Protesters in Southwest Florida demonstrated Tuesday afternoon, at events in Bradenton, Cape Coral, Naples and Sarasota against the Trump administration’s treatment, detention and family separation of migrants at the U.S. southern border. The protests were among nearly 200 similar events taking place across the country.
In Cape Coral, about 50 protesters chanted and marched outside U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney’s, R-Naples, office in Cape Coral carrying signs reading “Kids don’t belong in cages,” “Close Homestead,” and “Love, not hate, makes America great.”
Activist, combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient Robert Hilliard was among them. Hilliard’s efforts in World War II led to President Harry Truman ordering an investigation that led to a reversal of a U.S. policy of neglect when it came to Holocaust victims.
“I worked with survivors of the concentration camps helping save thousands of lives and there were children involved,” said Hilliard.
“And I saw their faces at that time and they pleaded. They begged, ‘Please let us come to a country where we can have some semblance of a life.’ I see those same faces today in the children at the border camps.”
Former Administrative Law Judge with the New York City Office of Administrative Hearings and Tribunals Arlene Gilbert now lives in Pine Island. She organized the protest through the group Pine Island ROAR (Resist, Organize, Agitate, and Rise Up). The doors to Rep. Rooney’s Cape Coral office were locked and none of the demonstrators got inside, but Gilbert has a message for the congressman.
“He’s a man of faith and I want him to address his humanity and also his oversight responsibilities...He’s got to go in the camps. He’s got to meet with the people who have gone into the camps and figure out something to do to reunite those children,” said Gilbert.
“I would like to see the immigration courts get additional money so they can work to clear these children and find their families. There are so many of these children who are missing and unaccounted for. He’s got to step up to the plate.”
Imam and founder of the Islamic Center for PEACE in Fort Myers, Mohamed Al-Darsani also joined the demonstration. He emigrated to the U.S. from Syria on a student visa in 1982. Al-Darsani said if the Trump administration’s immigration policies had been in place back then, he would not have made it to the U.S.
“This is not something that, as they call it, ‘invasion.’ No, this is something that’s been happening since the birth of this country,” said Al-Darsani. “And unfortunately we are hitting a new low with the actions our administration is taking against those people who are seeking refuge, seeking safety, seeking a chance on life.”
Al-Darsani said his question for Rep. Rooney is “What would Jesus do?”
The protests come one day after a delegation of U.S. House members visited migrant detention centers in Texas, with U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., describing the conditions they witnessed on Twitter as “appalling and disgusting.”
The demonstrations in Cape Coral and Naples targeted Rep. Rooney, while the protests in Sarasota and Bradenton were held outside the regional offices of U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Long Boat Key. In all, 14 such protests were staged at congress members’ regional offices across the state.
Gilbert said Pine Island ROAR is organizing a trip for local members to travel to the child migrant detention facility in Homestead later this summer to protest. The Homestead facility currently houses about 2,500 migrant children and plans are in the works to expand its capacity to some 3,200 kids.
The for-profit center is the largest of its kind in the country. Some federal lawmakers and immigrant rights advocates are calling for the detention center to be shut down, saying it is holding children for too long in "prison-like" conditions.