Hundreds packed the First Congregational Church of Walla Walla on Saturday to protest family separation at the southern border, as well as the immigration policies of the Trump administration and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE.

People of all ages congregated in the church for the rally, ready to march and bearing signs in opposition of family separation policies.

The rally was one of about 750 Families Belong Together events that took place across the U.S. on Saturday. The rallies were coordinated nationally by MoveOn, a progressive public policy group.

The Walla Walla Immigrant Rights Coalition and Walla Walla Progressives organized the event, which started at 11 a.m. at the First Congregational Church. The rally featured speeches, music and petition-signing, and protesters marched from the church through downtown, chanting slogans.

Walla Walla High School students Keelin Pogue and Andy Schiffer, as well as recent Wa-Hi graduate Emma Case, were also present at the event helping to register voters in advance of statewide primary elections Aug. 7.

Organizers estimated more than 350 people turned out for the event, enough to fill the pews of the First Congregational Church and spill out onto the sidewalk.

“The march was a great turnout,” event organizer Jen Lopez said. “I wasn’t expecting this big of a turnout, and it’s just great to see community support.”

The Rev. Juli Reinholz of Pioneer United Methodist Church, Emma Lopez of the Walla Walla Immigrant Rights Coalition and Mariela Rosas of the Children’s Home Society of Washington all spoke at the rally.

“The criminalization of the asylum process is unconscionable,” Reinholz declared from the pulpit. “I reject any effort to label any human being as illegal.”

Lopez’s speech was delivered without translation in Spanish, and Rosas self-translated from Spanish to English as she spoke. Jen Lopez, who is affiliated with the Walla Walla Immigrant Rights Coalition, also delivered a statement.

The statement, from the Walla Walla Immigrant Rights Coalition, condemned ICE raids as harmful to local communities and condemned the involvement of local law enforcement in ICE operations.

It also encouraged Walla Walla County officials not to put local resources toward federal immigration enforcement by ICE. “The raids sow chaos and distrust across the whole region,” Lopez said. “Local officials shouldn’t aid and abet them.”

The rally follows a June 21 protest also organized by the Immigrant Rights Coalition, which saw more than 100 people deliver letters to U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ downtown Walla Walla office. The protesters urged McMorris Rodgers to take action to end the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy and family separation.

Whitman College professor Aaron Bobrow-Strain, who helped organize the June 21 protest and attended the rally Saturday as a member of the Immigrant Rights Coalition, described the rally and its unexpectedly high turnout as powerful.

“Especially after a week where we really saw that family separation is something that’s happening right here in the Valley,” Bobrow-Strain said, “it was amazing to see so many people turn out.”

The Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg, whose church hosted the rally, said that it was his faith as a Christian that compelled him to be welcoming and understanding to immigrants seeking a new home.

“If we don’t know people, then we can believe any kind of horrible, hateful things that people in power tell us about them,” Mahlberg said. “But it’s through relationships that my eyes have opened to the very difficult realities — violence, poverty, desperation — that lead folks to the very difficult decision to take their chances fleeing north.”

The issue of family separation is ongoing. Two immigration bills that included language to address the issue have failed in the House, and despite an injunction by a District Court judge temporarily stopping the policy, The New York Times reports some 2,000 children remain separated from their families and in federal custody.

“We’re calling on our elected officials to reunite families,” Mahlberg said, “and to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill.”

Cameron Peters can be reached at cameronpeters@wwub.com or 526-8319.

Cameron Peters can be reached at cameronpeters@wwub.com or 526-8319.

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