Roughly 150 Eastern North Carolina residents and community leaders rallied in Greenville on Saturday to protest the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" immigration policy, which has left more than 2,000 undocumented immigrant children separated from their parents.
For about two hours, demonstrators were gathered outside the Pitt County Courthouse, holding signs with messages like “Justice for immigrants and refugees” and “We hear you. We see you. We will not abandon you.” At times, they sang hymns, like “This Little Light of Mine.” Many demonstrators also took turns speaking to the crowd from the county courthouse steps.
“Last week, as I was looking into the eyes of my eight-month-old grandson, I was awed by his beauty and the soul force of love that emanates gleefully from his whole being. I want him to have every good thing that will nurture him to healthy adulthood,” Rev. Ann Harrington, pastor of Free Spirit Inclusive Catholic Community in Greenville, shouted from the steps. “How can I not want that for all God’s children?”
The “Families Belong Together” rally in Greenville coincided with hundreds of similar demonstrations -- organized in cities across the country and around the world -- calling for the reunification of families recently separated at the U.S.-Mexico border and an end to a new executive policy that seeks to detain undocumented immigrant families together.
The crowd of immigrants-rights advocates in Greenville included residents, clergy members, community leaders and health care professionals.
Marleni Vilca-Paul, a family therapist in Greenville, spoke about the life-long trauma that could result from separating parents from their young children, whose brains are still developing.
“They’re not rational enough. They’re not cognitive enough. More emotions are there. So, the trauma is more dangerous,” Vilca-Paul said.
The pain and feelings of abadonment children might experience after they're separated from their caregivers increases their risk of developing "a mental health diagnosis" and "physical illness" later in life, she said.
Vilca-Paul, who emigrated from Peru, says she primarily serves immigrants at her practice. Many of her patients are reluctant to go to the library, the park or grocery store because they fear being stopped by the police, she said.
After President Trump's election, this fear has grown within the local Latino community, Vilca-Paul said. "When he won, our fears became a reality. As time goes by, that fear is taking a body – it’s coming alive and it’s hurting.”
President Trump recently signed an executive order that ends the forcible separation of undocumented immigrant families at the border, but keeps the "zero-tolerance" policy in tact. Instead of separating immigrant families, the new policy seeks to house them together in detention centers until their cases are processed through the courts.
For rally organizer Allessandra Santos, this change in policy is unacceptable. "That is still a violation of human rights," Santos said. "I think the very basic human right of freedom is something that is not defined by borders. It is not defined by laws or arbitrary decisions made really far away from where these issues are occurring."
The Trump administration has the ability to abolish its "zero-tolerance" policy and release undocumented immigrant families from detention centers while they work through their cases. And Congress can pass legislation that would bar the federal government from detaining or separating undocumented immigrant families. But there's no indication that either of those actions will occur. Still, immigration-rights advocates in Greenville say they'll continue pushing for humane immigration reform.
"We’re not going to be silent when we don’t agree with these violations of human rights," Santos said. "We’re not going to be asleep. And we’re not going to be quiet. And we’re not going to be complicit in it."