When people ask me when I’m going retire, my answer is always the same: About 15 minutes before I’m dead. I turn 70 this year, and I’ve been working in D.C.—always for tips—since I was 12. My first job, at the concession stand at Arena stage in the early ‘60s, was one of the better ones. My bosses were kind, and I got to watch the shows that came through town. By the time I got my second job, my wages were 66 cents an hour—not exactly the stuff nest eggs are made of.
Six decades later, I’ve watched this city get burned down and built back up. The Petworth row house I grew up in, on the corner of Upshur and 7th, now costs 75 times what it did when I was a kid. I’ve gone from concessions to catering, from cheap hole-in-the-walls to high-end establishments. I’ve always liked puzzles, and that’s basically what serving is: you need to make sure all the pieces—the people, the staff, the meals, the timing—fit together. The prize for solving that puzzle, day after day, has crept up to a minimum wage of $3.89, plus tips.
Get TalkPoverty In Your Inbox
Even with tips, that isn’t enough to live on. Many of the places where I’ve worked have found ways to cut into our paychecks, taking a percentage off the top. Some people in the city still made good money working for tips, but a lot of us really struggled. That’s why I pushed for Initiative 77, which would raise the tipped minimum to match the actual minimum wage, to pass. It’s why I was happy when it did, and it’s why I’m so frustrated with the D.C. City Council now.
Last week, City Council Member Jack Evans—who represents the Ward where I go to work every week—introduced a bill to repeal Initiative 77. No compromise, no discussion, just a one-page bill to block the ballot initiative from ever becoming law. Even though the city voted for it overwhelmingly. Even though the slogan on D.C. license plates is about how often the city doesn’t get that chance (“No Taxation without Representation,” it reads). Even though the people who voted for it are also the people who stand to benefit the most: We’re more likely to be poor and black, and to live in the parts of the city where poverty is still rising. Even though the rest of the city is getting richer. Even though one of the Mayor’s signature agenda items is giving black workers a fair shot. Even though all we’re hoping for is a law that would mean we don’t have to worry about how to pay the bills if the rain or the heat keep people inside.
It’s hard to imagine what my life would have been like if I’d had that kind of stability for the entirety of my 58 years as a server. Maybe saving for retirement wouldn’t have been such a luxury. But it’s not just about me. I, along with a majority of DC voters in 7 out of 8 wards, support Initiative 77 because I feel like I have an obligation to leave the industry better than I found it, to make things a little easier for the folks who come up after me.
People don’t get many chances to have their voices heard in a public way
The obligation to make things better for the next generation isn’t mine alone—City Council shares it. In the District, people don’t get many chances to have their voices heard in a public way. When I started working, city residents had just won the right to vote for the president—almost 200 years after the county was founded. D.C. still doesn’t have a say in Congress, and Congress can still overturn our laws when they feel like it.
To see the city council robbing residents of an explicit expression of self-governing feels like a betrayal. I believe that all of us, no matter the position we hold, have an obligation to try to make things better for the future. If you serve in public office, that responsibility is even greater.
It doesn’t have to be hard. Voters already told you what to do. Initiative 77 asked a question and the voters gave a resounding answer: yes, all of our residents deserve a stable, living wage. Now you just have to listen.
UNITED STATES - JULY 17: Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, right, and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, conduct a photo-op in Russell Building before a meeting on July 17, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
By now, most of Supreme Court Justice Nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s decisions and speeches have been pored over by both advocates and reporters. But comparatively little attention has been paid to a posture that has defined Kavanaugh’s legal career: a consistent willingness to side with the rich and the powerful over the most vulnerable members of society.
While retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy generally has a pro-business voting record, he has often broken with the conservative wing of the court on civil rights cases and issues of environmental law. At times, this led Kennedy to rule in favor of civil rights and against powerful interests.
Get TalkPoverty In Your Inbox
With Kavanaugh, there are few exceptions to a reliably anti-worker and anti-consumer record. In an analysis of 286 opinions authored by Kavanaugh as a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals judge, Adam Feldman of Empirical SCOTUS found that Kavanaugh has “written almost entirely in favor of big businesses, employers in employment disputes, and against defendants in criminal cases.” In fact, according to a leaked document obtained by POLITICO, the Trump administration recently asked corporate interest groups for help with Kavanaugh’s confirmation, circulating a document touting that, “Kavanaugh helped kill President Obama’s most destructive new environmental rules” and that he “has overruled federal regulators 75 times on cases involving clean air, consumer protections, net neutrality and other issues.”
