Long Islanders Rally For Separated Immigrant Families Amid Heat Wave

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Families Belong Together (Familias Unidas) rallies took place across the country on June 30, 2018. (Photos by Kimberly Dijkstra)

Under the banner of Families Belong Together, more than 700 cities nationwide held marches and rallies yesterday to protest the policy of separating families seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border that was in place from May 5 to June 20, to demand the reunification of the more than 2,000 families still separated and to demand an end to the new policy of family detention. On Long Island these cities included Westbury, Huntington Station, East Meadow, Great Neck, Rockville Centre, Lido Beach, Fire Island, Greenport and East Quoque.

Westbury

Two-thirds of the U.S. faced extreme heat advisories and Long Island was not exception, with temperatures in the 90s, yet hundreds filled Westbury Village Plaza at the corner of Post Avenue and Maple Avenue. Equipped with hats, sunscreen and water bottles, the large crowd stood for an hour listening to speakers from sponsoring organizations. It was not lost on anyone that the families from Central America seeking asylum crossed a desert in order to reach the border, with no such protections or conveniences. 

Vanessa Barrow, an activist originally from Brooklyn, now residing in Rockville Centre, was moved to attend the Westbury rally to show her support. 

“Whenever something happens in communities of color, they try to say ‘black lives matter,’ ‘brown lives matter,’ [then others] are quick to say ‘all lives matter,’ but in a situation like this with children, the most vulnerable, they’re treating them like animals. And I just feel like all lives should matter.”

Barrow continued, “As Martin Luther King said, ‘an injustice for one is an injustice for all,’ so how can we sit there and not speak out against it? Because ‘it doesn’t affect us’? It does affect us.”

Many in the crowd echoed her sentiments with signs that read, “I really do care,” “No peace until families are together,” “Where are the babies?,” “Make America kind again,” “We are a country of immigrants” and “No human is illegal.”

Deana Davoudiasl, a cofounder of Young Progressives of Nassau County, an organization that believes positive change is made when the youth are mobilized and organized, led the rally, attended overwhelmingly by immigrants, children of immigrants and grandchildren of immigrants, as a show of hands demonstrated.

“We are demanding a more humane and compassionate approach to immigration,” Davoudiasl said. “We are here today to stand in solidarity with immigrants, refugees, communities of color and fellow Long Islanders to express our outrage.”

She went on to demand that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) stop “terrorizing immigrant communities and separating families right here on Long Island,” referring to the Nassau County government’s cooperation with ICE

“A community where undocumented immigrants feel safe cooperating with police without fear of deportation is a safer community for us all,” she said.

Davoudiasl, like many others, wore white to symbolize peace and unity.

Naiomi Rawlings, 17, was instrumental in organizing the Westbury rally.

Naiomi Rawlings, a recent graduate of Westbury High School, had the original idea to hold the rally in Wesalanatbury. Instead of bringing her prepared speech, she spoke from the heart.

“I actually come from an immigrant family and when I saw what was going on, it made me angry,” Rawlings said. “We need immigrant children here. Trump says ‘make American great again.’ Immigrants will make America great again…Every single one of us contributes to this country.”

She continued, “We’re here for a better life, so why can’t we get that? Why is he trying to kick us out?,” she asked earnestly. 

An attendee answered, “Hate.”

Rawlings asked, “Hate for what? It doesn’t make any sense to me,” citing children locked up in cages at border detention facilities.

Longtime Westbury resident Luis Mendez helps young professionals on Long Island with his organzation.

Luis Mendez, founder and advisor of Empowering Young Professionals of Long Island, has lived in Westbury for 37 years. He thanked Mayor Cavallaro for letting the rally take place in Westbury Village Plaza and the Nassau County Police Department for their assistance.

Mendez passionately appealed to parents in the crowd and led a moment of silence for the parents who are separated from their children, including those already deported without their children.

He gave a brief history lesson about the internment camps the United States used to hold thousands of Japanese Americans, as well as German and Italian nationals during the 1940s. 

“This is not about border enforcement,” Mendez said. “This is about plain simple racism.”

Pilar Moya, of Latinos Unidos de Long Island, whose mission is to engage and empower the community through education, leadership and civic engagement, spoke on behalf of all immigrants, north and south of the border at this time. 

“Our founding fathers took three core values from the enlightenment—every person’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Moya said. “In participating in these rallies, we show our immigrant brothers and sisters, documented or undocumented, that the family separation occurring right now is not going unnoticed or uncriticized.”

She continued, “We are a country founded on immigration and those already in the immigrant community…live in constant fear of a system that is supposed to protect them. We hope that today’s rally displays the love and compassion we hope that America can represent, as well as the hopeful and powerful nature of our democracy. Today’s rally shows [the world] that we welcome immigrants, despite the contradictory nature of the current administration’s policy.”

