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Caravan to travel 1,700 miles to witness border problems

man looking at cell phone
Tracy Samilton
Michigan Radio

This week, a group of faith leaders is taking a caravan of protestors 1,700 miles from Ann Arbor to the Tornillo detention center in Texas. 

That’s where the federal government is holding hundreds of unaccompanied minors who crossed the border, many of them illegally. The caravan’s main purpose is to call attention to increasingly long detentions there for children as young as 13. 

But along the way, the caravan is highlighting other examples of what activists call a broken immigration system. 

The caravan sets out from the parking lot of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor, where Josh Whinston is the rabbi. He's brought espresso brownies to hand out to the troops.  One by one, the cars leave for the long haul to Texas. By nightfall, the caravan will need to make it to St. Louis, Missouri for the first stop and rally.

I believe we can have strong borders and still be compassionate with people, that we can still treat people in a humane way.

The trip came about after Whinston was asked to help an immigrant woman whose three children were taken from her at the border this summer. It took her more than two months to get them back. Hearing her story shook him up. 

He'd heard something else that disturbed him – that unaccompanied minors were being detained for long periods in a remote tent encampment in Texas.

"So one day, my congregant in Ann Arbor asked me what should we do about Tornillo,  it's tearing me up," he says, "I thought, I don’t know, I’m doing what you’re doing, I'm donating to the ACLU. I don’t know what else to tell you. But I knew that I couldn’t respond that way, so I said, let’s go down, let's see for ourselves, and witness.”

Whinston says he and the others could have flown to El Paso, about an hour away from Tornillo. But that didn’t feel right when so many people are traveling hundreds of miles from the opposite direction, to get to the U.S. in hopes of a better life.

He says he understands the immigration system was broken long before President Donald Trump was elected. But he says now, policies like family separation and proposed policies like indefinite detention seem designed to inflict the most pain possible.

"That just feels cruel to me," he says. "I believe we can have strong borders and still be compassionate with people, that we can still treat people in a humane way. I don’t think we are being humane with people."

Noah and Moses were refugees once, and Jesus and Mohamed...We learn from this that being refugee is not a shame.

Whinston scheduled interfaith rallies along the way in part to keep up the spirits of people in the caravan, and in part to get local news coverage of the journey and its mission. At each stop, one or two more people joins the caravan.

At a rally in Indianapolis, Imam Ahmed Alamine tells the crowd that it’s wrong for Americans to vilify immigrants and refugees. After all, he says, most of us have ancestors who were refugees. Noah and Moses, he says, were refugees once, and Jesus and Mohamed.

"We learn from this that being refugee is not a shame," he says. "These are the best of mankind."

The rallies are also an opportunity to show that immigrants face threats throughout the country, not just at the border. Like Minor Clemente. He came to this country from Guatemala when he was 15, to join his father. He qualified to stay in the U.S. under the DREAM act. One day, ICE knocked on his door, and he let them in, figuring he was in good standing. Instead, they put him in cuffs, on his wrists, his ankles, and his neck.

An immigration judge eventually decided the case in Clemente's favor, so his story has a happy ending.

But Alex Garcia’s story so far does not. Garcia is in sanctuary protection in Christ Church UCC in Maplewood, Missouri, another stop on the journey to Tornillo. The 37-year-old Honduran man came to the U.S. as a young man, got married, and had five kids. He was given a stay of deportation in 2015 and 2016.  But that changed after the election.

"I’m struggling to be able to return to my family," he says. "Been here 14 months, sometimes I feel like time has stopped."

The caravan continues to Tulsa, Oklahoma next, then Dallas, then El Paso, and finally, Tornillo, another 1,100 miles. People who couldn’t join the caravan will be flying to Texas for the last big rally outside the confines of the detention center – which is being expanded to be able to house up to 3,800 unaccompanied minors. 

Meanwhile, President Trump this week proposed another change to immigration policy. He says adults and unaccompanied minors who’ve crossed the border illegally should no longer be permitted to seek asylum in the U.S.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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