One of Kavanaugh’s recent decisions, for example, concerned the constitutionality of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), an agency created in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis that has resulted in nearly $12 billion in relief for consumers who were duped by banks or credit card companies. Kavanaugh found that the entire CFPB was unconstitutional, and even questioned a Supreme Court ruling from 1935 that upheld the constitutionality of independent agencies. His decision was overturned two years later by the full court, who called Kavanaugh’s ruling “a wholesale attack on independent agencies…that, if accepted, would broadly transform modern government.”
In case after case, Kavanaugh exhibits a preference for the more powerful party.
And in 2012, Kavanaugh dissented from a D.C. Circuit decision finding that the State Department had inappropriately fired an employee based solely on her age. Kavanaugh argued that the State Department’s decision did not constitute age discrimination. Even though the agency itself did not dispute the reason for the employee’s termination, Kavanaugh said it was “not a close call.” As the majority wrote, “the necessary consequence of the Department’s position is that it is also free from any statutory bar against terminating an employee…solely on account of his disability or race or religion or sex.” In other words, Kavanaugh’s ruling would have also allowed the agency to discriminate against people with disabilities, racial and religious minorities, and women.
And Kavanaugh’s most prominent positions—his decision to block an unaccompanied young immigrant woman from having an abortion immediately or his criticism of John Roberts’ decision upholding the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—would disproportionately harm low-income people. The most frequently cited reason among women getting an abortion is that having a child “would interfere with school, work or other responsibilities, and that they could not afford a child.” Indeed, when women are denied abortions, they are more than three times more likely to experience poverty two years later. And the antipoverty effects of the ACA are undeniable. Medicaid—which the law expanded—is one of the most effective antipoverty programs in the country, reducing child poverty by 5.3 percentage points. And although the uninsured rate has increased slightly since Trump took office, it is still significantly lower than before the bill was passed.
But perhaps no decision better illustrates Kavanaugh’s ideology than this: in an incident made famous by the documentary “Blackfish,” Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau died after being attacked by a killer whale—making her the third Sea World worker killed by the same whale. When the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Sea World $75,000 for safety violations, the company appealed to the D.C. Court of Appeals, where Kavanaugh served. The panel upheld OSHA’s fine, but Kavanaugh dissented. In his view, “Many sports events and entertainment shows can be extremely dangerous for the participants.” But, he reasoned, society should not “paternalistically decide that the participants in these…activities must be protected from themselves.” Kavanaugh’s position would undermine the entire foundation of workplace safety regulations.
As Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgressnotes, Trump delegated the task of identifying Supreme Court nominees to the rightwing Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation, organizations that have made it their missions to dismantle federal regulations—everything from labor law to consumer protections to environmental rules. Kavanaugh’s record suggests he would do just that.
In case after case, Kavanaugh exhibits a preference for the more powerful party—whether corporations, agencies, or the criminal justice system—over the less powerful—whether consumers, workers, or victims of pollution.
That alone should give every Senator pause before they vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination.
Security personal stand before shoes and toys left at a Port of Entry where minors crossing the border have been housed after being separated from adults, June 21, 2018. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP)
Last Thursday, the sun scorched outside CoreCivic’s detention center in Eloy, Arizona. In the 104 degree heat, dust storms swirled across the road and sky, momentarily erasing the detention center before it appeared again: concrete square buildings, chain-link fences, barbed wire. Several hours after it arrived, a white car emerged from the parking lot. Inside were immigration attorney José Xavier Orochena and his client Yeni Gonzalez-Garcia, free for the first time in six weeks.
Gonzalez-Garcia, 29, is a Guatemalan immigrant who was seeking asylum in the United States when she crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in May with her three children, ages 6, 9, and 11. After surrendering to Border Patrol, her children were sent to Cayuga Centers in New York City, along with 240 other immigrant children who have been separated from their parents. Gonzalez-Garcia was detained separately in Arizona. She first spent time at a detention facility in Yuma, which many migrants call “icebox” or hielera because of the freezing temperatures. After a few days, she was transferred to the detention center in Eloy, a facility with a reputation for violence and assault. Then, on June 28, because of grassroots organizing efforts led by New York writer and mother of three Julie Schwietert Collazo, Gonzalez-Garcia made bond and was released.
