Roughly 50 to 60 people stood outside United States Department of Homeland Security buildings on Gannett Drive in South Portland Friday to protest the detention camps and the Trump administration’s zero tolerance immigration policy at the U.S. and Mexico border.
Organized by Maine resident Jessica Stewart of the Catholic Worker Movement, the rally occurred one year after a similar action at the same location when then Attorney General Jeff Sessions came to Maine.
Activists were told early that DHS would not allow them to congregate on the lawn in front of the Customs and Border Protection building. The other two DHS buildings in that area are for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. DHS officers had parked vehicles to block entrance to the lots of all three buildings before protesters arrived.
Roughly 25 minutes into the protest, a confrontation occurred when more than a dozen activists led by Stewart moved into the asphalt driveway of the CBP building toward the entrance. They were met 100 feet from the road by three Federal Protective Service officers, who told them they were on federal property and had to vacate.
“I am staying here until the camps at the border are closed,” Stewart said to the officers, as a tight cluster of bodies formed around her.
“Well, that’s not going to happen,” one officer said.
For the next 10 minutes, officers attempted to clear the group from the location and back toward the street. During one tense moment, one officer wheeled Stewart’s wheelchair up the hill toward the driveway, as others in the group reached out to stop or slow the act, grabbing the wheel of Stewart’s chair. One man, Daniel Burns, laid himself in front of the chair, obstructing the path. Another protester who used a wheelchair was also brought by officers to the street.
Roughly 18 protesters from the group, including Stewart and Burns, then conducted a sit-in in the facility’s parking lot. Officers asked protesters for identification and issued citations for 14 violations for failure to comply with a lawful order, two of them with a mandatory court appearance. The rest of the group — about 25 to 30 protesters — sang songs near the street, at one point holding hands in a circle formation.
“None of this has ever been about our inability to take care of those in need,” said Rev. Dr. Jodi Cohen Hayashida, a minister at the Unitarian Universalist in Auburn. “We are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. This has only been about who is allowed to be here.”
A citation given to one of the protesters included a $130 fine.
In a report from Vox, statistics sent to congressional staff in June indicated that between May 14 and June 13, U.S. Border Patrol facilities were housing over 14,000 people a day — and sometimes as many as 18,000. Around 2,000 of those people were unaccompanied children.
Stewart told be BDN before the rally that the action was meant to highlight the “cruel and unnecessary policies of the Trump Administration at the border.”
“The people being detained at the border have a legal and humanitarian right to asylum,” Stewart said. “Anyone who works for ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and CBP share full accountability. They should not comply.”
Burns, a 59-year-old part-time Maine resident who is also part of Ithaca Catholic Workers, said before the protest that he was given a citation at a similar action alongside religious leaders in San Diego in December.
“As a white male person with privilege, I have a responsibility to my children and the children being held in cages and separated from their families at the border,” Burns said.
“This is an emergency. How would I feel if my children asked me one day what I did to stop this and I told them I did nothing?”
Burns said he did not pay the fine for the action in San Diego.
Minutes before the event, one FPS officer said that he was expecting the protesters, and that he hoped it would go better than last year, when two people were arrested. One of them was Stewart.
“Last year was fine until some knuckleheads ruined it at the end,” the officer said.
“They’re protesting the wrong place,” he said. “They should be protesting Congress. We just follow the rules.”
Asked if DHS agents discuss amongst themselves the current laws enabling immigration and the detention camps, the officer demurred.
“Nope,” he said.
The protest lasted slightly more than two hours. Afterward, many of the protesters headed to a “Never Again” rally at the Maine State Pier organized by Jewish Action Maine.