It started with a folk musician belting out Bob Marley’s “Song of Freedom.” Then came the clapping and chanting: “Say it loud, say it clear; immigrants are welcome here.”
By the time Odette Ramos, co-chair of the advocacy group Baltimore Women United, took a makeshift stage Saturday morning, nearly 1,500 men, women and children had come together in Patterson Park in East Baltimore to protest President Donald J. Trump’s policies on immigration.
Ramos ripped the effects of those policies, which she said split immigrant families.
“Our government doing that is shameful,” she cried. “Shame! Shame! Shame!” And the crowd joined in the chanting.
Organized by Ramos’ group and several other activist organizations, the gathering — dubbed the Immigrant Solidarity Rally — was scheduled as a local companion to the Keep Families Together rally that drew tens of thousands of protesters to Washington, D.C., on Saturday, as well as similar rallies in more than 700 cities across the country.
The rally featured an array of speakers, including representatives of CASA of Maryland, the People’s Power Assembly, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Jews United for Justice, all of whom called for changes in administration policy.
The main grievance cited at most of the demonstrations was the Trump administration’s so-called “zero-tolerance” policy, which calls for federal prosecutors to criminally prosecute every adult who enters the country illegally.
The practice, begun last spring, has led to the separation of dozens of families, as children cannot legally be held in adult facilities.
The Trump administration is the first to announce it will prosecute all unlawful adult immigrants.
Widely circulated audio of children crying at a border detention facility and stories of children sleeping on concrete floors and even being held in cages sparked a national outcry in recent weeks.
In response, Trump signed an executive order designed to stop family separations on June 20, and less than a week later, a federal judge in California ordered immigration authorities to reunite divided families within 30 days.
But critics say Trump’s order will only lead to the detention of whole families, and activists fear the judge’s order can too easily be overturned.
“It’s so wrong for people to be denied security when those people are just as American as we are,” said Lily Ezersky, 15, of Pikesville, who attended the rally with her mother, Stacey, and Leigh Anne Starling, a family friend from Towson. “Everyone in this country is an immigrant from somewhere.”
She was far from alone in her view.
Crowd members toted handmade signs reading “Reunite Families Now!,” “HumanKind” and “Will Trade Racists for Refugees.” Several elementary school-aged children sat with their parents in “Families Belong Together” T-shirts.
Brian Webster and Uschi Symmons of Baltimore were not representing the ACLU or the Baltimore International Workers of the World, two of the rally’s many co-sponsors. They simply sat in a shady spot with their 3-month-old daughter, Hope, and explained how personal experience has shaped their views.
“The whole policy is wrong, but as new parents, it’s difficult to imagine what [parents separated from their children] are going through,” Webster said. “We thought we had to be here for Hope.”
As the scorching day went on, various speakers called for the abolition of ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal law enforcement arm of U.S Homeland Security; for a “world without borders”; for amnesty for all undocumented immigrants, and for developing a stronger activist community, one committed to voting its interests.
U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin and U.S. Reps. C. A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes were among the speakers, as were Sarah Benjamin of the People’s Power Assembly, CAIR spokeswoman Zainab Chaudry and Jesus Vicuña, a CASA member from Mexico who has lived in Baltimore for a decade.
Cardin set the tone for the elected officials, calling Trump’s policies “obscene” and urging audience members to pressure their representatives for an inclusive candidate when Trump nominates a replacement for soon-to-retire Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Speaking through a translator, Vicuña said the administration’s zero-tolerance approach does not affect him or his family directly, but he feels for those it does.
It was 1988 when he moved from Mexico City, where work was hard to come by, to New York, and 2008 when he moved from New York to Baltimore, where he says government policies are more immigrant-friendly.
Three of his four children were born in the U.S., making them citizens, but Vicuna, who works in the cleaning business, his wife, and one of his two sons were born in Mexico. That leaves them vulnerable to deportation if certain policies are changed.
His Mexican-born son, Jesus, recently graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and is planning to attend community college, Vicuna said. But if the Trump administration phases out the provisions of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, as many expect, it could end the younger Jesus’ legal protection and split the family.
“I can’t imagine what it would be like living in Mexico when half my family is still here,” his father said.
With that, Vicuna and his 8-year-old son, Angel, headed to Eastern Avenue where most of the protesters had lined up to chant, wave their signs and pump their fists toward passing traffic in a show of solidarity.
Many drivers honked their horns. Others gave a thumbs-up.
Vicuña held up a poster painted to represent a butterfly, a symbol of migration, and said he felt encouraged.
“We have to keep the pressure up,” he said through a translator. “Wherever the next action is, I’ll be there.”