Story by Casey Welsch | Photos by Gabriella Parsons
July 11, 2018
A crowd of around 20 people gathered Friday in the parking lot of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Field Office in Omaha to protest the existence of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their families at the US-Mexico border and shipping them to detention facilities around the country. Dozens of individuals and their families traveled from Lincoln to take part in the protest, which involved holding public space in front of the USCIS facility at 1717 Ave. H E in Omaha, which contains an ICE field office.
“Nebraska families have organized this event in protest of the policies of the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement of detaining, separating and incarcerating migrant families and asylum seekers entering the United States,” said Jason F, one of the event’s organizers, at the start of the protest. “Due process is not enough. We demand that all people currently held in ICE, federal, state and local facilities for the acts of entering the U.S. or seeking asylum be released immediately. We demand that all separated migrant families be reunited. And we demand that all deported family members of minors currently in the U.S. be reunited in the U.S. We’re asking employees and contractors working for and with DHS and ICE to please withhold all material support from these agencies in good conscience with sympathy and empathy to all fellow humans. And we’re calling for the immediate closure of the migrant concentration camps for minors operated by ICE, Southwest Key and other contractors. We call on Governor Ricketts to evict all ICE employees and contractors lending material and technological support to ICE’s operations in the Cornhusker State, effective immediately. We strive for a world where migration is recognized with dignity and respect, where no person is illegal, and where families can remain as they should be: together.”
The protest drew a variety of people from many different backgrounds to stand in the summer’s heat in the mostly empty parking lot outside the USCIS parking lot. Some people brought their children, using the presence of united families to add weight to the group’s demands for migrant family reunification. Young and old were in attendance. Some of the protesters brought instruments and blew playful melodies on clarinet and melodica. A portable speaker blared foreign dance music as children kicked a soccer ball, blew bubbles, hula-hooped, painted faces and chalked the sidewalks. Demonstrators held signs bearing their demands that ICE be abolished.
“ICE is a terrorist organization that is ripping communities apart,” said protester Nikki. Almost everyone in attendance declined to give last names. Some refused to identify themselves at all. “It’s not right, and I want it known that I’m not OK with this.”
Nebraska contains no detention facilities for minors separated from their families at the US-Mexico border, though ICE is active in the state. ICE raids are not uncommon in meat packing plants and other migrant-labor-heavy facilities in cities such as Grand Island and Fremont. Still, accusations of terrorism are hard to make stick, especially to office staff and field workers, as were present in the USCIS building. I asked Nikki to clarify what she meant.
“I believe that ICE agents are misdirected with their intentions,” she said. “I can’t really fathom why anyone would participate in this kind of terror. When you think about what the purpose of ICE is, I believe it’s almost like they’re treating people that are coming to this country to be safe, they’re treating them as scapegoats. I can’t think of a good reason for it. I feel like their main mission is to dismantle any kind of immigration, and it’s sad. Longterm I believe it supports white supremacy, and I know that’s kind of radical, but I don’t see a reason for it other than supporting hate and just making sure that people aren’t coming together.”
The existence of ICE can be traced back to its foundation as an outgrowth of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The federal department consists of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO). Between these two subdivisions, ICE is charged with enforcing more than 400 federal statutes within the U.S., and it also maintains attaches at several key U.S. diplomatic missions abroad. The agency is tasked with “identifying and eliminating border, economic, transportation, and infrastructure security vulnerabilities,” according to its federal mandate, and employs more than 20,000 people at more than 400 offices in the U.S. and 46 other countries. All enforcement activities of ICE are done in response to perceived threats to the national security of the United States. Activities of this nature have included detaining immigrant families in government facilities since the presidency of George W. Bush. Immigration raids, detentions and deportations accelerated to record proportions under the presidency of Barack Obama. Under the Trump administration, it became official immigration policy to separate children from their families after detention at the US-Mexico border, and to house minors in federal detention facilities without any contact or knowledge of their families’ whereabouts, often several states away and with minimal accountability.
Friday’s protest at Omaha’s USCIS facility was a joyful, family-friendly affair. Tigers and rainbows were playfully painted on faces of children and adults alike. The sound of child laughter joined the music as kids and adults danced and chatted peacefully despite the oppressive concrete heat. Inside the USCIS building was a completely different atmosphere.
Air conditioners hummed aggressively, giving the lobby of the federal building an intense chill in contrast to the summer’s heat outside. There was a tangible tension in the air as a wall of at least six local and federal police officers flanked the security checkpoint to get in the building. The federal security workers at the desk were on full alert and not answering any questions at all about ICE or even the function of the building itself. A question as to whether the building had been open that day was referred through several different desks in the building before being referred to an office in San Francisco. A question for comment on what ICE thought of the protest in front of the Omaha building was referred by a local CIS employee to an ICE press contact in St. Paul, Minn., who never responded. The protesters outside the building were concerned, even angry, but the event was held with an expression of palpable joy. Inside the building, there was only fear and loathing for this small, public group of citizens and their children.
“I just want to show support for the families that are separated, and on a bigger picture put the pressure on the organizations and people that are complicit in everything that’s been going on, just in a peaceful way,” said protester Lauren Dale, an immigration protest organizer KZUM News has interviewed in the past who also brought her young son. “Bringing my son kind of helps keep the peaceful vibe going. He’s probably old enough to understand some, but he’s just out here to have a good time with the other families. He’s not trying to protest today. There’s obviously people who care. I think it’s really calm and it seems like just a good environment. I can see some people inside, hopefully they’ll come out at some point and we can talk to them. I’d just like them to reconsider what they’re doing and the role that they’re playing. I don’t want to fight with them, I want to be on their side. We all need to work together. Just making those one-on-one connections makes it easier to get things done.”
Casey Welsch is the host of KZUM News. Gabriella Parsons is a freelance journalist from Lincoln.