Get TalkPoverty In Your Inbox
Just a week before, on June 22, Schweitert Collazo had attempted to participate in a protest where fellow moms and their babies occupied the lobby of the New York City Immigration Court. The event had finished by the time she arrived with her three-year-old, but when she got back into her car and turned on the news, she heard Orochena talking about his client—a woman who was detained in Arizona while her kids were in New York City. Something clicked.
All week, Schwietert Collazo had been working with other area mothers to gather supplies for children being detained in New York City’s Cayuga Centers. At City Councilmember Mark Levine’s office, they filled two rooms floor-to-ceiling with clothing, diapers, Spanish language books, and art supplies. But as a former social worker, Schwietert Collazo understood the importance of working on an individual level.
“The feeling of overwhelm is real,” she said. “Where do we start? How do we penetrate the system? I need to focus on this one thing I think we can do.”
She and her husband decided they would pay Gonzalez-Garcia’s bond and sponsor her in New York City while she completed proceedings to reunify with her children. Schwietert Collazo called Orochena, who picked up on the first ring. “He was floored,” she said. He asked: “There is a group of people who would want to do this?”
Schwietert Collazo created a GoFundMe page and, in less than 24 hours, had raised enough money to cover Gonzalez-Garcia’s $7,500 bond. Just six days later, they have raised $27,064, with 477 people contributing donations. That includes a donation from Schwietert Collazo’s father, a lifelong Republican and former card-carrying member of the NRA, who sent a text from a fishing trip telling her that he would donate when he returned.
Orochena said paying the bond would have never been possible without Schwietert Collazo and her community’s support. Bond for those being held in immigration detention can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $80,000—if it’s set at all. That makes paying bond one of the biggest obstacles facing detained asylum seekers from impoverished countries—which is why it was the first goal of the GoFundMe campaign.
Reflecting on the campaign’s speed and success, Schwietert Collazo said, “We live in this incredible moment where ‘ordinary citizens’ have so many means at their disposal to take action. Crowdfunding really provides an equalizing opportunity for people to be involved.” In addition to the GoFundMe, Schwietert Collazo created a Google form for those in the New York area who wanted to be involved in supporting Gonzalez-Garcia. Another organizer, Meghan Finn, planned Gonzalez-Garcia’s cross-country transportation, which is complicated by the fact that she does not have the photo ID required to travel by plane.
“This also speaks to the fact that we have more power and influence than we allow ourselves to believe,” Schwietert Collazo says. “How can you leverage your community to do something? To not be completely anesthetized by despair.”
* * *
Standing outside Eloy just after her release, Gonzalez-Garcia’s first words were about her children. “I’m just happy I could get out so I can look for my children,” she said. “I feel like my heart had been torn into a thousand pieces when my children were ripped from my arms.”
The experience of being detained only added to the distress of separation. The women held in detention were not allowed to hug one another. Gonzalez-Garcia had not been permitted to change clothes during the 17 days she spent at the first detention facility. When she asked to call her children, an ICE officer told her, “No, there are no calls here.” When she asked another officer about their status, he told her, “You want to know something? You’re going to be deported to Guatemala and your children will be left in the hands of the government.”
In the time she was separated from her children, Gonzalez-Garcia only talked on the phone with them twice. This is in part because of limitations for when calls can be placed in detention, and difficulties connecting with the children’s caseworker. Calls are also prohibitively expensive—Gonzalez-Garcia was only able to call because her family in North Carolina was able to send her some money. The two calls that connected were three minutes each, and on one of them no one was able to speak—the entire family was crying too hard.
Gonzalez-Garcia journeyed to the United States because of poverty and violence in Guatemala. Recent patterns of migration show that many Central Americans—particularly Hondurans, El Salvadorans, and Guatemalans—are fleeing not only because of poverty but extreme violence. “There is a lot of violence in Guatemala. That’s why I didn’t want my children there exposed to the Maras,” said Gonzalez-Garcia. “I told myself, ‘In Guatemala there are no opportunities, there’s no employment, there’s no jobs. I thought, this is the only way I will be able to give my kids a better life, a better future, better education.”
