WASHINGTON — Herminia Gallego and Gerardo Torres have seen so many friends and family arrested on immigration charges that the Arizona residents decided it was time to take action – by getting arrested themselves.
They were among the 32 protesters arrested Monday outside the White House at a rally urging President Barack Obama to use his executive power to halt deportations of all immigrants, while immigration reform is debated in Washington.
“We want to send a message to this president that we are all equal human beings,” said Torres, a Phoenix resident for the past 20 years. “Deportation is tearing families apart and needs to stop.”
The protesters, who prayed and chanted “not one more deportation” outside the White House, want the president to defer deportations of all immigrants as he did two years ago for immigrants who were brought to this country illegally as children, the so-called DREAMers.
But critics, who said the president was wrong to defer deportation of the DREAMers, said he would be wrong to listen to Monday’s protesters.
“It’s not logical to insist that the president should not enforce the law,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Mehlman said the law is being broken already, since Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act but the president “has already been selecting DREAMers to not deport.”
But the protesters said that the current situation is tearing families apart. Torres called Monday’s protest a chance to speak up for his friends and family who have been deported.
Obama, who was not in the White House but in California on Monday, made immigration reform a priority in his State of the Union address, calling on Congress to act. The Senate passed a comprehensive reform bill last summer but that bill stalled in the House, where leaders recently unveiled principles for reform but called passage this year unlikely.
The protest began across the street from the White House in Lafayette Park, where demonstrators gathered before marching across Pennsylvania Avenue carrying signs and banners decrying deportation. They chanted “2 million is enough,” a reference to the nearly 2 million people they say have been deported under the Obama administration.
Gallego was handed a megaphone and began talking in Spanish about the plight of her family as she choked back tears.
“Half of my family has been locked away from me,” Gallego said through a translator. “I have not seen my daughter in five months.”
Gallego said she has been living in Mesa for nine years and wishes to continue living there but fears deportation.
The crowd then stepped on to the sidewalk by the White House fence where 32 chose to remain, despite repeated warnings by police that protesting there was illegal and that they would be arrested if they did not move.
The protesters stayed. The police arrested them, taking their protest signs one by one, handcuffing them with zip ties and walking the compliant protesters away in a lengthy process that gave passers-by a good look. The other demonstrators went back across to Lafayette Park and continued chanting sporadically.
Those arrested included immigrants like Gallego and Torres as well as clerics in their religious garb and some senior citizens. While the protest aimed to raise awareness of the issue, Mehlman said he thinks it could backfire.
“I think the more people who become aware of this protest, the more people are going to realize the importance of enforcing the law,” Mehlman said.
But Torres said he hoped the rally would succeed.
“I came here to do civil disobedience peacefully and I think it will send a message,” he said.