By Mike Dougherty and Elizabeth Hewitt
Opposition to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy was on display in Montpelier this week as hundreds of protestors rallied on the Statehouse lawn.
On Tuesday, following the Monday demonstration, Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan joined 16 other states in a federal lawsuit arguing that the policy is unconstitutional. The suit against the Trump administration was filed in federal court in western Washington state.
Human rights advocates have called the immigration policy, which has resulted in more than 2,300 immigrant children being separated from their parents, cruel and inhumane.
The policy required all adults to face criminal prosecution and be held in federal prisons. Because children cannot be held in prison, they were separated from their parents and held in detention centers, foster care or other locations around the country.
“Our humanity tells all of us that what has been happening for the last several weeks is simply wrong,” said Rev. Joan Javier-Duval of the Unitarian Church of Montpelier, speaking to the crowd gathered for the Monday evening rally.
Monday’s protest was organized by Rights & Democracy, Migrant Justice, ACLU Vermont and several other groups. It was the latest in a series of events aimed at resisting the president’s immigration agenda.
Early this month, members of those groups began gathering in front of a regional Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Williston to bring attention to the family separation policy.
Since then, the opposition has turned into a nationwide public outcry. President Trump responded last week by signing an executive order to end the separations, but the administration still plans to detain immigrant families indefinitely as they await prosecution. Thousands of children remain separated from their parents.
Speakers in Montpelier on Monday acknowledged Trump’s reversal but said there was still work to do. Some used the event to draw attention to other government processes that lead to family separation, including deportation and mass incarceration.
“This crisis is not over until the administration proves that the policy has ended — which it has not proved yet — and that every single child has been reunited with his parents,” said Nico Amador, a community organizer for ACLU Vermont.
Repeating calls from a protest in Lyndonville on Friday, speakers at the Montpelier event pressed Gov. Phil Scott to take a stronger stance on federal immigration policy. Several groups have called for the governor to declare that no state funding will aid the enforcement of a “zero tolerance” policy.
“If we have to walk into his office and sit there until he signs something, we will do it,” said Amanda Garces, who helped organize Monday’s event.
“Families should be kept together,” Scott wrote in a statement last week affirming his opposition to the policy. “I call on the federal government to find the best path forward to keeping families together and ensuring humane and fair treatment of all, while securing our nation’s borders.”
Other state officials have also spoken out. A joint resolution condemning the family separation policy passed Vermont’s House of Representatives on Friday in a vote of 106-17. The Senate concurred with the resolution Monday.
Ahead of the Monday demonstration, Donovan called the policy “simply wrong” and said in a Tweet that, “This policy must end and all families must be reunited.”
A statement by Donovan read at the rally said: “Our country has always been a refuge for people who are fleeing violence and danger and come here for a better life for their families.”
The lawsuit that Vermont joined argues that the administration’s policy violates states’ sovereign and proprietary interests. Vermont has “fundamental, sovereign interest” in the well-being of children, which gives the state the right to intervene when there are issues, the suit states.
The case asserts that the policy violates the parents’ and children’s constitutional right to due process. The states also argue that the policy is discriminatory and violates equal protection rights, in that it only targets those who cross the southern border. The controversial immigration policy is not in place for those who cross over the northern border.
Advocacy groups plan to gather again this coming Saturday in Burlington, Brattleboro, Rutland and other locations around the state, joining a national network of protests taking place across the country.