‘We’re not irrelevant’: Philly seniors say retirement is the best time to protest
Members of the group Elder Witness protested a new rule allowing the Trump administration to indefinitely detain families who illegally cross the border.
Updated 5:07 p.m.
A group of Philadelphia senior citizens opposed to the Trump administration’s immigration policies says retirement is the perfect time of life to take their grievances to the streets — even if it means getting arrested.
Armed with signs and photos of detained children, members of Elder Witness gathered dozens of retirees in front of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Philadelphia field office Wednesday afternoon for the group’s latest public demonstration.
They sang and chanted, “Shame!” as cars passed by.
The group, founded more than a year ago, protested a new rule that would allow the Trump administration to detain families indefinitely if caught illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The rule replaces a previous agreement, the Flores settlement, which limited federal detention of children to 20 days.
“The government cannot be doing this on our behalf,” said Aurora Camacho de Schmidt, 76, a retired Swarthmore College professor. “This is a government of the people, for the people, by the people. You are wrong, Mr. Trump, because most of the people cannot really believe that this is the right thing to do.”
During Wednesday’s demonstration, the group used plastic fencing to cage people wearing Statue of Liberty costumes as they read the stories of children separated from their parents at the border.
‘Something I profoundly believe in’
Lynne Iser, one of the founding members of the group, is relatively new to staging public protests.
She worked in the nonprofit sector for more than 30 years promoting public health and advocating for homeless services, but her primary focus was on raising five children in Mt. Airy.
“You can’t take to the streets or risk arrest if you need to be home to make somebody dinner or pick them up from school,” she said.
Over the past five years, Iser has been arrested during demonstrations at least four times. Last year, she was one of six people with a group calling themselves the “Old Farts” who were arrested and ordered to pay $50 fines after blocking the entrance to Philadelphia’s ICE field office.
While not having to worry about her children or her job has played a role in her newfound activism, Iser said her worldview has also changed in retirement.
“I have more time to perhaps read a paper, read more articles, or talk to friends,” she said, and that has opened her eyes to pressing issues, such as immigration and climate change.
Camacho de Schmidt, a native of Mexico who lives in Chestnut Hill, has been involved in immigrant rights activism since the 1980s as a member of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group that advocates for social justice issues — though her activism was limited during her years as a professor.
Protesting is just one way she enjoys her retirement, she said.
“I do not enjoy it necessarily by going to Miami Beach or to the Caribbean. I am enjoying it by doing something I profoundly believe in,” she said, adding she gets to spend time with like-minded people.
Still, the group has members like Jack Malinowksi, 79, who protested racial segregation as a college student in the 1960s.
Today’s divisive political climate has the West Mt. Airy resident doubling down on his efforts and recruiting people his age to do the same.
“Old people have to show that we’re not irrelevant or that we’re not useless and that we can do things that younger people can’t do who are preoccupied with families and jobs,” Malinowski said.
On Wednesday, Iser said the Department of Homeland Security arrested four of the group’s members for obstructing the entrance of a federal building.
Mark Lyons, Phyllis Berman, Arthur Waskow and Josh Markel were also fined.
And this won’t be the last time you’ll see an Elder Witness protest, Malinowski said.
“We intend to do more, as long as it’s needed,” Malinowski said.
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