Activists in the Richmond area came together near Congressman Dave Brat’s office today to protest his support for President Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policies. Standing across the street from the business park that houses Brat’s office, protestors created a stir along West Broad Street close to Short Pump in Henrico.
Organized by Together We Will Henrico, the protest boasted around 200 protesters. This protest joins many other protests planned across the Commonwealth as a response to Trump’s immigration policy and the children separated from their parents and placed in detention centers across the border. “We are encouraged to hear that Trump has a short-term solution to a problem he created — ripping children away from their families — but find it unacceptable that there is no plan to reunify already separated children with their parents,” said Melissa McKenney, a steering committee member of Together We Will Henrico. “We will be showing up [ Sunday] to demonstrate to Dave Brat that we will not be silent about these atrocities or his eagerness to use young children as political pawns.”
McKenney went on to say that she expects Brat to represent the values of his constituents and to “work across the aisle to create humane immigration policy. And we want those babies back with their families now.”
Handmade signs, American flags, and rainbow umbrellas were among the dozens of protesters who broke out into chants over immigration or ousting Brat; passing cars honked, firing up the crowd with a supportive thumbs up or a raised fist. The occasional middle finger was given as well. One 65-year-old woman saw this and commented, “I’m 65. What’s that going to do to me?”
Nonetheless, people of all ages were in attendance, including families with children, some as young as toddlers. One child held a sign with a direct quote from the recording of children being held in detention centers: “Donde esta mi mama y mi papa?” When asked about whether he and his siblings understood what was going on, their mother, Christy, explained that after she told them about the protest they were going to, her children were worried Dave Brat was going to take them away from her.
Many parents spoke about setting an example for their children. Candace Taylor discussed the representation in the media and the impact on the nation’s children. “It doesn’t set a good example for the youth either because we want our youth to have somebody they can look up to,” she said. Aleta Strickland, a child psychologist and member of Indivisible Louisa, highlighted the irreversible trauma the detained children would receive. “These children, these families who are seeking asylum, are escaping trauma,” she said. “They’ve already been traumatized. Now you are compounding [it]. Compound or complex trauma is very difficult to treat.”
She mentioned that the very young children were the most vulnerable, especially the ones at the pre-verbal stages, since this sort of trauma affects the conscience.
Strickland had received a letter from Brat on June 8, explaining that the “children being separated from their families have been substantially misrepresented by many on the left.” He explained that this sort of practice and legislation of separating children has “been in place for over a decade.” He confirmed that the Office of Refugee Resettlement did not know the whereabouts of 1,475 children at that time. Finally, he reiterated that information has been spread falsely in order to back up his claims.
Veena Lothe, a first-generation Indian American, immigration and civil rights lawyer, and Democrat running for State Senate in the 12th District spoke comprehensively about how her job drove her to attend the protest. “I want to get Dave Brat out of office,” she said. “I think he lacks the understanding of immigration law, and he’s not willing to learn.”
She emphasized the language used by Republicans surrounding immigration is incorrect and divisive. When asked about what must change, her answer was simple: “First and foremost, the rhetoric has to change. It’s just spreading hate in the population. It’s nationalism and is designed to be hateful and to divide people. Nationalism is a cop-out.”
On Wednesday, June 20, the President signed an executive order ending the separation of immigrant families from their children through detention after they cross the border. This came as a response to the backlash surrounding the thousands of children surviving harsh conditions in detention centers, women being threatened by ICE agents for protection in exchange for sexual favors, and other human rights atrocities in relation to immigration.
Brat joined FOX @ Night’s Shannon Bream on June 19 to comment on a video of National Homeland Security Secretary Kristjien Nielsen being booed out of a Mexican restaurant by Metro D.C. Democratic Socialists of America, as well as some immigration policy after his meeting with the President.
Brat began by quoting the President saying, “I’ve got your back” in reference to an immigration bill penned by Virginia Representative Bob Goodlatte that Brat supported. The Goodlatte Bill would end chain migration and mandate the e-verify program, requiring employers to check the immigration status of future employees. Brat cited examples of House Republicans attempting to compromise with Democrats on legislation for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and, more recently, family separation bills, but said, “[Democrats] just want a political issue. What’s changed is the left have gone way left.”
Brat called the Goodlatte bill “compassionate” in another interview with FOX News on June 18. But both the Goodlatte Bill and Speaker Ryan’s compromise bill cuts the visa lottery and family-based immigration rules, and significantly affect asylum seekers, both current and future. While Brat never explicitly said he supports separating families, he does stand for beefing up America’s immigration policies, to “put an end to the chaos at the border,” and to avoid being like London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Germany.
The Friday before the protest, RVA Mag spoke with Abigail Spanberger, the Democratic candidate who is challenging Brat in the mid-terms, about her thoughts on the situation and the thousands of children that remain separated from their families. “I think that [Brat’s] assertions do not take into account the fact that Democrats have tried in years past and made a lot of forward momentum on immigration issues [and] immigration reform.”
Spanberger asserted that supporting legislation that separates families at the border is a conscious choice and a policy that was implemented under Trump. According to her, using children as a bargaining chip in order to pass legislation is “just inappropriate.” Brat, along with other Republicans, have claimed that Democrats are pursuing a globalist agenda at the expense of an American first policy. Spanberger responded to this messaging by saying, “Democrats are Americans and Democrats are working to pursue policies that will positively impact American workers, American citizens, people who someday dream of being Americans. Doing that in the global economy is absolutely among the most American things you can do.”
Some other photos from today’s protest can be found below:
John Donegan contributed to this report. Photos by Landon Shroder.