WEST VALLEY CITY — As politicians in Washington, D.C. continued to grapple Tuesday with the future of United States border security, a group of Utahns gathered to plan their next steps here on the Wasatch Front.
A rally protesting recent actions by the federal government — including threats from President Donald Trump of mass deportations in the coming weeks and the holding of migrant children in a border detention facility without access to toothbrushes, soap or showers, as reported last week — took place in front of the Homeland Security building in West Valley City.
Emma Ramirez of Provo, one of an estimated 100 attendees, said she went to the rally to get answers to a question that’s been plaguing her since seeing recent reports on the news: What can I do?
"Just seeing all these things and wanting to do something but not really knowing … I was hoping to find local organizations" to get involved with, Ramirez said.
The rally came the same day that Customs and Border Protection Chief Operating Officer John Sanders announced he would step down from his position. Sanders told the Associated Press last week that children have died after being in the agency's care, and said Border Patrol stations are holding 15,000 people. The stations have a maximum capacity of 4,000.
Most of the 300 children held in the Clint detention facility, where the unsanitary conditions were reported, had been removed from the station as of Monday, but more than 100 had been returned to the facility the next day.
House Democrats have proposed a $4.5 billion emergency border aid package that would tighten requirements for the care of unaccompanied children at the border. The White House threatened Monday to veto the bill if it passes, saying the package lacked money for additional beds needed to detain more migrants and funding for the president's proposed border wall.
Against a backdrop of cardboard signs painted with images of infants in cages, speakers at the rally in West Valley City urged Ramirez and other protesters to take action locally, more than 800 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border and more than 2,000 miles from Washington, D.C.
"It is becoming clear that there is only one way for us to combat the state-sanctioned terror of our Latinx brothers and sisters, and that is through a mass, independent people's movement that can fight back," said a spokesman for the Party for Socialism and Liberation, which hosted the event, reading aloud from a prepared statement. "The best time to build this movement would have been many years ago, but the next best time is now."
Between speakers, organizers played a recorded message from an unidentified person who chose not to attend the rally in person because of fear of deportation. The person asked participants, particularly those who were white, to "step up" and take action.
"We don't need any more activists behind a computer screen or activists behind a telephone," the person said."We are past that. We really need people to do something … because most of us (undocumented people) cannot."
What does "doing something" look like in Utah? It could be supporting local organizations that assist immigrants, rally organizers said, or putting pressure on local law enforcement not to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski on Monday reiterated a pledge she made two years ago that Salt Lake City police officers "would not enforce federal immigration policy or inquire about immigration status."
One protester, Kevin Paulson of Taylorsville, said he plans to continue his work registering voters with a local chapter of the progressive organization Indivisible.
"The more people we get to vote, the better," Paulson said, adding, "It's simply unbelievable that people are sitting on the sidelines and are not angry" about the conditions within the border detention facilities.
For rally attendee Britney Vidal, who has close family members who are in the country without documentation, the media reports have struck a personal chord. Vidal teared up while talking about her sister, who was brought to the U.S. as a child and granted residency through the DREAM Act.
"Everyone in my community is scared right now," Vidal said. She said she believes events such as the one Tuesday "bring awareness that there are people in this state, even though it is a red state, who don’t agree with the deportations of people who have been here for 10, 20 years."
Several protesters, such as Grace Benfa of Provo, likened the current state of U.S. border security to historic events, such as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Benfa had previously donated money to groups that assist migrants based in border states, but like Ramirez, wanted to find out what could be done closer to home.
"This is something our history is riddled with and it continues to happen," Benfa said. "There are people here that will not just let something like this happen again."