Marilú Fructuoso wiped a tear from her eye as she talked about the mothers she met at the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor crying for their children.
An immigrant from Mexico, Fructuoso said she came to the U.S. 12 years ago to give her children a better life. Today, she volunteers with the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership to help unauthorized immigrants who have been detained gain their freedom.
Fructuoso said she has witnessed firsthand how the Trump administration’s new “zero tolerance” immigration policy has split families apart.
“There are children that are as young as 2 and 5 years old that (their mothers) can’t find,” she said in Spanish. “I see the pain in their eyes and in their hearts.”
Fructuoso was among the thousands of people who crowded the south steps of the Capitol on Saturday in one of the largest demonstrations to date in Austin protesting family separations at the border.
“An event like this is important so that the voices of the people in the community reach to the very highest places, to the congressman, all the politicians, to the president, even as high as heaven,” she said. “So that everyone will be able to see even if they are just sitting in a chair that this is what people want.”
The rally, called Families Belong Together, was one of more than 700 held across the country Saturday, including an anchor event at Lafayette Square in Washington.
The event was organized by the Children’s Defense Fund and more than 40 other groups. It called for an end to the zero tolerance policy, which promises criminal prosecution for anyone who enters the country illegally.
Since the policy was announced in April, thousands of children have been separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, spurring widespread backlash that prompted President Donald Trump last week to sign an executive order ending the separations. A federal court ruled that all separated families must be reunited within 30 days, something administration officials say might not be possible.
“There are still hundreds of families with no access to attorneys who have no idea when they’ll see their children,” Zenén Jaimes Pérez with the Texas Civil Rights Project said at Saturday’s rally. “When the cameras go away, politicians leave and start talking about something else. We need you with us.”
Protest organizers put out a national call to action for people to volunteer and vote.
“We are not free until all of us are free,” said Valeria Serna, who was separated from her brother after escaping violence in Mexico. “I encourage you to enter into difficult conversations with your people, educate with fire, resist respectably, make people too uncomfortable to not take a side, foster bold leadership, sit uncomfortably with your own words and actions, be the radical change that we all now must relentlessly seek.”
Austin Mayor Steve Adler and City Council Members Sabino “Pio” Renteria, Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo and Greg Casar, all of whom visited a detention center in Tornillo on the border last week, showed up to show their support.
The rally drew several people who said they don’t usually attend protests at the Capitol, spurred to action after seeing families split apart in a wave of activism supporting immigrants unseen in recent years.
“I think it’s weighing heavy on anyone who is a parent right now,” said Stephanie Reyna, who went to the rally with her husband and two children. “Because all they can think about is, ‘What if that was me? What if that was my child?’ I can’t imagine the trauma, the terror, the nightmares it would cause.”
More than 7,000 people said they’d attend the rally at the event’s Facebook page, and organizers estimated 10,000 people showed up. Many flooded the grassy lawn outside the Capitol, carrying signs that read “Abolish ICE” and “Keep Families Together,” and listened to the nearly two dozen speakers and musicians playing protest songs.
“If there were 2,000 kids of Americans being held in another country, we would probably be bombing,” said Mark Gronquist, a father of two. “I don’t really see how this makes any sense at all, holding innocent kids hostage. It’s just immoral on so many levels.”