Tarina Ahuja is fed up with feeling helpless.
The Madeira School rising 11th grader saw videos of crying immigrant parents and children who had been separated at the U.S.’s southern border on the news one day and decided she had to do something.
After a flurry of brainstorming and texting, Ahuja and her friends Perrin McHugh and Bee Hyland, both rising seniors at the McLean-based private school, came up with the Rally to Reunite, a student-led protest staged on July 8 outside the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Fairfax field office.
“It’s hard to watch the news,” McHugh said. “None of us could vote in the election that elected Trump, and that was really discouraging, but we can do this. We can rally together and we can send a message.”
The Rally to Reunite joined ongoing protests across the country decrying the Trump administration’s ongoing zero-tolerance approach to illegal immigration, which has led to thousands of families being separated after attempting to enter the U.S.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Apr. 6 that Department of Justice attorneys will prosecute all adults who enter or attempt to enter the country improperly, including those with children.
Because a 1997 court ruling known as the Flores settlement prevents children from being held in detention for more than 20 days, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security started detaining parents while transferring their children into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which typically transitions refugees, unaccompanied alien children, individuals granted asylum, and other new arrivals.
DHS press secretary Tyler Houlton reported on July 5 that U.S. Customs and Border Protection saw an 18 percent decline in southwest border crossings over the previous month following the implementation of a zero-tolerance policy.
“The journey north is dangerous and puts individuals in the hands of smugglers and traffickers,” Houlton said in a statement. “We continue to call on Congress to address the crisis at the border by closing legal loopholes that drive illegal immigration.”
President Donald Trump signed an executive order on June 20 directing DHS to keep families together while the adults are detained for criminal and immigration proceedings.
A federal judge in San Diego, Calif., issued an injunction on family separations on June 26, giving U.S. immigration authorities 14 days to return children younger than 5 to their parents and 30 days to reunify all separated families.
On July 9, a federal judge in Los Angeles denied the Trump administration’s efforts to allow families to be kept in federal custody long-term by lifting the Flores settlement’s 20-day limit on the detention of children.
However, logistical challenges have left uncertainties as to how many families were separated and obstacles to promptly reuniting parents with their children.
DHS and HHS reported on June 23 that 2,053 separated minors were in ORR facilities as of June 20, and that CBP agents had reunited 522 children who had been separated from adults under the zero-tolerance policy.
Despite Trump’s executive order and the legal injunction on family separations, HHS Secretary Alex Azar told reporters on July 5 that the U.S. government was reviewing the cases of nearly 3,000 separated children, according to NBC News.
On July 10, the deadline for reunifying children under 5 set by the federal court in San Diego, DHS announced that it expected to reunite 38 children by the end of the day, including four who had already been released to family members.
Verification of the parentage of 16 other children was pending, while the 20 remaining eligible children could not be reunited with family by the deadline, mostly because their parents had already been deported from the U.S.
27 children under 5 had been ruled ineligible for reunification, according to the DHS press release.
Rally to Reunite participants called for federal immigration officials to reunite all separated families and for legislators to develop a more welcoming and humane immigration system.
“When you have a good relationship with your parents, you shouldn’t be separated from them, especially as a young child,” Hyland said. “Online, you’re seeing these reports of 5 year olds being expected to represent themselves in court. It feels incredibly immoral, this particular policy.”
Though most of the people at the rally were the same age as its organizers, some adults also participated, including Fairfax County School Board Providence District Representative Dalia Palchik, who attended with her nephew.
“As an immigrant who spent many hours at immigration offices with my own family growing up, I wanted to show my support for reuniting families,” Palchik said. “I was so happy that my nephew asked to come along, because he too has been worried about young kids separated from their parents at the border.”