Several hundred people rallied in Missoula and Kalispell Wednesday to protest the Trump administration’s policy of separating families attempting to enter the country illegally at the southern border.
Though President Trump overturned that policy through an executive order Wednesday afternoon, many in Missoula remained skeptical.
Nereyda Calero is one of the 100 so-called DREAMERS in Montana under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA policy. She spoke at the Missoula rally as an organizer representing Montanans for Immigrant Justice.
“And even though the President signed that executive order today, kids, moms and dads are scarred for life. It doesn’t matter if he signed the order, he already did the damage,” Calero says.
Erin Erickson with the advocacy group Missoula Rises expressed concern that there was no plan in place to reunite the 2,300 children already separated from their parents under Trump’s zero-tolerance policy.
“There is no plan, whatsoever, for reunification. That’s one problem," Erickson says. "When asylum seekers cross the border, the entire family will be detained and under that executive order, they can be detained indefinitely.”
Representatives from Har Shalom and St. Francis Xavier also spoke at the Missoula protest, where people held signs that read “Dissent is patriotic” and “Families have no border.” Others lambasted the Immigration Customs Enforcement, or ICE, for racially profiling citizens.
ICE raids are happening in Big Sky Country. Earlier this month, the Missoulian reported that ICE had recently arrested at least 16 people in western and central Montana and charged 9 with crimes related to being in the country illegally.
Nereyda Calero told the crowd that some of the men detained were harvesting morel mushrooms at the time of the raid, including Tomas Andres-Gregorio.
“I also want to tell you guys a little bit about Tomas. He’s present, but we can’t see him because he’s behind these walls,” Calero said.
Andres-Gregorio is charged with assault of a federal officer and is currently being held at the Missoula County Detention Facility. Calero claims he was sleeping in his tent when ICE agents entered his camp.
According to the report by the Missoulian, Andres-Gregorio is a Guatemalan national alleged to have no legal documentation. He allegedly tried to push past one of the arresting officers at the raid when asked for documentation and was arrested after repeatedly punching an officer in the leg.
However, Calero says Andres-Gregorio broke his wrist several years ago in a work-related accident and was just trying to pull his hand away.
“They tried to grab him on the ground and put his hands on the back, and what he just try to do was pain response," Calero says. "He took his hand because he said, 'You’re hurting me. Please don’t hurt me. I broke my wrist before.' His charges right now are attacking an officer.”
Andres-Gregorio’s medical records have not yet been made public.
Zuri Moreno, Advocacy and Policy Assistant at ACLU of Montana recounted an experience during what should have been a routine traffic stop to the crowd. As the passenger, Moreno was asked for identification.
“And when I told the officer that I needed to look for my belongings, she replied, 'Do you have a weapon?' We have a rhetoric in our country around people of color, immigrants being criminals and we need to destroy that rhetoric,” Moreno says.
In Kalispell, about 100 people lined the sidewalk of Depot Park, waving hand-made signs that read “Keep families together” and “No human being is illegal.” They cheered when passing cars honked, and jumped back from the curb when a gaggle of teens in a pickup truck burned-out down the block.
Cherilyn DeVries is with Love Lives Here, an affiliation of the Montana Human Rights Network that organized the Kalispell rally. She says the United States has separated and detained families before.
"Native American children were stolen from their families and sent to boarding schools. We had Japanese internment camps here in Montana. And we're seeing internments camps right now pop up all over the place under the guise of handling a need, when actually they’re creating a crisis that doesn’t need to happen."
Many people in Kalispell said they weren’t directly impacted by the Trump Administration's zero-tolerance immigration policy. But they said they empathized with the families at the border.
Brett McCoy lives in Evergreen. His sign said, “No humans are illegal.”
"I have two children, and I can't imagine that this could happen to anybody," he says. "And I would hope that if this were the type of thing that would happen to me that somebody else would have the strength to come out and use their voice."
McCoy says he worries that policies like separating families or building a wall will send the wrong message to the rest of the world.
"All you're going to do is alienate everyone else around you, and that's just not what America is, at least not the way that I see it."
Others said Montanans have skin the game when it comes to zero-tolerance immigration policies.
Robert Harris of Kalispell said cherry growers in the Flathead Valley rely on seasonal harvesters to bring their crop to market.
"If you don't have these foreign national workers, you're in trouble," he says.
While some of the cherry pickers have been coming to the Flathead Valley for generations, some protesters said they fear federal ICE crackdowns elsewhere could deter harvesters from coming to Montana later this summer.
Members of the Flathead Valley Cherry Growers Coop could not be reached for comment by deadline.
All three members of Montana’s delegation to Washington, D.C., told MTPR they opposed the policy of separating families, but disagreed on what needs to happen to change it and other aspects of immigration reform. We spoke to them before Trump overturned his family separation policy.
Democratic Senator Jon Tester has signed onto California Democrat Dianne Feinstein’s “Keep Families Together Act,” which seeks to limit the separation of families at or near ports of entry.
Republican Senator Steve Daines called that bill an extension of an Obama-era policy that he says essentially lets people off the hook after they’ve illegally entered the country.
“Senator Feinstein's bill codifies catch and release,” Daines said. “It codifies open border, and only incentivizes more of these people to come up, sometimes with their children. Sometimes they’re not their own children, as we’re finding out. And that creates a humanitarian crisis.”
He says some people attempting to enter the United States are true asylum seekers. But he adds they need to enter the country through established legal pathways. He says others are coming for nefarious reasons and using children as decoys.
"I support what President Trump is doing here by enforcing the rule of law," Daines says. "We can't just turn our heads and allow people who cross the border illegally."
He’s backing legislation that he says would double the number of immigration judges to expedite asylum cases and create temporary shelters to keep families together as they await criminal proceedings for entering the country outside ports of entry.
Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte supports Trump’s four pillars of immigration reform, which include securing the border, awarding visas on a merit-based system, favoring nuclear families in chain migration and creating a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers.
The House and Senate are considering a handful of immigration reform bills this week.
A national day of action, called “Families Belong Together,” is scheduled for June 30.