Hundreds of Lincolnites, many wearing white, crowded the steps of the Nebraska State Capitol in solidarity with immigrant families Saturday.
The event in Lincoln was one of hundreds of Families Belong Together rallies across the nation Saturday, which got funding and support from the American Civil Liberties Union, MoveOn.org, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and The Leadership Conference. The purpose of the rally was to protest the immigration policies of President Donald Trump's administration, and organizers asked participants to wear white shirts.
Lincoln rally organizers estimated that between 600 and 800 people attended, and the crowd was composed of people from many different backgrounds united for the cause, said rally organizer Aida Hickman.
“We are all in it together,” she said. “This is not just Democrats, not just Republicans; we are all united as one.”
Hickman felt compelled to act because of her own experience as the daughter of immigrant parents and a mother of three, saying she couldn’t stand to see recent accounts of children taken from their families as they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
Others voiced agreement with this sentiment, including organizer Lauren Dale, who introduced speakers throughout the rally. Dale said seeing a photo of a young girl crying, which flooded national media, made her think of her own family.
“I pictured my own child confused, in the middle of the night, powerless to do anything to feel safe,” she said. “That girl was not even taken from her mom, but there are at least 2,300 other moments like that that didn’t end so happily. We need to do something about it.”
By “2,300 other moments,” Dale was referring to the number of children reportedly separated from their families in recent weeks.
Tyler Houlton, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, welcomed interest in the immigration system and said only Congress has the power to change the law.
"We appreciate that these individuals have expressed an interest in and concern with the critical issue of securing our nation's borders and enforcing our immigration laws," Houlton said.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration says a ruling this week by a federal judge in San Diego requiring the government to reunite families separated at the border means authorities can legally keep families detained until their cases are complete.
The interpretation means immigrant families could spend months or even years in detention — even those seeking asylum — because of a years-long backlog in immigration court.
The Justice Department has said cases in which immigrants remain detained move through the system quicker than if they are released, but the backlog is still thousands of cases deep.
The Department of Justice said in a court filing Friday that a case known as the Flores agreement allows the government to detain families now that the California judge has barred their separation.
Hickman said the law is overly broad and doesn’t specify when separated families will be reunited.
Rally speaker Marty Ramirez stressed the importance of protecting borders but said, “We can’t be a part of what’s going on,” because current policies are affecting children’s mental health.
Ramirez, who has lived in Lincoln since 1973, said the rally’s turnout is symbolic of changing times.
“Today is kind of astounding because we’ve had these issues for many years, of racism, oppression and discrimination, and the crowds have been so-so,” he said. “But the times have changed. So what we’re witnessing today is a reflection of — maybe Lincoln does care.”
Ramirez was one of a handful of speakers, including Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb and DACA recipients. Ramirez urged participants to continue acting after the rally is over.
Staying involved in local politics is a way to be heard by politicians, said rally attendee Kenny Benton. He has been participating in rallies for almost 50 years and said building a movement is one of the only effective methods to change policies.
So far, at least one lawmaker has responded to grassroots efforts for this cause. District 9 Sen. Sara Howard sent a letter to Nebraska’s Congressional representatives, calling for them to change “treatment of children and immigrant families at our borders.” The letter was signed by 15 Nebraska legislators.