But she had no idea the United States government would take her children from her. “It wasn’t until the moment I went to the detention center in Yuma that I found out they were taking my kids away.” At Eloy, Gonzalez-Garcia stayed in an area called Bravo 400, where she said there were many mothers like her.
Some mothers at Eloy told Orochena that they were told their children were taken to be given showers then never returned, while others were told outright that they were being separated. One mother told him that an ICE officer told her that the immigration judge didn’t want to see her kids and that to get a court date, her children would need to be taken and then brought back—the latter of which never happened.
After four weeks of requesting visits, Orochena was able to see Gonzalez-Garcia’s children at the Cayuga Center on June 27, the day before Gonzalez-Garcia was released. Orochena asked questions to assess the kids’ well being and saw no signs of physical harm. The children were brief, answering most questions with “fine,” but when he told them “your mom is coming,” her nine-year-old girl’s face shifted and she began to cry, wiping the tears before they could fall.
* * *
The following day, when Schwietert Collazo went to the New York Field Office of U.S. Customs and Immigration Service to pay bond for Gonzalez-Garcia, she walked into a room no larger than a walk-in closet. Signs in all-caps warned of one to four hour waits. For her, the process of filling out paperwork and waiting for it to clear took two hours, and the whole time the office buzzed. She was surrounded by people—moms with kids, men, a priest—many of whom didn’t speak English. “They’re sitting there with checks for outrageous amounts of money,” she says. “You just have to wonder: What did those people have to do to raise the money to bond somebody out?”
Schwietert Collazo knows about the ICE and INS system first-hand. Her husband immigrated from Cuba in 1980 as part of the Mariel boatlifts and has spent time in immigration detention facilities. She says her own children—ages 3, 4, and 8—are aware of what’s happening, particularly her eight-year-old daughter. “When the last presidential campaign and election was underway, Mariel was saying, ‘Is Poppy going to be deported?’ [My husband] said to me [when deciding] how far we could go in for Yeni: ‘I’ve been the one in an immigration detention center, and I know how alone you feel. One thing I wanted was to know that people cared.’”
In addition to supporting Gonzalez-Garcia, Schwietert Collazo hopes that this process can provide a template for those who want to help families being detained. “The most important change is going to happen on the micro level, and then you scale it,” she said. “We can help this one family reunite and have a semblance of a life while they go through this difficult time.”
Immediately after being released, Orochena took Gonzalez-Garcia to get new clothes. Then she began her cross-country trek with the help of a community of nine drivers, most of whom are involved in immigrant rights organizations, who have split the drive into legs ranging from 4.5 to 7 hours. She arrives in New York City today, where she will be greeted by supporters. An apartment is ready for her in Queens, and the community has organized to get her other items she needs, like a pre-paid phone.
In response to the support she has received, Gonzalez-Garcia said, “Thank you, thank you so much. I won’t be able to pay you all back, but you’ll receive blessings from God.”
When Orochena was at Eloy, he met with five other women who he had been referred to by Gonzalez-Garcia. “One parent doesn’t know where her child is, which is a huge obstacle, to get through the tape and find them. One parent has been detained for two months without a bond. Another’s bond is twice as much as Yeni’s at $15,000,” he said.
One woman he met with has a five-year-old child who is also at one of the Cayuga Centers. Schwietert Collazo says, “She is likely to be our next priority.”
Grassroots organizing efforts continue on three fronts, she says. The first is to ensure support for Gonzalez-Garcia, the second is work on bond and reunification of the next person. “The third piece,” Schwietert Collazo says, “is to finalize a replication document for all these people who are talking about wanting to do something similar and providing with everything learned as part of the process.”
Correction: The article originally misstated the ages of Gonzalez-Garcia’s children.
WASHINGTON DC, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, UNITED STATES - 2018/06/21: Approximately 400 Poor Peoples Campaign participants marched to the U.S. Capitol to protest the Trump administration and congressional policy against immigrant children and families. Over 100 people were arrested. (Photo by Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
At the National Mall in Washington on Saturday, two huge banners hung on either side of an elevated stage, framing the Capitol building in the background: fight poverty not the poor, they read. That was the central message of the thousands of people who cheered, yelled, chanted, danced, and sang in support of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
Over the past 40 days, more than 2,000 people have been arrested across the country as they demanded a right to adequate food, housing, health care, education, fair wages, and other basic necessities. They stopped traffic, petitioned state legislators, and engaged in other organizing and nonviolent direct action in 40 states and the nation’s capital. Many of those activists were on hand on Saturday to mark the completion of the campaign’s first phase as it continues the work that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others who founded the original Poor People’s Campaign in 1968.
