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More than 1,000 people march on El Paso immigration center

June 19, 2018 GMT

EL PASO — As criticism of the Trump administration’s separation of migrant families at the border mounts, more than 1,000 people in El Paso marched on the city’s immigration processing center Tuesday morning, calling for an end to the policies.

Decrying the detainment of migrant children along the border, activists sought the minors’ immediate release, as well as access to the “tent city” erected last week at the port of entry in nearby Tornillo that is housing around 200 immigrant boys in their late teens. The facility currently has 360 beds and could expand to hold more children in the future, said Texas State Rep. Mary González, a Democrat from Clint.

“Our message is free our children now,” said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, which organized the rally. His words drew cheers and chants from the crowd.Related: Reports: Facebook campaign aiding San Antonio immigrant aid group reaches $5M

The group also sent a letter Tuesday to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar that was signed by elected officials, faith leaders and representatives from various organizations.

“We cannot bear seeing parents, arrived at the country to seek asylum, torn from their children in a heartless attempt to enforce ‘deterrence,’” the letter said. “This is nothing more than inflicting trauma on children and parents at a massive and grotesque scale. We do not accept the subsequent mass incarceration of immigrant children, which follows from those separations, as a policy of our country.”

The demonstration comes two days after Texas political leaders led a Father’s Day protest outside the Tornillo port, expressing anger at the “zero tolerance” policy that has led to the separation of about 2,300 children from parents seeking asylum in the United States from May 5 to June 9.

The El Paso rally included both local residents and people who had traveled here from outside the state. They gathered at Edgemere Linear Park around 9 a.m. with signs that read “no more families torn apart” and “stop hurting children.” The out-of-state participants included a contingent of people from New Mexico and a congressional candidate from New York.

For attendee Elva O’Hara, an El Paso resident, seeing children detained struck her in a personal way. O’Hara, 55, said that when she was 8 years old, she and her three siblings were placed in a juvenile detention facility in California after their father killed their mother in front of them. Because of that experience, she said she could identify with what the detained children were going through.

“The situation that these children are in now is extremely traumatizing and terrifying. They don’t know where they are or what’s going to happen to them,” O’Hara said. “And all they want is their mom or their dad. Nothing else.”

After marching a mile to the El Paso Processing Center, which also has a training and recruitment office for the Border Patrol, protesters gathered in front of the gates to the complex , holding up posters that spelled out “CLOSED” in large red letters. They led chants of “shame” and “children need their families.”Related: Donald Trump mural inside Texas shelter sparks debate

A series of speakers criticized the family separations while Border Patrol officers on a nearby rooftop monitored the crowd and appeared to film and photograph the protest.

Amber Ramirez, 25, a former immigration paralegal, said she wanted to help the families be reunited and influence change on the country’s immigration policies.

“They’re not coming here for any other reason than to save their lives,” she said.

Additional protests of federal immigration policy are being planned throughout the country for June 30.

Lauren Caruba is a San Antonio Express-News staff writer. Read more of her stories here. | lcaruba@express-news.net | Twitter: @LaurenCaruba