AFT march to vigil shows strong opposition to border atrocities

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AFT members carrying banners and chanting “classrooms, not cages” shut down Connecticut Avenue, a major thoroughfare in Washington, D.C., Friday night, July 12, on their way to Lights for Liberty, a vigil for children being held at the U.S.-Mexico border. Dozens of teachers and school support staff marched en masse to Lafayette Park, across from the White House, joining hundreds of other activists gathered there to say “no more” to the atrocities taking place in the U.S. detention camps for immigrant families seeking asylum.

Randi Weingarten at vigil

Speakers—including Spanish-speaking asylum-seekers who were themselves held at the border—recounted the prison-like conditions at the camps, where children are being held in chainlink-fence pens and where families are forced to sleep on cold floors under bright lights, denied regular meals, refused the opportunity to shower, exposed to sickness and often separated from one another. Speakers also talked about a new wave of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids scheduled to begin this weekend in a “sweep” ordered by President Trump.

Alexandra Hernandez, a teacher in New York City and a member of the United Federation of Teachers, said one parent at her school asked her, “If ICE gets me, will you take care of my kids?”

“They live in fear,” said Hernandez, who was visibly shaken retelling the story. That’s why she continues to protest. “I use my union power to advocate for these children, to speak for the people who don’t have a voice.”

AFT members march

Many compared the inhumane treatment and separation of immigrant communities to the early years of the Holocaust. AFT President Randi Weingarten, who spoke from the stage, echoed one of the chants that carried across the park to the White House just yards away: “Never again means never again.”“We need a coalition of the righteous, a coalition of teachers, a coalition of children, parents and faith leaders to demand righteousness for our children,” she said. “There is no way this country can put children in cages as opposed to classrooms.”

The vigil was part of a global action protesting the Trump administration’s immigration policies: Similar events were held in 700 cities in the United States and abroad—from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Guadalajara, Mexico and from San Diego to Dakar, Senegal.

The scope of the vigil was both global and local. Gleeson Young, a teacher in Washington, D.C., and a member of the Washington Teachers’ Union, said she is dreading a return to summer school Monday because ICE raids are expected in the area over the weekend, and she is afraid of what might happen to her students. Young’s school holds classes about what to do if ICE comes, and they include a chilling example of what it sounds like when ICE knocks on the door. Immigrant families are “being targeted like criminals,” she said. “It is heartbreaking.”

AFT members rally at vigil

“We must fight back,” said Weingarten at the vigil.” Tonight must be a renewal of protest and resistance.”

Watch the vigil.

[Virginia Myers/Miisha Nash photos]