A group of San Joaquin Valley residents went to the U.S.-Mexican border last week to examine a detention center for undocumented immigrants and shared their experiences listening to the "cries of immigrant parents" for their separated children.
At a news conference on Friday in front of the Merced County Administration Building, about 20 advocates also urged legislators to join the cause and asked the community to join them Saturday morning in a march against family separation.
"These (families) are being discriminated, being marginalized and humiliated," said Faith in the Valley community organizer Blanca Ojeda, translating from a fiery speech in Spanish by Delhi resident Blanca Lozano.
As a result of a "zero-tolerance" policy U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in April, adults would be facing federal prosecution for illegally entering the United States, according to McClatchy DC.
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Before that, people crossing the border illegally for the first time were charged with misdemeanors. And the federal government had long-standing policies of swiftly deporting them or pushing them through asylum proceedings, occasionally detaining immigrants and separating them from their children.
Sessions and President Donald Trump's "zero-tolerance" policy meant prosecution, detaining and separation for more immigrants.
After public outrage at the sights and sounds of parents and children being separated, Trump signed an executive order ending the separation practice. But the president provided no remedy for those families already separated.
About 500 Valley residents, including those from Merced, joined about 500 others through the Faith in the Valley organization to visit the San Ysidro border and the privately-run Otay Mesa Detention Center on June 23, officials said.
Ojeda said the trip to the San Ysidro border brought back memories of her own immigration story.
"At the age of six, I remember being on the other side of that border," Ojeda said.
Ojeda said the unknown treatment of the detained immigrant children brought additional concern into the way the federal government was handling immigration enforcement.
"And here, I was feeling guilty now that I was on the other side of that border," she said. "If this experience alone was traumatizing for me, I cannot imagine how they will grow up to be having to carry such pain with them."
The group, composed of clergies of all religions and state Senator Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles, marched on the detention center risking arrest, said Yolanda Trevino, a leader with Faith in the Valley.
"The (detention center) has no windows and is completely fenced with wires all around," Trevino said. "They are detained as if they are criminals."
Trevino said protesters shouted "We are here," "You're not alone" and "We love you," and detained parents answered back "Help us," "Where are my children" and "Get us out of here."
Parents at the detention center who were separated from their children penned a letter about their treatment and the pain of losing their children, according to Puebla Sin Frontera, a migrant advocacy group that posted the letter online June 1.
Josue, a 29-year-old father in the detention center whose 11-year-old son was separated from him in early May, said he and his son were in the "icebox" for five days before immigration officials took his son from him, according to the letter.
"We are hard-working fathers who fled our country to be able to give our families and children a life with security and without fear so they can be safe," Josue states in the letter. "It is not a sin to be a parent."
The march starts at 9 a.m. Saturday at the corner of G Street and Olive Avenue in Merced, toward M Street and down to Court House Park where the gathering and rally will take place.