Hundreds of people showed up in downtown Billings Saturday to rally against the Trump Administration’s zero tolerance immigration policy, including separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexican border.
Some of those who gathered at the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn carried signs reading “Keep Families Together,” “Imprisoned Children, Demise of Democracy” and “Make America Kind Again.” Those at the Families Belong Together rally were among hundreds of thousands of people across the United States who rallied or marched to make their voices heard.
“No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here!” the enthusiastic crowd chanted at the start of the 90-minute Billings rally. Others stood on the sidewalk along North 27th Street waving signs to passing motorists, many of whom responded by honking their horns in support.
The event, sponsored by a number of local organizations, was organized by state Rep. Jessica Karjala, who co-emceed the event with Billings City Councilmember Penny Ronning.
In a country where power discrepancies exist, Karjala told the crowd, those with access to power, resources and money have the responsibility to show decency and kindness to those who don’t.
“I’m not that sure right now in our country that people who have the most power are acknowledging their responsibility to all society,” she said.
Ronning talked about one detention center in Texas that houses 326 children, most of them from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Out of 195 countries, she said, El Salvador has the second highest rate of violent death, Honduras is fourth and Guatemala ranks 17.
“Any parent that is willing to walk, ride a boat, ride in a horse and buggy or carry a child thousands of miles to the American border for the safety of that child is not a criminal,” she said. “That is a good parent.”
Debbie Macias Brown, board chair of Not in Our Town Billings, told the crowd that she is Mexican, Korean and American. She talked about the meaning of family, calling it a support system of children and adults, the guiding light that shows its members when they’re wrong or need a new direction to go.
“As the child of an immigrant from South Korea I understand this very well,” Brown said. “My mom gave me the means to understand the world around me.”
Separating children from their parents takes that guiding light away, she said.
“That is immoral, and as a country of immigrants, it doesn’t show our true colors.”
Standing up for keeping families together “means upholding something we cherish and hold dear to our hearts,” Brown said.
Keeping children from their parents doesn’t make America great, she said. Neither does holding them in cages. Keeping family together is great, she said, to cheers from the crowd.
Amy Aguirre, a co-founder of Billings Sanctuary Rising and assistant director of Angela’s Piazza, has worked with victims of domestic violence over the years.
“Not only will an abusive relationship cause a woman to flee for her life, so will violence throughout her country cause her to seek safety in any way she can manage,” Aguirre said.
If she can't leave, she will risk the unthinkable to protect her children, sending them unaccompanied to another country in the hopes that, by the grace of God, they will survive and get to the other side.
Aguirre recounted a series of stories about girls of all ages in Central American countries who have endured unimaginable violence and sexual abuse. Their only option is to try to flee to the U.S.
“When violence reaches this kind of magnitude, would you be willing to stay put and work it out?” she asked. “Would you be willing to risk your children’s safety and future while you wait for the government in the U.S. to do something, when it has been known to take decades for those kinds of applications to be approved? I can’t say that I would.”
These people seeking asylum are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts, grandmas and grandpas.
“They are us,” Aguirre said.
State Rep. Rae Peppers, of Lame Deer, discarded her prepared remarks to share something more personal. Taking children from their parents is not a new thing, the enrolled member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe said.
“I know a story of an 8-year-old girl,” Peppers said. “She was forcibly taken from her family, drug down the hallways of her school, and she never saw her family again till she was a teenager.”
She lived in a boarding school that she wasn’t allowed to leave.
“One day that girl walked out of the schoolyard in December and realized she could go home again,” Peppers said. “That girl was me.”
She accused President Trump of holding the immigrant children hostage in return for a wall.
“Shame on him,” she said.
Angelina Gonzalez-Aller gave a passionate speech encouraging her audience to take action. Gonzalez-Aller, a doctoral fellow with the Center for Health Policy at the University of New Mexico, lives in Bozeman where she works for the Montana Racial Equity Project.
Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Gonzalez-Aller, who called herself “the proud daughter of an immigrant,” lived in the borderlands most of her life.
The separation of children from their parents was never meant to be a permanent policy, she said.
“This was an extremist political strategy to draw attention to the southern border and stir up anti-immigrant sentiment and fear in others,” Gonzalez-Aller said. “Well it certainly worked. We are paying attention and I do agree there’s a crisis on the border.
It’s not the crisis that the president and Trump policy adviser Stephen Miller wanted, she said.
“What we have on our border is a crisis of conscience,” Gonzalez-Aller said. “A crisis of morals playing out in real time.”
She called the crowd on hand to demand the thousands of separated children be reunited with their parents. Gonzalez-Aller urged them to oppose family detention and not permit a suspension of due process for asylum seekers.
She called on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform and implement and protect compassionate refugee and asylum programs, as well as create a path to citizenship for dreamers and their parents.
“This is not a political battle, this is a moral one,” Gonzalez-Aller said. “This is a battle for the soul of a nation, and Montana has a message for Washington. We are watching.”
And if changes aren’t made, she said, “We will remember in November.”