Get TalkPoverty In Your Inbox
In the crowd, signs identifying contingents from at least 20 states were visible. Representatives from another 20 states identified themselves in a roll call on stage. Every region of the nation was well-represented, including by indigenous people from tribal lands. People came from as far as Alaska. “You are the founding members of the 21st century Poor People’s Campaign,” the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, co-chair of the campaign, announced to the crowd. “This is not a commemoration of what happened 50 years ago—this is the re-inauguration.”
A goal of this contemporary movement is to flip the dominant narrative of poverty in America from one that demonizes the poor to one that questions the morality of current public policy and the elected officials who craft it—a status quo in which 140 million people struggle to make ends meet, 54 million people work jobs below a living wage, 14 million are on the verge of not being able to afford their water bills, 4 million are homeless, migrant children are caged at our border, and black families continue to be ripped apart by mass incarceration.
The Nation spoke with some of the activists who came to Washington this weekend and who now plan to carry on the work of the Poor People’s Campaign for months and years to come. They are at the forefront of this decentralized movement, which emphasizes state-based campaigns led by directly impacted people.
LOUISE BROWN, CHARLESTON, SC: 49 YEARS FIGHTING FOR BETTER WAGES AND A UNION
Louise Brown, 83, is a bridge between the original Poor People’s campaign and the current movement. In 1969, she was one of 12 African-American women who were unjustly fired by Charleston’s Medical College Hospital after they tried to meet with the hospital’s director about higher pay and racism toward black workers. Their dismissal ignited a strike that lasted 140 days and brought in allies from the Poor People’s Campaign, who were redeploying after Resurrection City on the National Mall—among them were Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
Four hundred workers—most of them African American—refused to return to their jobs until management reinstated the 12 workers and recognized their union. They didn’t get the union, but they did hold out and march with thousands of people—including some doctors—until they broke the hospital president who had said he wouldn’t rehire the “uneducated women.” Brown and her colleagues returned to their jobs.
“It was very hard, very tiresome,” said Brown, who had three young daughters at the time. The family was kicked out of their apartment and Emanuel Church provided them with shelter. “Forty-nine years later, I see the same thing that happened then is happening now—even worse,” Brown said prior to Saturday’s rally on the mall. She points to workers’ needing two jobs just to make rent, record corporate profits while wages remain stagnant, and a dwindling middle class.
Those concerns led her to get involved with McDonald’s workers in their Fight for $15 campaign, and then the Poor People’s Campaign. While Brown said her experiences and treatment in 1969 were based on her being African American, now she says, “Everybody is being mistreated—overworked and underpaid. Seven dollars and twenty-five cents an hour—how can you live?”
“This fight is so different—people of all colors, all walks of life are participating in this,” said Brown.
Brown was arrested on a 100-degree day in June in Columbia, where the South Carolina Poor People’s Campaign delivered a set of demands at the governor’s mansion. “I went to jail in 1969 and I went to jail in 2018,” said Brown. “I’ll do whatever it takes, so long as it’s nonviolent. I’m staying until victory is won.”
AMY JO HUTCHISON, WHEELING, WV: BUILDING A COALITION OF MOMS TO PROTECT THE SAFETY NET
Amy Jo Hutchison, 46, has lived in West Virginia her entire life and “never spent a day out of poverty on some level.”
“Unemployed poverty or working poor,” she said. “And when I was unemployed, SNAP [food stamps] helped me feed my kids. You just can’t do it without the safety net sometimes.”
A single mother of two girls, ages 14 and 11, Hutchison has a bachelor’s degree and previously worked as a Head Start teacher. She is now an organizer for Our Children, Our Future, which is spearheading a campaign to end child poverty in a state where about 30 percent of children under age 6 live below the federal poverty line. Hutchison does some lobbying and policy work at the state level, but said her “passion is organizing low-income moms.”
