In conjunction with protests across the country on June 14, hundreds of people marched in Park Hill to protest the Trump administration’s recently implemented “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration, saying that it results in families not just being torn apart, but terrorized.
“It’s an injustice what they’re doing to immigrants. They are taking so many of our rights, and so many of our children’s rights,” Araceli Velasquez said in Spanish to the crowd of protesters gathered at Temple Micah, where she has been in sanctuary for over ten months in order to avoid deportation to her native El Salvador. “What they’re doing to families on the border is what they want to do to me,” added Velasquez, who has three children, all U.S. citizens.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the “zero tolerance” policy in early April. Under that policy, all adults detained while crossing the border illegally — including asylum-seekers fleeing violence in their countries of origin — will be detained and criminally prosecuted, and any children will be separated from their parents and held in temporary shelters until an appropriate "sponsor" is found.
Over the past six weeks, approximately 2,000 children have been separated from their parents, and many remain locked in under-resourced and overcrowded shelters intended to house teenagers who had entered the U.S. alone. Meanwhile, the parents have been shuffled to detention centers around the country while awaiting trial on criminal charges that might stay on their record even if they are eventually able to obtain asylum and stay legally in the U.S.
On June 11, the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network revealed that one of these centers is the Denver Contract Detention Facility in Aurora. Network officials said that their lawyers have met with dozens of parents who often don’t know where their children are and have no clear way of contacting them; others are unable to pay for a phone call. (On June 14, other protesters demonstrated outside the Aurora facility.)
"Zero tolerance" is an override of an earlier policy known as “catch and release,” which called for immigrants who were caught trying to cross the border illegally to be sent back immediately or paroled with their families as they awaited trial. Prosecutions for illegal crossings were rare. Now Sessions has ordered each immigration judge to prosecute 700 cases per year, starting in October.
In a statement to church leaders on June 14, Sessions defended the immigration crackdown. Immigrant parents, he said, "are the ones who broke the law, they are the ones who endangered their own children on their trek. The United States, on the other hand, goes to extraordinary lengths to protect them while the parents go through a short detention period." Sessions had previously told immigrant parents: "If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border."
But for parents seeking asylum for political reasons, that may not be a choice. “Their situation is so unsafe and untenable in their countries of origin that they have no other choice. These are not economic migrants, and they’re not going to stop, because at this point it’s their only option," says Jennifer Piper, of the American Friends Service Committee in Denver, an organizer of the protest.
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That statement was backed up by Velasquez and other immigrants who shared their stories at the protest. Velasquez also asked the crowd to support her by signing the People’s Resolution, which she and three other women in sanctuary in Colorado created, a set of steps that elected officials should take to clear a path to protected status.
Several Democratic politicians attended the event, and joined in condemnation of the zero-tolerance policy. Gubernatorial candidate Mike Johnston told the crowd that Colorado needed to protect its residents by keeping federal immigration enforcement out of the state as much as possible.
A representative speaking for Congresswoman Diana DeGette read a letter in solidarity with Velasquez, whom DeGette visited in sanctuary in May. DeGette is supporting the Keep Families Together Act, which will be introduced in the House next week; organizers urged supporters to tell their representatives to support that bill, as well as vote down proposed budget increases for the Department of Homeland Security.
Saira Rao, DeGette's challenger in the Democratic primary, also called for defunding Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “The parents whose kids are getting ripped out of their arms could be mine; they could be yours," Rao told the gathering. "There’s a word for this separation of families, and it’s called fascism. That’s what we’re looking at right now.”