By Sara-Megan Walsh
Dozens of Huntington residents gathered in the shadow of Constitution Oak last Friday, to declare the intent to fight for the human rights of immigrant children across Long Island and the nation.
More than 100 residents gathered June 15 to protest President Donald Trump’s immigration policies at the Huntington Village Green Park, near the intersection of Park Avenue and Main Street. Many carried signs reading “Families Belong Together” alongside the Spanish translation, “Familias Unidas, No Divididas,” while others imitated children crying out for their parents calling out to passing pedestrians and drivers.
“We are all disturbed and outraged with this administration’s new policy of separating children from their parents, parents whose only crime is to bring their family to safety,” said Dr. Eve Krief, a Huntington pediatrician who founded the nonprofit group Long Island Inclusive Communities Against Hate. “We demand an immediate end to this horrendous, cruel and unjustified policy.”
“We demand an immediate end to this horrendous, cruel and unjustified policy.”
– Eve Krief
In mid-April, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy for immigrants who cross the border illegally, which means they can be arrested and prosecuted. There have been 1,995 children taken from 1,940 adults at the border from April 19 to May 31, according to reporting by the Associated Press.
Victoria Hernandez, an outreach coordinator for SEPA Mujer Long Island, a nonprofit organization that represents immigrant women, called for her neighbors and community members to take action against Trump’s policies. She suggested calling and writing to elected officials, as well as signing SEPA Mujer’s online petition at www.sepamujer.org.
“We have to take action to prevent Jeff Sessions from allowing this violence against women and children from occurring,” Hernandez said. “For the children, please, for the children take action.”
An immigrant couple with their young son from the Huntington area stood in the crowd, arms wrapped around each other as Hernandez spoke. The family was in court days earlier pleading their case for asylum, according to Huntington Rapid Response Network volunteer Renee Bradley, and will know within the next four months if they’ve been accepted or face deportation.
“They fear they could be injured or face certain death if forced to return to their home country,” she said, declining to release more specific details.
“I wasn’t asking for the opportunity or wonders of America, I was just asking for the Lord to give me one more chance to hug my mother again.”
– Dr. Harold Fernandez
Bradley works with other members of the Huntington Rapid Response Network to provide immigrant families with legal services and support as they face legal process and get settled. It is one of eight such groups across Long Island associated with Jobs with Justice, a Washington D.C. nonprofit that fights for equal worker’s rights, that provides immigrants with referrals to trusted immigration lawyers and free services, translation services, accompaniment to court dates and other social support. Bradley said she currently is aiding several asylum seekers with their cases.
“A lot of people are being caught up in a very wide net that’s all about MS-13, and MS-13 is being used to demonize the entire immigrant population,” she said.
Dr. Steve Goldstein, president of Chapter 2 of New York State’s American Academy of Pediatrics, said that the separation of children from their parents and detention can have life-long health impacts from the toxic stress it causes. Goldstein said it can lead to chronic anxiety, predisposition to high blood pressure, and cause detrimental changes in brain function and structure citing research done by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.
One doctor shared his personal story of making his way to the United States as an illegal immigrant from Columbia with the protestors. Dr. Harold Fernandez said at age 12 he traveled to the Bahamas, where he and 10 others boarded a small boat at midnight to make his way into the U.S. and reunite with parents, who were already working here.
“Rob children from their parents, put them in cages and treat them like animals — they will be wounded and broken forever.”
– Rev. Marie Tatro
“The trip was only seven hours, but I can tell you it [was] the longest seven hours of my life,” he said. “I wasn’t asking for the opportunity or wonders of America, I was just asking for the Lord to give me one more chance to hug my mother again.”
Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) said he was appalled by what is happening across the nation and wants to propose an Immigrant Protection Act in Suffolk County. He referred to legislation approved by Westchester County lawmakers in March that limited the information the county shares with federal immigration authorities and bars employees from asking about a person’s citizenship in most circumstances. Spencer said he believed other Suffolk lawmakers would support such a bill.
“You want the perfect recruiting tool for groups like MS-13, here it is,” said Rev. Marie Tatro, with the Community Justice Ministry at the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. “Rob children from their parents, put them in cages and treat them like animals — they will be wounded and broken forever.”
Tatro said several Long Island churches and religious organizations are springing into action to help immigrants affected by offering them sanctuary, providing them with safe haven from Immigration and Custom Enforcement officers.
“There are angels of mercy working tirelessly all across Long Island to provide help,” she said. “We are all in this together, we will, and we must learn from history.”