Thousands of unionists rally in Philly against Trump’s family-splitting
Union members and community supporters march down Chestnut Street in Philadelphia in support of immigrant families. | Emma Lee/

PHILADELPHIA—Keyri Hernandez takes a big risk when she and her two brothers go to school five days a week. She says ICE agents could grab them and deport them back to Mexico, where they might wind up dead.

That’s because Hernandez, two of her brothers and their mother have been living in sanctuary in a Philadelphia-area church for the last nine months. But the kids must leave for school daily, she adds.

The Hernandezes are shielding themselves from the GOP Trump government’s deportations of migrants who cross the Mexico-U.S. border, seeking refuge, or, in their case, asylum. They have good reason for sanctuary, too: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents grabbed the oldest brother, Fidel, when the family crossed three years ago.

“The agent said he was an adult and sent him back,” Hernandez said. “He was 12.”

“We decided to seek asylum because we can’t go back to Mexico,” the 13-year-old told the crowd of thousands of unionists gathered in a downtown Philadelphia park on the banks of the Delaware River. “Our lives would have been in danger due to the violence of organized crime. But the judge denied it,” she said of the asylum request.  Denials are a Trump policy, too.

Thousands of other parents and kids aren’t so lucky, Hernandez told the mass rally, which drew unionists from as far as Boston, Washington and Baltimore and union leaders all the way from Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

The several thousand union members included a plurality from Unite Here, augmented by contingents from the Painters, the Laborers, Electrical Workers Local 98, AFSCME District Councils in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, Teachers (AFT), Teamsters, and the Food and Commercial Workers. All converged on the City of Brotherly Love to protest Trump’s inhumane splitting of parents from kids as young as babes in arms once they cross the Rio Grande.

Speaker after speaker took the stage, or told People’s World in interviews, that they would not quit the fight until the deportations of migrants stop and until Trump stops yanking babies out of their mothers’ arms.

Under its “zero-tolerance” policy for migrants at the Mexico-U.S. border, Trump administration Border Patrol agents took some 2,500 children, including dozens who were literally still nursing, from their parents. Despite federal court orders to reunite the families, hundreds remain split.

As one African-American pastor and lawyer put it, in a talk before the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in Philadelphia, Trump is “kidnapping” children.

“I work and study alongside immigrants” at the Philadelphia Airport and in classes at Temple University, said Brooke McGlade, a Unite Here Local 274 organizer. “I believe they have the same rights I have,” she declared. Her local, aided by its parent union and the Painters, put together the Philly rally, before the others joined in.

“There’s a lot of nasty rhetoric about immigration,” McGlade added, without naming names. “But there are a lot of toddlers in cages. And on the job, I’ve seen how they’re exploited” through heavy and ever-changing schedules and bosses’ threats to workers to shut up or “be hauled off” by ICE.

“I never thought our government would have the guts to separate families” added IBEW Local 98 retiree George Bellwoar. His activism against the Trump policy won’t stop with the August 15 rally. Local unionists staged an August 16 protest at ICE’s family detention center for migrants in suburban Berks County. It’s one of three such centers, with both mothers and kids, in the U.S. The aim of the protest, repeatedly chanted at the Philly rally: “Shut it down!”

“We’re a 10,000-member local that’s primarily immigrants – hotel workers, food service workers, gaming workers,” Brian Lang, president of Unite Here Local 26 in Boston, told People’s World. “This issue resonates with our members in a deep way.” His local has been working locally and nationally on the immigration issue for two decades.

Its impact showed up in its contingent, too. Local 26 initially planned for one bus to take members to Philadelphia. It wound up “hiring two buses and a van and we had to turn people away,” Lang said.

“America was built on immigrants,” declared Raphael Vargas, a Painters Local 21 organizer in Philly. “Everybody wants to come here for a better life – and we want to give everybody that opportunity,” first by letting them in the U.S. and second by joining the union, he said.

“Educators in Philadelphia are literally on the front-line” of the problems the migrant families face, because they have to deal with kids suddenly split from their parents, explained Max Rosen-Long, a member of a “reform caucus pushing for more social justice issues” within the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. He’s also part of a citywide Immigrant Justice Working Group.

“We’ve built relationships with community groups and convinced the school district to do citywide training on how to deal with the issue” of Trump’s splitting of migrant families, Rosen-Long added.

Migrants to the U.S. come for very legitimate reasons, said Unite Here Vice President Maria Elena Durazo, a longtime leader on immigrants’ rights, and former Executive Secretary of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

“If you’re a mon or a dad or a grandmother or a grandfather, wouldn’t you protect your children and grandchildren from rape, forced conscription” into criminal gangs “or even death?” she asked. “Family is the reason we’ve got to work every single day” until the Trump policy of splitting kids from parents, and its deportations of migrants, completely stops.

The union leaders who spoke from the stage, along with progressive Philadelphia Mayor Jim Tenne (D), who had strong labor support to win the office, pulled no punches. They hit at Trump, his officials, or both. “This is a moral issue,” one Laborers official declared.

Ken Rigmaiden, president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, speaks to union members in support of immigrant families. | Emma Lee/

“The Trump administration policy is crap and we’re not going to take it any more,” said Unite Here President D Taylor. “The policy of zero tolerance is immoral and Trump should be in jail for it.”

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said it’s not just the president. It’s his whole administration: “Somebody in the federal government needs to pay the price and needs to go to jail for inflicting this pain and suffering on these families who are coming to America. In Pennsylvania, child abuse is a crime.”

AFSCME’s state and local social workers and day care workers “see the impact of Trump’s policies” of yanking kids from parents, “which is immoral and wrong,” union Secretary-Treasurer Elissa McBride said. “A decent society does not traumatize children or treat people like caged animals.”

Added state AFL-CIO President Rick Bloomingdale: “Caging kids has never been an American value,” although one later speaker – in front of ICE’s offices – reminded the crowd kids were put in cages when the U.S. enslaved African-Americans. Trump, that speaker said, is taking us back to that time.

The rally and march to the ICE offices ended with the moral component against Trump’s policies. A rabbi read from the Torah (Old Testament), quoting God’s injunction to treat strangers as you treat yourselves “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Another speaker read the final words of Dr. Martin Luther King’s great speech at the 1963 March on Washington.

Still another read the preamble from the Declaration of Independence, written blocks away from the rally site at Independence Hall. Another cited the African-American poet Langston Hughes. But the one that held the crowd rapt – even as helicopters buzzed overhead – read the culmination of The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus’ poem, now inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.