“They have it in them,” Hutchinson said. “Sometimes people just need someone to say, ‘Hey, I believe in you. Let’s do this together.’” Her work organizing directly impacted people to protect the safety net was a natural fit with the Poor People’s Campaign, which is focused on breaking through historical racial divides that have kept white people in poverty from working with people of color in poverty. “Politicians have set it up to keep us pitted against one another—from Jim Crow on,” said Hutchison. “To change that you have to have boots on the ground—have conversations and establish relationships so you can begin to say, ‘Look, we’re all in the same boat.’” These conversations include Trump voters, who she says believed him during the presidential campaign when he said he was bringing coal back. “Since I’m directly impacted I can go in there and say, ‘I know what this is like, and we’re being hoodwinked,’” said Hutchison.
Hutchison organizes in 20 of West Virginia’s 55 counties, and her approach is to find a contact who can get her “a foot in the door” in a new community. Her goal is to set up a meeting with five mothers, which will lead to a referral and another meeting with five more, and so on. It’s a model that has helped the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign establish a formidable presence at the state capitol over the past six weeks, as residents fight to protect a safety net that is under constant threat.
Earlier this year, the governor imposed work requirements for food assistance, despite the state’s own study suggesting that it doesn’t help workers find employment; during a nine-county pilot project, there was also a spike in demand at food pantries. But recently, with the help of low-income mothers testifying at the state capitol, the legislature raised SNAP eligibility from 130 percent of the poverty line to 200 percent.
“That was a huge win,” Hutchison said. “With that we bring in thousands of working poor to make them SNAP-eligible since they aren’t paid enough to make ends meet.”
Now Hutchison has her sights on working with the Poor People’s Campaign on voter registration and mobilization, continuing to grow the coalition of mothers, and resisting the latest proposals from congressional Republicans to cut food assistance, children’s health care, and repeal the Affordable Care Act.
GG MORGAN, HARLEM, NY: HOMELESS AND FIGHTING FOR HOUSING AS A HUMAN RIGHT
In December, GG Morgan read an article about Reverend Barber and the new Poor People’s Campaign. She was familiar with him from his remarks at the 2016 Democratic Convention, and knew of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work on the original effort in 1968. The revived campaign was timely: She’d become homeless for the first time about six months earlier and moved into a women’s shelter in Harlem, where she still resides today. She signed up to get involved.
“I’m one of 89,000 people in shelters in the state,” said Morgan, who described her age as around 50. “Rents are skyrocketing, and every time you turn around there are more luxury condos going up, but nothing that’s affordable.” She said people of color and the working poor are being “pushed out and priced out” of their communities in what she calls “the worst housing crisis since the Great Depression.” A recent study indicated that in 2016 more than half of low-income households in New York City spent 30–50 percent of their income on rent.
In February, Morgan helped launch the New York Poor People’s Campaign by sharing her story at a press conference in Albany, and helping to deliver a letter to elected officials about poverty and voter suppression nationwide. She told The Nation that although she was new to activism she “long had a heart for justice.” Prior to becoming homeless, she would frequently visit shelters to serve meals. Seeing people sleeping in the streets, or on benches, or in the subways deeply affected her. “But I never thought it could be me, until it became me,” she said.
Morgan is now an organizer with Voices of Community Activists & Leaders (VOCAL-NY), a statewide membership organization that helps build power for low-income New Yorkers impacted by HIV/AIDS, mass incarceration, the drug war, and homelessness. A lot of the group’s work overlaps with the work of the New York Poor People’s Campaign. “We’re trying to get homeless people to know that they have a voice,” she said, “and when we go to Albany where decisions are made and money is allocated we can voice our opinions and share our stories about what is happening.”
Morgan said the housing solutions she and the campaign are focused on include raising revenue by closing the carried-interest loophole, a tax break that benefits millionaires and billionaires, and a new Home Stability Support grant that would help people make rent.
“Working people, poor people need decent housing, decent education, decent wages, decent health care—is that asking for so much in the richest nation?” said Morgan. “This Poor People’s Campaign—a call for moral revival—is what’s going to get the heart and soul of America back.”
In the months ahead the campaign will pivot to power-building, voter registration, voter mobilization, and, as necessary, civil disobedience. The activists have already made their presence felt in 40 state capitals and the District, becoming what they call “a new, unsettling force.”
