Upper Valley activists plan to protest family separation, detention centers

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/10/2019 10:13:37 PM
Modified: 7/10/2019 10:13:29 PM

HANOVER — As reports about mistreatment of children in detention facilities at the country’s southern border persist, activists in the Upper Valley and beyond are calling for an end to family separations and for the facilities to be closed.

Upper Valley groups are coming together to host a “Lights for Liberty” rally and fundraiser on Friday, the same day groups around the world plan to hold similar grassroots events sponsored by prominent advocacy groups such as the American Federation of Teachers, American Farm Workers and the Women’s March.

“I wanted to be one of the people that brought people together to show our support for these children and families that are being inhumanely treated on our border,” said Post Mills resident Sherry Merrick, chairwoman of the refugee support team of the First Congregational Church of Thetford.

Merrick signed up to host the rally after reading about it on Twitter, but before she knew where the Upper Valley event would take place. It has since been set for 7 p.m. Friday on the Dartmouth Green and, in addition to the church group, the event is also being organized by the Dartmouth Coalition for Immigration Reform, Equality and Dreamers; the Dartmouth Latin-American, Latino and Caribbean Studies Program; and the United Valley Interfaith Project.

By bringing people together to hear stories, sing songs, sign petitions and donate money to immigrant rights groups, Merrick said, she hopes to help stop the mistreatment.

“This is not acceptable for our country,” said Merrick, who also serves as chairwoman of the Orange County Democratic Committee.

On Monday, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said she was “appalled” by the conditions facing people held in detention facilities at the southern border, the Associated Press reported. In some cases, detainees are forced to sleep on the floor, and lack adequate access to health care, food, showers or toiletries. Five children have died in Border Patrol custody since December.

On Wednesday, Vermont joined a coalition of attorneys general in filing an amicus brief to defend the rights of children being held in immigration detention near the U.S.’s southern border.

The brief argues that the federal government is not meeting its obligation to hold children in “safe and sanitary” conditions and urges the court to force the government to immediately address the conditions there and make every effort to promptly transfer children to state-licensed facilities.

“The treatment of children detained at the border is contrary to the rule of law and it is un-American,” Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan said in a Wednesday news release. “It is a stain on our country.”

The conditions also have drawn the attention of apolitical groups that do not typically take positions on policy issues such as immigration.

Last week, the Lebanon-based Special Needs Support Center — though not involved in political events such as Friday’s rally — issued a statement opposing the practice of separating children from their families out of concern for the effect of trauma on the children and the way the experience of separation could cause disabilities the children might not otherwise face.

“Our core belief is that ALL children deserve to be happy, healthy, and safe,” according to a news release the support center’s Executive Director Laura Perez and board president Jo-Anne Unruh issued last Wednesday. “With this core belief in our hearts and minds, we denounce the practice of separating immigrant children from their families and urge our government to cease this activity which is unconscionable and causes irreparable harm to young lives.”

Though the 40-year-old nonprofit’s leaders had been discussing the issue for some time, they decided to release the statement after the CEO of Highlights for Children, which produces Highlights magazine, issued a similar statement in late June, Unruh said.

“Given our experience with children with disabilities, trauma can cause irreparable harm on all levels of child development,” Unruh said in a Monday phone interview. “...This kind of separation flies in the face of our common humanity.”

Merrick, a retired nurse who became concerned about family separation last year when news first broke about the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal entry, has been working with members of her church and other community members to host forums and to raise funds for legal fees for those in detention.

“This is something I care deeply about,” Thetford Center resident Alexis Jetter, another of the rally’s organizers, said. “The kid issue: throwing kids in cages (and) separating kids from families.”

Beyond learning about what is happening at the southern border, the Upper Valley activists have also become involved in immigration issues closer to home, such as efforts to prevent local police departments from communicating with federal authorities about a person’s immigration status and providing information to people boarding trains and buses in White River Junction about their rights if they are approached by officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“We just need to know that this is happening right within our communities,” Jetter said. “... It’s right here and we can do something.”

Matt Garcia, chairman of the Dartmouth Latin-American, Latino and Caribbean Studies Program that is supporting Friday’s event, said it’s important to continue educating the public about the conditions in the detention centers in the lead-up to the 2020 election.

“I think we’ve become anesthetized to the horror of detention (and) willing to accept things that are being done in our name and with our tax dollars,” Garcia said.

As presidential candidates visit the Granite State during the campaign, Garcia said he hopes voters will ask for their plans to address the detention centers.

“Not all candidates do have that,” he said.

The Rev. John Gregory-Davis, a co-pastor at the Meriden Congregational Church which is a founding member of the United Valley Interfaith Project and became a sanctuary church in 2017, said he has become active on this issue because the mistreatment of migrants is “morally wrong.”

Gregory-Davis’ activism includes keeping the issue on the minds of his congregants through his sermons, urging politicians to stop funding the agencies responsible for detaining migrants and attending monthly prayer vigils outside the ICE office in Manchester. Gregory-Davis plans to be out on Friday, calling for the detention centers to be closed.

“I hope it’s the beginning of an uprising,” he said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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