Moya concluded by reminding all immigrants that they are valued and loved and that the voices of those rallying are an extension of their voices. 

Assemblyman Chuck Lavine, Legislator Arnold Drucker and Town of North Hempstead Councilwoman, and candidate for State Senate District 7, Anna Kaplan all stood in support of the speakers. Kaplan said a few words about being “a product of what’s great about America” and recalled coming to this country as a refugee from Iran at age 13 without her parents.

Patrick Young is an immigration attorney and immigrant rights advocate.

Patrick Young, program director of Carecen, the Central American Refugee Center, has lived in Westbury for 60 years and expressed his amazement that 17- and 18-year-olds put together one of the largest rallies he has ever seen in downtown Westbury. 

Young reminded the crowd that County Executive Laura Curran inherited the policy of allowing ICE to operate at the Nassau County Correctional Facility. He encouraged attendees to call Curran’s office on Monday and ask for ICE to be removed from Nassau County.

“June has been the cruelest month for immigrants in our history,” he said. “We had the Muslim ban going into effect. Over the last year since the ban on Syrian refugees went into effect, there have been fewer than a dozen Syrian refugees admitted into the United States.”

He continued, “Children who are supposed to be released within 20 days of detention are being held by the Trump administration indefinitely. We wouldn’t even put someone who committed a felony in jail indefinitely.”

Young referred to the removal of protections for victims of domestic violence by Attorney General Jeff Sessions as well as the removal of asylum protections for people fleeing gang violence.

“We tell people not to join the gangs, but we say if you are a 15-year-old who refuses to join the gang and you are chased out of your country, you are not welcome here.”

Young added, “We had leaked to us a proposed regulation that would make it illegal for women who receive WIC, which is aid for women who are pregnant and want to have a want to have a full-birth weight baby, to prohibit her, even if she’s marrying a U.S. citizen, from ever becoming a permanent resident.”

He went on to say, “This is not one policy, one policy, one policy. This is a political attack on the entire immigrant community and on the entire community of people of color. This is an attempt to force a white nationalist agenda on the United States that since the 1960s has been moving towards integration and acceptance.”

Young concluded, “I was lucky growing up in Westbury because I lived across the street from a family of Holocaust survivors. I lived down the block from refugees who were coming here from Russia. I lived across the street from families who had immigrated from Italy, and from Latino families. That’s the Long Island we want to see.”

The youth of Westbury, with the help of advisor Brenda Odom, are mobilized to make positive change in their community.

Teens Jessica Ellis and Alahna Perez, along with other students, created Time For Action (TFA), an initiative that promotes student involvement and activism in everyday issues.

“White House Chief of Staff Kelly said that the separation of undocumented children from their parents was a necessary evil,” Ellis said. “A few centuries ago it was said that slavery a necessary evil. Just like in the defense of slavery, Trump’s administration and its supporters are also using the Bible to defend family separation at the border.”

Brenda Odom, TFA advisor, also took a turn speaking, first thanking Councilwoman Kaplan and Legislator Drucker for staying for the whole event despite the heat.

“My mother crossed a border so that I could be taken away from the death squads, so I could come and earn the right to vote,” Odom said. “As a Latin American that immigrated at 10 years old, I tell you the best way to change these inhumane and unjust laws is by changing the elected officials. Exercise the strongest weapon we have—the right to vote.”

Sergio Argueta is an influential activist on Long Island.

Sergio Argueta, founder of STRONG Youth, a family and community development organization specializing in youth and gang violence prevention and intervention, spoke about the struggles asylum-seeking families experience in their home countries, including poverty, death, gang violence and corrupt governments. 

“You [reach] a point where you will risk life, limb and liberty to make it to a place where you have heard dreams become reality,” he said. “You come here not because you want to take from somebody else, but because you literally have nowhere else to go.”

Argueta spoke about a man he once knew who crossed the border despite knowing the dangers. “‘He said to me, ‘hermano, have you seen your family die right before your eyes? You sit at that table and see there’s less food every day, less money for the medicine your mother and daughter need. Something as small as 25 cents a day to help keep them alive and I don’t have that money. My brother, I’d rather die crossing that border than live and watch my family suffer.”

One of the biggest crowd reactions occurred when Argueta said, “Our hopes have been decimated by U.S. foreign policies that created poverty and destroyed our homelands.”

Nikhil Goyal, author of Schools On Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice, and son of Indian immigrants in Hicksville, expanded upon the history of these U.S. foreign policies in a speech he could not deliver himself because he was attending class at Middlebury College language school.