This is exactly where the organizers hoped they would be just 40 days in. As campaign co-chair the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis put it, “When we look at the history of social change in this country, it’s when those that are most impacted band together with clergy, moral leaders, and other activists—and commit themselves to being the foundation for larger scale transformation—only when you start there can you see real justice coming into society.”
This article was produced in partnership with The Nation.
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JUNE 19: A young girl rests on her mother's shoulder as they wait in line to enter the San Francisco office of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on June 19, 2018 in San Francisco, California. Hundreds of protesters staged a demonstration outside of the ICE offices in San Francisco against the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy to separate immigrant families at the border. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
“Tell them not to hug,” Antar Davidson’s supervisor shouted at him. “Tell them not to hug!”
Davidson, 32, was employed as a youth care worker at a Tucson shelter run by Southwest Keys Programs, the organization contracted by the federal government to house immigrant children across multiple states. His job was to assist with the approximately 300 immigrant children, ages 4 to 17, living there.
As the only staff member fluent in Portuguese, he had been called in to translate for three recently-arrived Brazilian siblings ages 8, 10, and 16. The siblings were distraught. They hadn’t slept since they arrived at the shelter that morning, and staff had told them that their mother had disappeared. In Brazil, those who are “disappeared” are abducted from their homes and never seen again. They were terrified. Davidson addressed the oldest brother, “You have to be strong.” Weeping, the boy responded, “How?”
Get TalkPoverty In Your Inbox
These three children were among the more than 2,300 separated from their parents between May 5 and June 9. They are caught up in the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which separates children from their parents in order to criminally prosecute all adults who are caught crossing into the United States, even those exercising their legal right to seek asylum.
After Davidson refused to order the siblings not to embrace, he says his supervisor began to yell instructions at them in English and Spanish. According to facility policy, the siblings were then split up into different areas because of their ages and genders. When Davidson asked a case manager where the children’s mother was, she said she didn’t know, wouldn’t know for a week, and that it would be another week to speak with her. Two weeks later, on June 12, Davidson resigned.
* * *
Davidson had been seeking post-college employment when he interviewed and subsequently began work at the shelter in February. Inspired to work there because his father was an immigrant, Davidson proposed teaching a capoeira course. Posters on the walls read: “We are all humanitarian heroes.” Davidson says, “They have a progressive corporate culture they present. They make you feel like we’re a humanitarian organization.”
The Estraya Del Norte shelter on North Oracle Road in Tucson is unremarkable in every way. Painted beige, the squat building blends into a strip of old motels, many of them abandoned. Tucsonans likely pass the building every day without noticing or wondering who is inside. When organizers and activists finally learned there was a detention facility for immigrant children in their own community, they came together to form the Free the Children Coalition.
Last week at a coalition-led rally, several hundred protestors gathered in front of the Tucson federal courthouse with markered signs reading: “Morals Over Profit,” “We Will Not Abandon Our Children,” and “Where’s Our Humanity?”
Isabel Garcia, board member of humanitarian organization Derechos Humanos and a longtime immigration attorney, called the policy of family separation “the lowest of the low.”
“We’re here because we allowed it,” she said. “What are we going to do moving forward?”
* * *
In 1924, Congress first passed legislation criminalizing illegal entry or re-entry, but over time, the prosecution of border-crossing has varied widely.
“There is no precedent for systematically prosecuting adults for illegal entry or re-entry if they came over with a minor child”
Border communities like Tucson have felt the impact of increased border policing in more recent years. In 2010, Arizona passed S.B. 1070, which required law enforcement officers to determine the immigration status of detained or arrested individuals if officers have “reasonable suspicion” they might be in the country without status. (The Supreme Court later struck down much of the law, and narrowed this specific provision.) Operation Streamline, a program begun in 2005, brings 70 migrants accused of illegal entry or re-entry before a federal judge almost every weekday. If migrants plea guilty to illegal entry, they are sentenced to time in detention but receive a misdemeanor rather than a misdemeanor and a felony for border crossing. In some courtrooms, prosecution of all 70 defendants, who appear before the judge seven at a time, takes as little as half an hour.
But American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Billy Peard, who has been meeting with immigrant parents held in detention in Eloy and Florence, Arizona, says, “From what I can tell, there is no precedent for systematically prosecuting adults for illegal entry or re-entry if they came over with a minor child.”
