Merced County residents rally on national day of support for undocumented immigrants

More than 100 Merced County residents on Saturday called for reunification of immigrant parents separated from their children during a march and rally in Merced.

Joining with hundreds of thousands protesters across the national Saturday, advocates, local community organizations and faith leaders called on lawmakers to oppose President Donald Trump's immigration policies.

Specifically, they pointed to the suffering of detained asylum seekers from war-torn Central and South American countries who recently were separated from their children as part of ramped up federal immigration enforcement.

"This is not a Republican problem or a Democratic problem; it is a human kindness problem," said the Rev. Twyla Reece of Unity of Merced. "It shouldn't matter what your political beliefs are, we should be here to take care of each other, each and every one."

Trump and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' in April instituted a "zero-tolerance" policy that turned first-time misdemeanors for entering the United States, even for asylum, into federal prosecution.

After public outrage at the family separation, Trump signed an executive order ending that specific effect of his policies. But the administration didn't provide guidance on what would happen to those children already separated from their parents.

"What's happening to these children is immoral, but it's very damaging psychologically and physically," said Salvador Sandoval, a Merced County physician. "The separation of families is something traumatic that could affect them for the rest of their lives."

The supporters gathered Saturday morning at the corner of G Street and Olive Avenue in Merced and started marching along the sidewalk of Olive Avenue. The hour-long march headed west to M Street and turned south, arriving at the World War II Memorial in Court House Park.

There, local and visiting activists and other residents heard fiery speeches calling for family reunifications.

"This is wrong," said Virginia Madueno, a former mayor of Riverbank and congressional candidate. "To see those children, it's wrong. As a mother I'm going to tell you right now I can't even imagine what is going through the minds of these mothers ... these children."

Madueno decried the politics festering in the national immigration debate, calling the separation of families "a moral issue." She also urged the crowd to do more than march.

"You are here united today because you are pissed off," Madueno said. "That is not enough. You need to vote."

Several speakers stressed the importance of registering and voting for candidates who would confront Trump's immigration policies through the November election, which could change the makeup of both houses of Congress.

Activists also talked about pushing Merced County officials to cancel contracts with the GEO Group, one of the two largest private prison contractors in the country, due to a history of alleged mistreatment of undocumented immigrants.

The organization has an in-custody treatment program and non-residential reentry programs in Merced and Los Banos with the Merced County Probation Department that provide former inmates programs to reintegrate into the community and lower recidivism after incarceration, according to the group's website.

Americans for Immigrant Justice reported GEO Group has been accused of sexually assaulting, denying legal assistance and giving substandard medical care to undocumented immigrants, according to the Miami Herald.

GEO Group officials strongly denied the allegations to the Tampa Bay Times, according to the Herald.

Other speakers at the rally in Merced expressed their anger and sadness after hearing, reading about or seeing the struggles of undocumented immigrants under Trump's policies.

"The sheer dumb luck of being born on the north side of a man-made line granted me a paper I did nothing to deserve," said Quetzalli Haro, a representative of Youth Leadership Initiative in Merced. "I am tired of seeing people with this paper treat others that don't have it as less."

Haro and others also blasted Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a federal agency commonly known as ICE.

Livingston City Council member Alex McCabe spoke about Livingston's "Sanctuary City" law that gives local protection to undocumented immigrants from ICE and federal authorities. He called for citizens to push their city councils and Merced County supervisors to adopt similar "sanctuary" laws.

"When we talk about keeping families together, you need to keep your local family together," McCabe said.