Hundreds of protesters picket Pence at Philly fundraiser, decry family separations

Hundreds of demonstrators assail vice president over policy of splitting up undocumented families at border.

Updated: 10:56 p.m.

Roughly 1,000 people, many carrying signs and pushing kids in strollers, descended on Rittenhouse Square Tuesday night, to protest a federal immigration policy of separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Coordinated on Facebook by the Youth Caucus of America and seven other groups, the gathering drew from a wide swath of the Philadelphia region.

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“What’s happening at the border is appalling and what’s happening to those kids is a crime,” said Beth York, who lives in Cheltenham and works in Center City. She carried a sign made out of a manila folder that read “STFU About Family Values Forever.”

Precious Bonney said reports of family separation spurred her and her 14-year-old daughter Faith Dempsey to come.

“I heard about it on the news a few days ago … and honestly, I went to my mom and cried about it,” said Faith. “If I saw my brother, and he was over there and my mom was over here, I couldn’t deal with that.”

Inside the Rittenhouse Hotel, Pence was scheduled to speak alongside Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner at a high-dollar fundraiser held by the Republican Governors Association. RGA spokesman Jon Thompson declined to reveal the cost of tickets to the event, but reports have said donors were asked to contribute up to $50,000.

Demonstrators brought children’s shoes and lined them up around one corner of the park, symbolizing the more than 2,000 children separated from their parents over the course of six weeks as a result of a new federal “zero tolerance” policy for unauthorized border-crossers.

Under that policy, which had been rolled out slowly before a formal announcement by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Department of Homeland Security officials are criminally prosecuting all parents who cross the border with their children with the crime of illegal entry. Because children cannot be detained with their parents during this process, the government is separating them and putting the children into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

In recent weeks, the sights and sounds of these separations have led to increased attention and pressure on federal officials to end the practice.

At the Philadelphia protest Tuesday, many signs and chants referenced images of kids in large wire pens that resembled cages. Irene Lane, who identified herself as a grandmother from Springfield, Pa., balanced a birdcage on her head, containing two stuffed animals with President Trump and Vice President Pence’s faces on them.

“I wanted to give politicians … a taste of what it would be like to be in a cage,” she said.

Over the loudspeaker, local immigrants rights organizers implored attendees to lobby for policy changes closer to home, as well as ending family separations. Jasmine Rivera with the Shutdown Berks Coalition called for local government officials to end an information-sharing system between Philadelphia and federal law enforcement, called PARS; to ban ICE from municipal buildings; and to shut down a family immigration detention center in Berks County.

“Fear doesn’t just live in detention, it lives with every one of our undocumented brothers and sisters,” she said. “When they walk out the door every day, they don’t know if they’re going to see their children again.”

Later, the crowd in Rittenhouse Square thinned, growing angrier and younger. Protesters surrounded a silver law enforcement vehicle, linking arms and blocking its movement. Police on bikes scuffled with protesters, taking one person away with his hands behind his back. Philadelphia Police say that person was arrested for disorderly conduct, was processed and released with a citation.  They did not discuss the vehicle involved, saying it belonged to the Secret Service. Some eyewitnesses said a different protester had slashed the vehicle’s back tires.

After police freed the car, they pulled back and demonstrators marched towards Broad Street, blocking the thoroughfare in front of Union League of Philadelphia, a private social club. After three and a half hours, a few dozen remaining demonstrators headed back to Rittenhouse Square, to clean up any remaining shoes.

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