Even as the heat index climbed into triple digits, a winding crowd of hundreds snaked through the French Quarter and blocked traffic to Decatur Street to call for the reunion of immigrant families and the dissolve of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
New Orleans joined a nationwide protest June 30 to reform U.S. immigration policy in the wake of reports that revealed thousands of immigrant children were separated from their families and warehoused in detention centers after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
The New Orleans event — co-organized by immigrant workers advocacy group Congress of Day Laborers — was among the city’s largest marches and rallies organized by immigrants and undocumented people, leading more than 1,000 people from Armstrong Park to Decatur Street, blocking traffic in front of Jackson Square while issuing calls against President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policies and the law enforcement bodies separating families — on the border and in communities throughout the U.S.
“We should stop saying the system is broken, because it’s not. It’s operating exactly as it was intended to do,” said Congreso organizer Fernando Lopez. “Everyone here should be more than outraged. It’s your government that’s using our money to build concentration camps and detention centers much faster than they ever responded to the crisis in Puerto Rico, Houston and here in New Orleans. … It’s very clear what the priorities of this country are — they’re either putting us in cages or leaving us to die.”
The protests follow Trump’s executive order that ended his mandate to separate children from their families entering the U.S., but it enshrined into policy their detention along with their parents without a plan to reunite the thousands of children living in ad hoc facilities.
Renewed calls to abolish ICE, the 15-year-old Department of Homeland Security enforcement arm, follow a year of spikes in ICE arrests and deportations under the Trump administration. But even with President Barack Obama’s policy of “deprioritizing” many immigration cases to focus on people involved in more serious crimes, countless families have been separated within the U.S. as they’re processed for deportation or held indefinitely in ICE detention centers, three of which are in Louisiana.
Civil rights and immigrant advocacy groups nationwide long have argued for officials to dismantle the agency, but its boost under Trump has inspired more mainstream adoption of the “abolish ICE” tag, from editorial board columns to its inclusion in progressive platforms nationwide.
The march also followed the recent arrest of Nancy Oliva Baca, an organizer with Congress of Day Laborers who was detained by immigration authorities during a routine check-in at the New Orleans ICE office. She now is headed to the LaSalle Correctional Facility, one of three ICE facilities in Louisiana, three hours away from her three young children.
“She was my friend,” Leticia Casildo said. “She was my neighbor. She was part of my community. Our community. … We’re done with complacency. We’re tired of people saying, ‘Well, I believe the right thing.’ It’s time for action.”
Colorful signs dotted the crowd as it moved from its rallying point in Armstrong Park and into the French Quarter, passing Jackson Square and entering Washington Artillery Park as the truck leading the way blared Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” from speakers mounted in its bed.
Organizers also demanded local law enforcement cease its cooperation with ICE — including a call for Mayor LaToya Cantrell to abandoned surveillance measures share data with federal agencies. Congress of Day Laborers’ organizer, who translated for many Spanish speakers, warned that the city’s partnership with predictive policing program Palantir could endanger immigrant and over-policied communities, whether through profiling or in sharing that data with federal agencies.
“Stop the criminalization of poverty,” said Sigal, who also demanded for a fully funded public defense program for immigration detainees and for the city to stop the expansion of the parish jail.
Organizers also called for Jefferson Parish Sheriff Joseph Lopinto to end collaborative efforts with immigration after ongoing clashes with law enforcement in that parish, including the arrests of Sorayda Perez and members of her family, including her 10-year-old son, on June 6.
Within two hours of his arrest during a traffic stop on the way to a CVS drug store in Kenner, Maria said her husband was transferred to ICE custody. “I didn’t even know where to go to get my husband of jail,” she said. “It was too late to do anything.”
He was held inside an ICE facility for two months before he was deported. He died trying to return to the U.S. — “a permanent family separation,” she said.
“He died for a traffic stop,” she said. “My husband lost his life, and his children no longer have a father. … We don’t want arrests for misdemeanor charges in the city of Kenner anymore.”
Jose Torres, a longtime Congress of Day Laborers organizer, sought sanctuary at Mid-City’s First Grace United Methodist Church for seven months after ICE gave him an ultimatum to self-deport, or risk deportation — this week, ICE issued Torres an order of supervision, effectively lifting the deportation threat and giving him another chance to seek his visa as a human trafficking survivor.
Torres fled violence and instability in El Salvador more than a decade ago, traveling by train through Mexico and crossing the Rio Grande into Texas, where a ranch owner forced him to work under threat of revealing his status to law enforcement. Torres escaped to New Orleans in 2005, where he worked in construction following Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures; he is married with two U.S.-born daughters.
“It’s not been easy,” Torres told the crowd on Decatur Street. “I took refuge in that church because it was my last option. I knew I had to keep fighting for my family, for my community and for what’s right. … I was never alone. I had the whole New Orleans community with me.”
Torres and others urged that call to action to expand beyond the Trump administration’s immigration policies and combat policies separating families through mass incarceration within U.S. borders.
While Torres feels some relief to step outside his sanctuary and return to his family, that reunion is only bittersweet if it’s not shared by thousands of other separated families.
“We need to accomplish the same thing for every other detained person and for all families separated at the border and throughout the country,” he said.