Hundreds of people gathered on the steps of the Benton County Courthouse in Corvallis on Thursday evening to share the message that families belong together.
The rally was part of a national movement opposing a Trump administration policy that is resulting in the separation of families who are entering the United States from Mexico illegally. The Corvallis rally was one of many held throughout the country Thursday, according to national organizers.
Sami Al-AbdRabbuh, the vice chair of the Corvallis School Board, organized the local rally.
“Thank you for being here and raising your voice,” Al-AbdRabbuh told the crowd. “There wouldn’t even be talks happening in the House right now if it weren’t for thousands of people standing up and speaking out.”
Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a "zero tolerance" policy that any adult who enters the country illegally should be criminally prosecuted. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, more than 650 children were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border during a two-week period in May. U.S. protocol prohibits detaining children with their parents because the children are not charged with a crime and the parents are.
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Sessions, speaking in Indiana on Thursday, defended the policy by citing a Bible verse.
"I would cite you to the apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order," he said. "Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful."
Al-AbdRabbuh provided a call to action to the rally attendees, to end the separation of immigrant parents and children.
“We owe it to them and to ourselves to do everything we can,” he said. “We owe it to them to give them the opportunity to be free, their God-given right to freedom. If there is no place in our hearts for these children and families, then one day there may be no place for us.”
He told the crowd that fear is not an option.
“There is no pain that compares with not getting to say goodbye to one or both of your parents,” Al-AbdRabbuh said. “Separating refugees from their children is inhumane and un-American. A child shall not bear the alleged sins of their parents. A child shall not bear the sins of their assailants. A child shall not be punished for pursuing the American dream.”
Organizers called on people gathered at the courthouse to write postcards to their legislators and to donate to Kids in Need of Defense, an organization that provides legal representation and other services to unaccompanied children who enter the U.S. immigration system.
State Sen. Sara Gelser addressed the crowd, imploring each person to acknowledge that what is happening to immigrants in American is not normal. She applauded her colleague Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who was recently denied access to a detention center for immigrant children in Texas.
“One thing I know is that when we take little children and put them in dark buildings and don’t let anybody see what’s happening inside, good things are never happening inside,” Gelser said.
Monica Olvera, an instructor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University, delivered a speech in Spanish and English. She said the government’s policy causes trauma to parents and children who are trying to enter the United States.
She said children and adults experience trauma in their home country and during their journey. Migrants risk being robbed and sexually assaulted. They then cross the border and risk separation from their family members, as well as the trauma of acclimating to a hostile environment, Olvera said.
Arie Cantaneda, of North Albany, attended the rally with her husband, Martin, and their two children. She said they were writing postcards to their senators thanking them for their efforts. She said it was important to bring her children to the rally to teach them empathy.
“It’s so plain and simple but most people don’t see it that way because in this area you can go your whole day without interacting with anyone different from yourself,” she said. “So your world is so narrow and so small that your perspective on things is so limited.”
Martin said it felt like they were fighting for the soul of the country.
“These aren’t rapists and murderers,” he said. “They’re families seeking freedom, and we’re separating and jailing them and treating them like animals. It’s awful.”
Kristin Ostrom of Corvallis, who attended the rally, said the United States must follow the law of asylum, which is a protection granted to refugees who have entered the country and who fear persecution in their home countries.
“When you fear persecution, you fear for your life, you ought to be able to come to a country and that country accept you and you be safe with your children,” she said. “So children are being traumatized in their own country and then coming here and being traumatized again. Our country’s policy is to traumatize children for their own political gain.”
Lillian Schrock covers public safety for the Gazette-Times. She may be reached at 541-758-9548 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @LillieSchrock.