“Prior to the 1980s, there was little immigration from Central America to the United States,” Goyal wrote. “Since then, the U.S. has fueled enormous violence in several Central American nations. In Guatemala, the CIA overthrew the democratically elected government in 1954. The U.S. government later gave millions of aid to the Guatemalan dictator who was executing a genocide. In El Salvador, the U.S. government funded and trained death squads which massacred thousands of civilians in a civil war, and in Honduras, after the 2009 military coup of the democratically elected government, the U.S. government paid the Honduran government more than 100 million dollars in military aid and weapons. So it is no coincidence that journalists have found that in the five years since the coup, the number of Honduran children that illegally cross into the United States has jumped by more than 1200 percent. Foreign policy has consequences. It is no coincidence that these three countries have some of the highest homicide rates in the world. So I ask the question, isn’t it a little bit ironic that the U.S. deny refuge to the people fleeing the violence that we created in the first place?”

Goyal called on residents to put pressure on Democratic members of Congress, including Tom Suozzi and Kathleen Rice, who “claim their support for immigrants, [but] both of them voted to reauthorize ICE and give the agency more funding.” 

He added, “Rice is a member of the house deportation caucus and voted for a bill that excluded protection for dreamers last year.”

Goyal said, “Tell them that they work for you and that they need to stop pandering to racists and xenophobes. We deserve better.”

Kevin Shakil, of the Muslim Coalition of New York and member of Westbury’s Islamic Center of Long Island, quoted Nelson Mandela: “The true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children.”

He echoed the call to speak to legislators, congresspeople and the president. “He’s in office, we have no choice. But we can make his job a lot harder,” Shakil said. 

Rabbi Jay Weinstein and Rabbi Jenn Weinstein both spoke up for the persecuted immigrant community.

Rabbi Jay Weinstein and his daughter, Rabbi Jenn Weinstein, of Congregation Simchat HaLev in Syosset, spoke on behalf of the followers of their Jewish faith. “God says we shall welcome the stranger for we too were strangers,” Rabbi Jay Weinstein said. “In our Holy Torah it says do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”

Rabbi Jenn Weinstein said, “The United States of America has always been a place where people who seek asylum can come and have a safe haven. The way families are being treated at our borders is unplanned, disorganized, inhumane, illegal and immoral. One verse central to the Jewish faith [is] you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

She continued, “It is a fact that children were taken from their parents and moved to secret shelters. This is kidnapping. These children did nothing wrong. Where is our love for our neighbor? Where is our compassion?”

Congregation Simchat HaLev will host a prayer gathering called “Immigration and Borders: Embracing Human Dignity” tonight, Sunday, July 1, at 7 p.m. at Mid Island Y JCC, 45 Manetto Hill Rd. in Plainview, where faith leaders will offer prayers, a child psychologist will discuss the traumatic effect of separation on children, an immigration lawyer will discuss immigration issues and Legislator Drucker, Councilwoman Rebecca Alesia and Legislator Joshua Lafazan will introduce a project they are collaborating with MercyFirst on, the Syosset facility where eight children were placed after separation from their parents. 

As is the case at all recent rallies and marches, volunteers were on hand to register people to vote. Organizers reminded attendees that New York primaries take place on Sept. 13 and the general election will be Nov. 6.

The Westbury rally was cosponsored by the following organizations: Time For Action (TFA),  Empowering Young Professionals of Long Island (EYPOLI), Young Progressives of Nassau County, Long Island Immigrant Student Advocates, Indivisible of Glen Cove, North Shore Resistance, Indivisible North Shore, Latinos Unidos de Long Island, Nassau County Democratic Socialists of America, Westbury Council of PTAs, Long Island Civic Engagement Table (LICET), Long Island Progressive Coalition (LIPC), Long Island Women’s Diversity Network, Planned Parenthood of Nassau County, Young Progressives of America, Muslim Coalition of New York, Nassau County Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), Raising Voices USA, New York State Association of Bilingual Education (NYSABE), and Hispanic Brotherhood, Inc.

Huntington

Many of the same faces appeared at the rally in Huntington Station at 1 p.m. Parents, children and other members of the community lined the intersection of Route 110 and Jericho Turnpike. 

Positioned prominently at the busy intersection, the hundreds with signs and banners received almost constant honks of support from passing drivers. 

Dozens of different chants sprung up, including “Love, not hate, makes America great,” “No ICE, no KKK, no fascist USA,” and “Say it loud, say it clear, immigrants are welcome here.”

East Meadow

At 5 p.m., a smaller group, but no less passionate, gathered at East Meadow High School and marched to Nassau County Correctional Facility on Carman Avenue. While touched on at earlier rallies, this rally, organized by LatinoJustice PRLDEF, National Day Laborer Organizing Network, Long Island Jobs with Justice and Workplace Project, focused heavily on ICE’s presence in Nassau County.

Watch the full rally on Facebook.

“Trump, escucha, estamos en la lucha.” The chant decrees, “Listen, we are in the fight.”

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Kimberly Dijkstra is the web editor for Anton Media Group, a writer for Long Island Weekly and recipient of several Press Club of Long Island (PCLI) awards.

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