Families – mostly mothers with their babies in strollers, fathers with their kids on their shoulders and members of different faith groups and organizations – gathered Sunday afternoon June 24 at D’Emic Playground, Sunset Park. Except the occasion wasn’t for a casual play date, but was the starting point for a march to protest the nation’s separation of immigrant families at the U.S. border. The finish line for more than 100 demonstrators was the Metropolitan Detention Center on 29th St.
“It’s a real sin against humanity,” said Father James Gilmour, C.Ss.R., “the kind of decisions that they’ve made and that they’re carrying out.”
The pastor of the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH) in Sunset Park rallied with fellow parishioners and church staff. He said the government’s decision to separate children from their parents is “really ripping apart what is most instinctual and most fundamental to being a parent.” His hope lies in the form of prayer and solidarity for those families.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order June 20 that reversed the national policy. Yet, until June 9, more than 2,000 children already had been taken from their families. According to a statement by the U.S. Health and Human Services, which is handling the minors, only 17 percent of minors were placed in the temporary facilities as a result of the “zero tolerance” enforcement and the remaining 83 percent had been sent to different states without a parent or guardian.
Just a day after Trump’s reversal, lawmakers on Capitol Hill turned down one immigration bill and postponed a second one, as the two major political parties blamed each other for the failure to pass legislation on how to fix the country’s broken immigration system.
“We pray that the government, by the grace of God gets the wisdom it needs for governing,” Father Gilmour added. “Right now, they’re not following any kind of wisdom, they’re not following God’s wisdom for governing. Pray they get God’s wisdom for governing and all those things that come with that – solidarity and compassion and justice – let all those things come into the way that they make their decisions.”
Taking time away from her ministry at OLPH’s food pantry to take part in the stroller march was Sister Lucille Aliperti, C.S.J., who said she felt the need to be present because of the way the immigrants were being treated.
“I think about what my relatives went through and they were immigrants,” said Sister Lucille. “I think that people today are getting a very unfair deal at the hands of our administration. We have to be united with those who are vulnerable and frail. We have to be on their side and help them. We’re a nation of immigrants. It sounds almost cliché because everyone is saying it, but it’s the truth.”
One of the younger attendees was a seven-month-old who clung to his mother’s side. Holding back tears, Lori Adams looked at her son as he muttered infant sounds, remembering how his first word was ‘mama’.
“That’s one more thing that makes me want to cry…what if he was in detention and his first words were something else?” said Adams, who works as the Director of the Immigration Intervention Project at the non-profit Sanctuary for Families.
During the half mile march to the federal prison, the bilingual cries for the reunion of families were often drowned by the sound of the traffic on the Gowanus Expressway. But the cries continued, verbally spoken on a speaker phone from the local City Council leadership or physically spoken by way of hand-written signs or from children drawings declaring “Free the children.”
According to a June 23 statement by the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has reunited 522 unaccompanied alien children in their custody who were separated from adults as part of the Zero Tolerance initiative.
Attendees included blood-related families, as well as spiritual families and spiritual fathers like Father Kevin Sweeney, pastor of St. Michael’s, Sunset Park, and Father Michael Tedone, parochial vicar at St. Bernard, Mill Basin.
Hispanic OLPH parishioner Samanatha Jones couldn’t imagine going through such a crisis. She attended with members of her immediate family with an open mind on who can help fix the problem.
“Nothing is too big for God,” said Jones. “Nothing, nothing, in Jesus Christ’s name, nothing is too big for God. We can fix this. Our immigration system is broken. That it is. There are people that take advantage of the system, but there are a lot of decent, hardworking people who want a better life. We’re a country of immigrants! Why not open the doors to them as well?”
Her tio, or uncle, Daniel Hernandez, agreed with his niece on an even grander scale.
“It’s important to be a family,” said the St. Michael’s parishioner. “We are a family greater than just blood. We are a family in Christ. We are all for peace and for the unification of the family. And anything that’s worth fighting for, is really worth fighting for and this is a good cause.”
As the crowd reached the Detention Center, noise erupted even before Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams made his way to the microphone. Sounds of banging clamored from the prison’s slim slice of windows and rows of metal guardrails. Those serving time in the federal jailhouse are held there awaiting trial or sentencing in a federal court – most facing charges on drug trafficking and other organized crimes.
But in a strange camaraderie, the demonstrators seemed to embrace the noise by the inmates.
One elder priest who also walked with the crowd on that humid afternoon took to heart the accusations made about the immigrants who cross the border seeking protection. Father Ruskin Piedra, C.Ss.R., has met thousands of immigrants feeling persecution while in his position as founder and director of the Juan Neumann Center at OLPH.
“But when they come here, at least every single one that’s come to us, and we’re talking thousands, since 2003, I haven’t met one single criminal,” said Father Piedra, “I’m not saying that they don’t exist. I’m not saying they don’t sneak in, I’m saying I’m not aware of them. The great, great great majority of people who are decent, honest, loving, family people wanting a better life and fleeing persecution, many of them on account of race, many of them on account of violence, domestic violence and so on.”