WASHINGTON, DC—On the corner in front of the AFL-CIO headquarters, a stately looking building with marble fronts and too many windows to count, members of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) attracted a crowd. In unison, they practiced protest calls—“Ain’t no power like the power of the people ‘cuz the power of the people don’t stop”; “Education, not deportation”; and the Obama-era relic “fired up, and ready to go”—before slowly feeding into the crowd headed to the meeting point for the march. The sidewalks overflowed as protesters—squads of union nurses; young families with kids holding signs in ham-handed fists; a black sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, wearing its signature red— converged from all directions and headed toward Lafayette Park.
By 11:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, a reported 30,000 had gathered for the Families Belong Together march, a national day of action organized by dozens of advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Move On. In the two weeks since it had been announced by Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington state, hundreds of sister protests cropped up. The public rage over the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy—which led to the separation of thousands of migrant families—had been seeking an outlet that could match its scale. An action that could communicate, in visceral terms, through the sight of thousands of bodies taking the street, the anguish and fury that so many had been feeling.
The massive turnout was a clear sign of a sleeping majority waking up to the horrors of the American immigration system. But a question lingered, particularly for the Latinx and immigrant protesters I spoke to on Saturday, about what would become of this collective action tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that. There were “Abolish ICE” signs left and right, but the work that comes with such a demand will require more than just marches. To make this, as the saying now goes, a movement not a moment.
For millions of people across the country, the sight (and sounds) of children being torn from their parents under the Trump administration was their first real encounter with the brutality of the American immigration system; but for many protesters I spoke to Saturday, particularly those who are themselves immigrants or come from immigrant families, the knowledge that ours is a system that destroys families was nothing new.
Diane Guerrero of Orange Is the New Black was only 14 when her parents were deported, wrenching apart her family and changing her life forever. In a devastating speech at the main rally, she compared her experience to that of children being separated from their parents at the border.
“I was lucky enough not to be caged, but that was only because I did not exist in the eyes of the government. They had no regard for a child left behind. Whether that is a good thing or bad thing, I still don’t know,” said Guerrero. “But I would have had a much different story to tell if I had been imprisoned after being separated from my family, without a warm bed, and only the cold face of ICE agents and the crinkly feeling of a mylar blanket.”
A 12-year-old girl named Leah was another speaker; she was in tears throughout. “Our government also continues to separate U.S. citizen children like me from their parents every day. This is evil. It needs to stop,” she said. “It makes me sad to know that children can’t be with their parents. I don’t understand why they are being so mean to us children. Don’t they know how much we love our families? Don’t they have a family, too?”
The inhumane treatment of immigrants was personal for many of the onlookers I spoke to as well. In a large swath of shade at the edge of the park, Tania Vlagrove, a woman wearing a sun hat and a breezy printed dress, slowly made her way down the sidewalk. She held a simple sign that spanned the length of her body that said, “I am an immigrant, U.S. citizen, mother, voter.”
When I asked her why she was at the rally, she took a moment to mull over her answer before it spilled out.
“My grandfather died in Auschwitz, my mother was part of the Holocaust diaspora and was a stateless person,” she said. “I came to the United States as a child, I grew up with a green card, and I take remarks—like [the one] Trump made when talking about human beings [and he used] the words ‘infest’—very seriously.”
It was personal for 30-year-old Katelin Lee, as well, who also comes from a family of immigrants. She said she was protesting to express that child separation is unacceptable, but that “people need to think about immigration and immigration reform beyond this current issue in order to make America more accessible and open for everybody.”
She carried a sign: “Borders are bullshit.”
These protesters were not just speaking to our nightmarish present, they are speaking to our recent past. Deportations soared and families were also detained under the Obama administration, and the creation of ICE after 9/11 ushered in a new kind of enforcement strategy, as well as a national mentality about immigration as a supposed issue of national security. The context and scale may have been different during the Obama years, but the outcome was the same: families in cages, a broken immigration system that grew only more broken. Perhaps because these policies were tempered by Obama pushing for programs like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or because he was a Democrat, activists who stood up to that administration on its treatment of immigrants—whether over family detention or violence faced by LGBTQ people in the system—were treated as extremist or fringe.
Several demonstrators I saw held signs that parroted the mythos of a pre-Trump America that was inclusive, kind, and didn’t treat immigrants like shit. But many protesters I spoke with, particularly those who had no direct connection to immigration before, found themselves grappling with their own blind spots.
“I’ve been guilty of ignoring this issue in the past. It’s not like these horrific policies just started: Obama was deporting people too,” said 18-year-old Matt Post, a student activist who gained viral fame after a speech he gave at the March for Our Lives rally against gun violence. “But I think this is a moment where we’re recognizing that it’s evil, and it’s never too late to stand up and start stopping it.”
But for 23-year-old Gabby Rosazza, the inhumanity of the system starts long before a family crosses the U.S. border, a layer of analysis that hasn’t quite infiltrated the mainstream Democratic consciousness but will need to if the Party is serious about fixing the current system. “I’m here to talk about why people are here in the first place: It’s because of U.S. intervention and U.S. foreign policy in Latin America,” she said.
Rosazza’s sign depicted Uncle Sam next to a map of Central and South America. A brown skinned woman with her fist in the air juxtaposed the words “decolonize our land” emblazoned in purple marker.
“The U.S. war on drugs is waging war to people in Latin America as well as trade policies like NAFTA,” she said. “They old serve corporations, and corporations are able to outsource their jobs to Latin America, get tax breaks, and pay people poverty wages.”
“You’d have to take a deep look at the Democrats who are also supporting war policies and trade policies that are problematic,” Rosazza said.
The Families Belong Together rally did a lot of things—it centered the voices of Latinx immigrants to a predominantly white, non-Latinx crowd; it encouraged direct action; and it provided a space for camaraderie right outside the White House. Many protesters I met that day saw hope in that. For themselves and the country.
“I want this to become a movement where the Latinx population feels comfortable enough to speak out,” said Idania Ramos, 19, whose family is mixed status, both documented and not. She was standing next to a man wearing a “Cynthia for NY” t-shirt, but her tee displayed some inspirational phrasing of its own: “They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.”
“I want them to feel empowered,” Ramos said. “I want them to understand that they have a voice, regardless of your status, if you’re undocumented or not.”
Anne-Caroline Berret, 20, was creating her sign at the last minute on a park bench with a friend when I approached her. Berret is a Haitian immigrant, and this was her first protest. Seeing images of children in the detention centers inspired her to attend the rally. “I just felt like it was so important to be here and do this together,” she said.
In a permanent marker, she wrote, “We immigrants get the job done.”
“If there was ever a time to march, it’s now,” said 25-year-old Riki, who did not give a last name. The poem “First They Came” made an impact on him as a child, and with the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, he’s sees its purpose actualized. “I shouldn’t wait for it to be something that directly affects me. That’s selfish. That’s just not how I roll. We’re all in this together, and we’ve got to support each other.”
For many people there, the rally operated as day one, the start of a process of mobilizing, solidarity, and direct action that will require more than just signs and a willingness to risk heat stroke on a sweltering day in June.