By Will Roper
June 29, 2018

Over 2,000 children of migrants illegally crossing the Southern United States border have been separated from their families and detained since May of this year.

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions adopted a “zero-tolerance policy” on illegal border crossings in April, families apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were separated into different detention camps as both a deterrence tactic and as punishment. In his own words, Sessions proclaimed, “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”

The national outcry over the imprisonment of migrant children illegally entering the United States has been enormous. People across the country have seen shocking images and heard chilling audio of children in cages isolated from their families, and an empathetic wave of support through social media, donations and rallies has put a spotlight on a human rights disaster happening within our own borders.

Many in Nebraska have learned about the detentions, with immigration rallies already occurring in towns like Kearney, Grand Island and Lexington. However, on Saturday, June 30, rallies all across the country will come together in protest of current immigration laws in a movement titled “Families Belong Together.”

Lincoln will have its own rally this Saturday on the northside capitol steps, and there are already hundreds of people scheduled to attend. The rally will feature prominent speakers in the community and will run from 10 to 11 a.m, possibly going to 11:30 a.m. if the crowd is large enough.

Samuel Sowl, who is the outreach coordinator of Nebraska’s grassroots group for Families Belong Together, said the rally will have a clear focus.

“We are solely focused on making our speakers voices heard, and trying to calm this conversation down and make it a more human one,” Sowl said. “There are real lives at stake here. This isn’t politics. This isn’t some game to the rest of the world.”

According to Sowl, rallies happening across the country are all connected under this common goal, and their support is with any grassroots group anywhere in the world that organizes and stands up for children.

“We are treating every rally that’s happening right now, as long as it’s peaceful, as a sister rally to us,” Sowl said. “Every group is just a group of volunteers right now. We all have our own jobs, we all have our own families right now, but we know this is more important than all of that.”

Listen to the segment about Saturday's rally, which first aired on the June 28, 2018 edition of KZUM News.

With experience in administration and writing, Sowl said one of the reasons he got involved with the event was to provide the group with energy and a spokesperson. What started off as bringing water to different events quickly snowballed into talking with press, organizing events and spreading the word about Families Belong Together.

“I’ve worked as an administrative assistant for three years, and I had an interest in writing prior to that,” Sowl said. “This is a good use of skills at a time like this.”

The passion that fuels Sowl’s outreach stems from news he’s read about the separation of children from their families, as well as audio and video recordings of detention centers that he said really turn the issue into a human one – not a political one.

“This is a very complex issue, but it’s also a human issue,” Sowl said. “I’m not at liberty to discuss the person who contacted me, but I can say that an immigration lawyer reached out through a friend of a friend to let us know of the story of a woman in Guatemala who was raped and beaten by her husband. She scraped up every penny that she had to come to this country to make a better life, and we betrayed that for her.”

Sowl said that, while people know and talk about how the U.S. immigration system has been broken for many years, there’s now a new layer.

“The point is that we have a verifiable face of the movement to say, ‘OK, these are the real lives impacted right now,” he said. “These are the children being held against their will. These are the parents that are in terror of getting deported right now while we’re all squabbling about the politics of who’s right, who’s wrong [and] who’s on the right side of this. We should all be on the right side of this. This is not a Republican issue, [and] this is not a Democratic issue. This is an American issue, and it’s inspiring to see that the heartland is not about hate. This is more than us.”

Lauren Dale, event coordinator and one of the leading organizers for Lincoln’s Families Belong Together movement, agrees.

“It continues to blow my mind that this is something people are divided on,” Dale said. “I think we’re so used to being politically divided that almost any issue now has to be one side or the other. This, out of anything, is something that everyone can come together on.”

Dale, who’s a mother from Lincoln, student at SCC and UNL, and works in public transit, said she got involved when she saw the picture of the little girl alone crying that has become an iconic image for the separation of migrant families.

“I was looking around online trying to find any [events], and there was nothing going on,” Dale said. “It was really shocking, like, ‘Why is nobody doing anything. Everybody’s just sharing these articles and being upset about it but it’s not translating into any real action.’”

Dale said there will be multiple speakers at the rally, and while she said some are still being contacted, many prominent voices are scheduled to attend. Those scheduled to speak are local chair of the Native American caucus Mechelle Skywalker, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party Jane Kleeb, psychologist and Vietnam veteran Dr. Marty Ramirez, Nebraska author Mary Pipher, local activist Elsa Ramon-Moody and a group of local DACA recipients.

“It’s going to be a really awesome, diverse group,” Dale said. “Lots of different walks of life. Everyone’s really excited to get involved.”

With the rally being held on the capitol steps, Dale said the group led by Sowl has extended invitations to any state senators who would like to attend or speak at the event. While many senators have given positive support to the cause, Dale said there has been silence from some legislators.

“Sam [Sowl] is compiling a list [of senators] so that we can really see who is fighting for this with us and who needs a little bit more coaxing to get into the cause,” she said.

One of the most important goals of the rally, according to Dale, is getting local senators to see this cause and to show how much people in the community care about this issue. She said true action can happen once lawmakers get involved.

“It’s easy right now to say, ‘Well, this is a federal issue and we can’t really do anything about it,’” Dale said. “But regardless of any direct power that we might have, it’s important to stand up for what’s right and do anything that we can.”

Both Sowl and Dale are relative newcomers to activism and organizing events, but with an issue so personal and heart-breaking, they said anyone with enough passion and energy can organize and lead their own rally.

“I would love to stay involved,” Dale said. “It is a huge commitment of time and energy, especially when you’re so passionate about it. It takes up so much of your thoughts. But I think that is the really cool thing about grassroots organizing, is that next time I can help out in any way possible. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a leadership role. It’s always worth it. The only other option is staying home and not doing anything, which probably feels way worse. I would encourage anybody who wants to get into it to just do it.”

Sowl agrees, and said the one thing people can do that will affect change is to start real conversations.

“Just talk to somebody,” he said. “Go out, find somebody you disagree with and talk to them face to face like this. I can tell you all of this over text, but it’s not going to have any inflection, [and] you’re not going to hear the emotion in someone’s voice if you read a tweet somebody’s wrote or a Facebook rant somebody’s made. Just go out and talk to somebody. Show them the videos, show them the camps, show them the news footage. There’s plenty to be angry about, but we have to direct that anger toward something more positive and long-term.”

Will Roper is a multimedia intern with KZUM.