NEWARK, NJ - More than 500 protesters descended on downtown Newark to protest federal immigration policy, calling for an end to child and family detention.
The protesters marched Wednesday morning from the Abbey Church of St. Mary's in Newark to assemble in front of the local office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the corner of Broad and Walnut Streets in Newark. The demonstrators, led by Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, spoke out against policies that they believe exacerbate the problems with America's immigration system, not ameliorate them.
"Today, I decry the treatment of children who bear the trauma wrought by immigration enforcement raids, separation from their families, and indeterminate detention. These draconian measures are not a solution to our broken immigration system," said Tobin shortly before six protesters who had laid down in the middle of Broad Street were taken into police custody. "They are violations of human dignity, and are contrary to all religious teachings and the sacred call to care for our most vulnerable populations."
The protest had a distinctly Catholic undertone. A variety of local and national Catholic groups participated in the protest, including priests, nuns, and social justice advocates, as part of a national effort to combat the Trump administration's immigration detention efforts.
Several Catholic clergy members based in Newark noted the importance of carefully considered immigration policies that meet the needs of their congregations.
"This is a city of immigrants, and if you deny your history, it leads you down dark alleys," said Father Edwin Leahy, headmaster of Saint Benedict's Preparatory School, which adjoins St. Mary's Church. "These policies, which have affected people who have been here for years and years and have contributed to society, as well as what they are doing to very young people, are wrong. We're a school of immigrants that shifted from Germans to Irish to Italian to African-Americans. We want to continue that tradition."
"We have to speak for the voiceless. It is an injustice that these children are suffering," said Father Bismarck Chau, pastor of both St. Patrick's Pro-Cathedral and St. John's Church in Newark, who was born in Nicaragua. "My parishes are full of mostly immigrants, and they always have been. I can relate to the discrimination that many immigrants have suffered being one myself. Immigration is not going to be stopped. We need to find better solutions."
Angela Lopez, an immigrant from Honduras, brought home to the crowd the real need for solutions. She held on to her three grandchildren as she waited to hear about the fate of her daughter, who had previously been deported, returned to America to reunite with her family, and was inside the building talking to ICE officials.
"Her fate is really in the hands of God, and ICE officers," Lopez said through a translator. "She's been able to open up a construction company while she's here. As she's navigating the immigration system, she's doing everything she can to have her paperwork in line."
For some protesters who were prepared to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience to make their point, the demonstration hearkened back to another turbulent time in American history.
"Sometimes, simply speaking and writing is not enough. If I have to break the law to try to communicate to people the inhumanity of locking up immigrant children when they come to our country, then I'm ready to make that stand," said Doug Hostetter, a member of Pax Christi International, a global Catholic peace movement organization. "It's been 45 years since I was arrested during the Vietnam War. And now, we've reached another moment where the things the U.S. government is doing is so much against international human rights law, the teaching of all of our faith traditions, and our common humanity. People of conscience have to stand up and say no."
A line of protesters eventually blocked traffic in both directions, with one group forming a human cross in the middle of Broad Street while wearing photos of young children who have died while detained by immigration authorities. One of these demonstrators was Jacqueline Small, a New Jersey native who was one of the six people taken into custody by Newark police.
"I hope this will raise the awareness around the country for voting on new policies and for new politicians in the coming election cycle," said Small, a young Benedictine sister whose grandfather drove a NJ Transit bus through Newark for 25 years. "It does scare me to possibly get arrested. But it's worth it. We have to let these immigrants know that we care."
According to Newark public safety director Anthony Ambrose, the six protesters who were taken into custody were ultimately not arrested, but only given summonses.
“We are not going to tie up resources to help these protesters draw attention to themselves," said Ambrose. "We’re out protecting our neighborhoods and citizens.”
The neighborhood and citizens of Newark will continue to feel the weight of America's immigrant conundrum. Some protesters decried the Essex County government's contract with ICE, which, along with other North Jersey counties, has generated millions of dollars from detaining immigrants in its county jail.
Back at St. Mary's, one of the oldest Catholic parishes in Newark, a service held in advance of the protest served as a reminder that when it comes to controversy over immigration, it's déjà vu all over again.
"After a homily I gave recently about the Good Samaritan [in regards to immigration], a number of people got quite upset with me and said that subject is not for church," said Father Dennis Berry, noting that the original St. Mary's Church had been destroyed in 1856 in an attack by members of the Know-Nothing Party, an American nativist political party that was staunchly anti-immigrant. "They saw this question of the immigrant as a political issue. It is a profoundly spiritual issue. It is in a sense the heart of the Gospel for which we're gathered here this day."
"We're ultimately placing all of our most precious values in jeopardy. We're here to say to immigrants that we're with you, we recognize you, and we love you," said Cardinal Tobin as the bells of St. Mary's pealed at the start of the protest. "We remember that the first church on this property was destroyed by an anti-immigrant mob. We welcome diversity because the church was born in diversity. We see no threats from a welcoming approach to immigrants and a rational reform of the immigration laws."