Supporters of the "Families Belong Together" movement listen to the stories of immigrants.
Supporters of the "Families Belong Together" movement hear immigrants' stories near a display of shoes representing young children separated from their parents. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Wearing the same beige capri pants she crossed the border in as a 14-year-old undocumented immigrant, Jessica Azua wove between English and Spanish, speaking from her diaphragm when her microphone cut out.

Azua, a DACA recipient and statewide immigration coordinator with the Texas Organizing Project, shared her immigration story with hundreds of local advocates gathered Thursday at the Guadalupe Plaza on the city’s near West Side. Participants carried signs pleading for the federal government to end its policy of separating family members who illegally have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border.

“These pants remind me that I cannot waste my time here – that I need to speak up,” Azua said. “All these families want – just like mine – [is] a better life, better opportunity, and an education.”

The Rally for Our Children was organized amid recent outrage over federal immigration policies.

President Donald Trump and members of his cabinet have defended the administration’s so-called zero-tolerance policy for illegal immigration – or deflected the blame on Democrats. The practice of separating children from their parents after being apprehended at the border is part of an “escalated effort” to curb illegal border crossings, according to an Office of the Attorney General news release that announced the new policy in April.

A convergence of several immigration issues has prompted a wave of anger and concern, with hashtags such as #WhereAreTheChildren trending on social media. Those issues include the family-separation policy and the welfare of about 1,500 unaccompanied children the government could not locate after they were found at the border and placed with sponsors.

But early reports about these children were misleading, according to a Washington Post story this week. The roughly 1,500 children are unaccounted for because the federal government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement could not verify that they were in their sponsor households after calling them by phone. Even though they are not necessarily missing, fears have arisen they could fall prey to human trafficking.

U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-San Antonio) called the practice of separating immigrant children from their parents “inhumane” and “barbaric” in a Tweet last week.

In the past week, several community leaders have joined Castro and others in calling for an end to the policy.

In what organizers say is the first of many nonpartisan demonstrations throughout Texas and the country, organizations such as RAICES, United We Dream, Texas Organizing Project, SATX Indivisible, and SA Stands participated in the rally. Castro,  Texas State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123), San Antonio City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), and Mayor Ron Nirenberg spoke, as did a variety of faith leaders who called for support of the immigrant families and for a restoration of inclusive values, said Father Jimmy Drennan, of the St. Margaret Mary Church.

Emotional testimonials followed. One woman, identified only as Shuna, brought tears to the eyes of many in the crowd when she related her story of losing her brother and uncle to deportation. As she and her family have lost their Temporary Protection Status under the Trump administration, her mother faces the prospect of losing her home, she said.

Shuna, a sixth-grade English teacher who was brought to the country when she was 5 years old, said she sees her parents as heroes for risking their lives to afford her and her family the freedom she experiences today. She noted that people get murdered in her former country, Honduras, for speaking out against injustice. Shuna asked the crowd not to pity her but to fight with her.

“We don’t need saviors; we need people who are going to stick with us through thick and thin,” she said.

The event culminated in an interfaith vigil – participants huddled in prayer to express sorrow over the issues immigrant families from Mexico and Central America have faced in recent years.

(From left) Gabriel, 11, and Danielle Miller protect their candles from the wind with water bottles.
Gabriel, 11, and Danielle Miller protect their candles from the wind with water bottles. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Castro and others issued calls to action: Demonstrators were urged to contact U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions; San Antonio-based John Bash, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas; and congressional representatives. He said ending the practice of separating migrant families at the border was not a liberal-against-conservative issue but a humanitarian one.

“Today is not about politics,” Castro said. “This is very much a call to conscience. This is about what our nation fundamentally stands for.”

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez is a columnist at the San Antonio Report. A former reporter and editor at the SA Report, he currently works as a project manager for New York City-based Advance Local.