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Upper Valley Activists Plan Forums



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Thetford — With images of migrant children in detention centers flooding media channels, Upper Valley activists hope to focus the public outrage into political action that can overturn the Trump administration’s recently implemented “zero tolerance” Justice Department immigration policy.

“This is child abuse. … Anyone that is a parent or an aunt or an uncle knows that you don’t separate young children from their parents,” said Sherry Merrick, a Thetford resident who’s organized a community forum for this Wednesday to decry the policy. Merrick is the acting chairwoman of the Orange County Democrats, but says the issue transcends partisanship.

“I’m doing this more as a mother and a nurse and a human being,” she said.

The Thetford forum will feature a discussion on the trauma of separation by Thetford family clinical psychologist Ray Chin, a video call from U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and an update from U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office, among other speakers.

Since April, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the policy, nearly 2,000 children have been separated from their families, some of whom were seeking political asylum.

Welch, who visited a border processing center in Texas on Sunday, tweeted that the facility was “nothing short of a prison,” and called the separation of children from parents “disgraceful.”

Some of the widely disseminated images of the facility show sleeping children sandwiched between aluminum reflective blankets and cracked concrete floors in chain-link cages that also contain portable toilets. Hans Lynn, a spokesman for Welch, said on Monday that the public outcry was palpable.

“Our phones have been ringing off the hook in opposition to the child separation policy,” Lynn said.

On Monday, another forum sponsored by the Upper Valley Democrats and the activist group Mascoma Forward will be held in Lebanon.

“We’re doing everything we can to push back against this policy,” said Rod Wendt, executive director of the United Valley Interfaith Project and one of five scheduled panelists. Other speakers include Eva Castillo of the NH Alliance of Immigrants and Refugees and immigration attorney Kate Semple Barta.

Wendt said the situation at the border is a focal point of a larger set of immigration issues that have affected families in the Twin States.

“We’re concerned about ripping families apart in New Hampshire and Vermont through the deportation of parents. That’s a terrible thing,” he said. “Separating families as they come in, it’s a different reason for tearing families apart, but it’s still tearing families apart.”

Merrick said that although national issues sometimes seem to be impervious to local activism, grassroots opposition to a policy can make a difference — in the early 1980s, she said, a group from Norwich Congregational Church participated in the first citizen-to-citizen exchange program with the Soviet Union in an effort to ease Cold War tensions.

“We were a part of ‘tear down that wall,’ ” she said, referencing a famous statement from then-President Ronald Reagan. “I always felt that we were a part of that.”

Merrick urged members of the public to reach out to the White House, Sessions and other government agencies involved with immigration.

“Many thousands of voices need to be heard, that this is not OK for us to be doing,” she said.

And Wendt said that he’s witnessed a sustained push toward social justice activism since shortly after the 2016 elections.

“I have never seen as much spontaneous energy generated around any issue that we’ve ever worked on as I have seen around this immigration thing,” he said.

The Thetford forum is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. on Wednesday at the Thetford Hill Congregational Church; the Lebanon potluck on Monday is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. at the  Upper Valley Senior Center in Lebanon, with the forum starting at 6:30 p.m.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.