appearing in immigration court alone.

Though concern for juvenile immigrants has been front and center in recent weeks, this is not necessarily a brand new issue. According to Trac Immigration, there are about 414,724 pending immigration cases for juveniles. Many of these minors are in detention. More than 200,000 are unrepresented. This represents a drastic increase from just a few years ago. In the early 2000s, there were rarely more than 6,500 cases started per year. In 2013, that number more than tripled. In 2018, 114,727 new cases were filed—each one can take years to resolve.

There is not concrete data regarding any juvenile immigrants with pending cases from Wyoming. Because there is not an immigration court in the state, the only way to know the number of undocumented minors arrested in Wyoming would be to note the age of arrestees on detainers issued by ICE in Wyoming’s cities. However, ICE recently changed their policies, and no longer shares the ages of the people they detain.

Though information from Wyoming-specific detainers is no longer being shared, the majority of undocumented immigrants apprehended in the state are taken to detention facilities in Denver and Aurora, Colorado.

In Colorado, there are 5,088 pending immigration cases for juveniles. Nearly a third of those minors are detained, and more than half are not represented. The vast majority of these pending cases were initiated this year.

For those who are detained in Colorado, it is especially concerning, given that prisoners there have the longest wait time in the country before they appear before a judge—often upwards of two years.

This issue is not brand new, and it will not end soon. While the new border policy has garnered fervor, ICE has also continued its normal operations. In fact, immigration attorney Elisabeth Trefonas confirmed that two days before the protest, ICE arrested two undocumented immigrants in Jackson. It happened so quickly that few people in the community even knew.

Serrano hopes that Wyomingites who oppose policies such as Trump’s are in it for the long haul. “This isn’t about us and it isn’t about me,” Serrano said. “We’re here to serve the immigrant community no matter what.”

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