Cries at detention centre for kids to be free

Protesters linking arms after they tied children's shoes and keys to the fence outside the Otay Mesa Detention Centre, near San Diego, at a demonstration last Saturday. Hundreds of protesters rallied in solidarity with people being held inside the ce
Protesters linking arms after they tied children's shoes and keys to the fence outside the Otay Mesa Detention Centre, near San Diego, at a demonstration last Saturday. Hundreds of protesters rallied in solidarity with people being held inside the centre, calling for the children who have been separated from their parents to be freed.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

OTAY MESA (California) • From behind the detention centre wall, several women shouted together: "Where are the children?"

Protesters from outside then shouted: "We want the children free! Do you hear us?"

This was the short interplay between hundreds of protesters and people being held at a United States detention centre for undocumented migrants in Otay Mesa, on the border with Mexico.

A group of people held at the centre had been separated from their children as part of President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" policy. The President last Wednesday signed an order ending the practice of splitting migrant families, but 2,300 children have already been separated from their parents.

Supported by religious leaders present, the estimated 500 protesters shouted: "Shame! Abolish Ice (Immigration and Customs Enforcement)."

Ms Erica Leyva, 24, who travelled from Los Angeles to join the protest, said: "It is very hard to see that children have to go through the trauma of a detention centre when they are 10, five years old."

Though she was born in the US, Ms Leyva was briefly detained with her undocumented parents when she was four years old. "I remember how it felt to be behind bars," she said.

The Otay Mesa detention centre has the capacity for some 1,500 people, though in January it announced an expansion of 30 per cent.

Last Friday, Democratic Senator Kamala Harris visited several undocumented women at the centre who were separated from their children. "The stories they shared with me paint a picture of human rights abuses being committed by our government. We are so much better than this," she said.

Protesters covered the name of the detention centre with a white sheet that read "concentration camp" in black letters and placed toys and stuffed animals around in protest.

Pastor and activist Ben McBride requested a prayer for "our immigrant relatives" before moving with a group to the fence, despite a "private property" sign and the warning of two guards armed with pepper spray.

At the gate, topped with barbed wire, they tied children's shoes and keys to demand the release and reunification with family of those detained.

"Release them!" they shouted. "Without justice there is no peace!"

The pastor exclaimed to officials: "This is indecent, it is immoral."

Ms Apolonia Gregorio Jeronimo, 33, and two of her three children were visiting her detained husband at the centre. He was arrested six months ago.

"I thank you very much for your support," said the woman, who told how her husband arrived in the US fleeing gang violence in Guatemala. She is a beneficiary of the programme that protects undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as children.

Earlier in San Diego, 40km from the detention centre, some 1,500 people also protested against Mr Trump's immigration policy.

"Families must be together", "No to the wall", and "Seeking asylum is still legal" were among the slogans on signs that they carried.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2018, with the headline 'Cries at detention centre for kids to be free'. Print Edition | Subscribe