* * *
Davidson said the atmosphere at the shelter became “more intense” and “more authoritarian” after Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ “zero tolerance” announcement in May. Previously, he said, many Guatemalan children who came to the United States without their parents were prepared to enter a shelter. “They were very compliant, they kept their heads down.” But then under zero tolerance “kids started coming in who didn’t know the drill, who were ripped from their parents. Laws were rolling out differently day to day,” Davidson says. “If case managers didn’t understand, you can imagine what kids didn’t understand.”
“You know that audio clip everyone’s listening to of kids’ crying?” Davidson says. “That’s something we were experiencing every day—those were the sounds of the evening as we were preparing to go home.”
Two days prior to the arrival of the Brazilian siblings, three kids ran away. Davidson witnessed the most acute behavior from children referred to by staff as “of tender age,” those under 12. Kids ran around, cried through the night, and hit teachers. One child demonstrated problematic sexual behaviors, grabbing at his teachers’ genitalia. He was 6.
“I call it a triple threat of trauma,” Davidson says. “Escaping traumatic experience in their countries, becoming traumatized entering, and then again in facilities. When you combine that with underpaid and untrained workers, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
The short- and long-term health consequences of separating children from their parents were confirmed by Dr. Eva Shapiro, a Tucson pediatrician of over 40 years. “A parent’s role is to mitigate these dangers,” Shapiro said. “Robbed of that buffer, children are susceptible to learning difficulties, depression, and chronic conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, heart disease, and other chronic diseases.” She continued, “Officials at the Department of Homeland Security claim they are acting to protect the best interest of minor children, but the White House and Department of Justice have vocally supported the idea of family separation as a deterrent to keep migrant families from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.”
“The trauma for these kids and parents is going to be lifelong”
Last week, Tucson mother Daisy Pitkin awakened when her 3-year-old son cried out from a nightmare. After consoling her child, she sat on the edge of his bed as he fell back asleep and nearly had a panic attack. “I thought: What would happen if nobody came?” she said. “What would happen if a stranger came? That’s happening to children right now.”
Pitkin was one of 17 parents who brought their small children to a “Play Date” last week at Republican Rep. Martha McSally’s Tucson office. She said that contacting elected officials is “a foundational democratic act,” and that the parents’ chief objective was to find out the Congresswoman’s stance on the separation policy. For an hour, parents read stories, led children in songs, and helped kids make art.
When parents asked staff to call her D.C. office or try to reach the Congresswoman on her cell, their requests were denied. Staff told constituents that the office had two caseworkers: one for veterans’ issues and one to handle housing issues of elderly constituents. “When we asked what happens if one of her constituents comes asking about immigration, they said, ‘We don’t have anyone here who can talk about that,’” Pitkin said.
Another organizer and mom, Margot Veranes, said staffers asked why the group didn’t make an appointment or come when Congress wasn’t in session. “We don’t feel that this can wait,” Veranes said. “This needs to stop in the next five minutes ’cause every moment it’s happening to a new child—and the trauma for these kids and parents is going to be lifelong.”
In response to the “Play Date,” Congresswoman McSally’s chief of staff released a formal statement accusing the group of being led by “radical activists” and breaking into the office. “Events like these distract from the many issues our country faces and make it harder for our community to come together to address them,” the statement read.
Veranes, whose children are 6 months and 2 years old, argues that this is exactly the issue our country needs to address. “We’ll try anything to make this stop,” she said. “We have the luxury of being parents who are unified and we stand in solidarity with parents who don’t know where their kids are.”
The office handed out opinion forms, which many parents and some children filled out. One, from a 10-year-old, read: “Please try to stop this. It’s really wrong.”
On Wednesday, President Trump signed an executive order purporting to end family separation that in reality just opened the door to the mass and prolonged incarceration of children along with their families—and potentially simply delaying family separation. This policy also contradicts a 1997 federal court decision that children accompanied by their parents cannot be held for more than 20 days. Moreover, the Trump administration has no plan to reunite the thousands of children whom it previously took from their parents.
“There will not be a grandfathering of existing cases,” said a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.
One of the Tucson Play Date organizers, Reverend Alison Harrington of Southside Presbyterian Church, a mother to 4- and 6-year-old daughters, explained the new policy this way: “What the president said is ‘We won’t separate families, we’ll incarcerate them.’ My hope is that this is a moment of awakening for many people so they can begin to see what’s truly happening in our nation.”