Araceli Herrera clasped her hands together Friday evening as she and others in the San Antonio chapter of Domesticas Unidas, or United Domestic Workers, prayed for the hundreds of recently separated immigrant families.
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“This is so that kids stop suffering and start appearing. We hope that the prayers will create a powerful movement for these children,” Herrera said in Spanish. “I hope people take action, and urge the government to help these children.”
As rallies swelled around the country Friday demanding an end to immigrant family separation along the U.S.-Mexico border, organizations and firms took action to address what many call a humanitarian crisis.
But the White House has continued to stand by its “zero tolerance” policy, which takes minors from their parents and places them into Department of Health and Human Services custody, saying it deters families from coming across the border illegally in the future.
In early May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions referred to the policy as parents “smuggling” their children over the border.
“If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” he said at the Arizona event. “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
Before, families were able to stay in shelters together while they awaited their immigration proceedings.
RAICES — Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services — announced Friday it is offering free legal services to families who were separated at the border and are being detained in Prairieland Detention Center in Alvarado and the South Texas Detention Complex, in Pearsall.
The nonprofit said it also has plans to expand its pro bono work to additional detention centers this summer.
Friday was touted as the National Day of Action, with over 20 participating cities in the U.S. and even a rally planned in Barcelona, Spain. Images of protestors at parks and state capitols exploded online under the “Families Belong Together” hashtag. The National Domestic Workers Alliance posted an online petition addressed to President Donald Trump.
A different letter was also sent to Trump Friday, by a coalition of evangelicals that are fighting for immigration reform and an end to family separation.
“As evangelical Christians guided by the Bible, one of our core convictions is that God has established the family as the fundamental building block of society,” reads the letter. “The state should separate families only in the rarest of instances.”
The coalition, called the Evangelical Immigration Table, uses the slogan “Preaching God’s heart for immigrants” and is comprised of eight national, evangelical Christian organizations.
The League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, the oldest Latino civil rights organization in the United States, held an immigrants’ rights panel/discussion in San Antonio’s El Tropicano Riverwalk Hotel during its state convention this weekend.
Edwardo Rodriguez, who was a deportation officer from 1996 to 2004 for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s precursor), spoke at the panel. He said that if families were using the asylum process to take advantage of the system — as Trump has claimed — then that means the system isn’t good enough.
“Should it (family separation) occur? No. And the reason is very simple: There’s no need for it,” he said.
“The only way you can win by fighting the system by using the system against itself. So asylum now becomes a tool to try to get a benefit, or buy you some time to find a benefit,” he added.
He suggested the U.S. provide better alternative paths to citizenship so the asylum process wouldn’t get taken advantage of — assuming, he said, that that was occurring.
“Separating the family causes problems to very innocent people,” Rodriguez said. “The adults, hey, they know what they’re getting into. And the guys that bring them in, the coyotes, they know. But the kids don’t.”
The Texas Civil Rights Project has begun putting out a call for volunteers to document the stories, or declarations, of prosecuted immigrants at courthouses. They’ll then add their stories to the emergency request that the group and a few other civil rights agencies submitted to the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
The nonprofit also plans to send those stories out to their network of pro bono immigration lawyers, said Zenén Jaimes, their spokesperson, in hopes that the attorneys pick up the cases and help these parents locate their children.
Meanwhile, immigration firms say they’ve been scrambling to account for the influx of calls from families that were separated at the border, seeking pro bono representation.
“It’s not like I can recruit pro bono people to come work for me,” said attorney Jodi Goodwin, who owns an immigration firm of the same name in Harlingen. “Myself and my associates, we just step up the game.”
“You just make more visits to the detention center, you make more phone calls,” she continued. “You just have to work more, you have to handle the intake fast and furious.”
Silvia Foster-Frau is a San Antonio Express-News staff writer. Read more of her stories here. | firstname.lastname@example.org | @SilviaElenaFF