While some residents spent Independence Day on Lake Lanier, cooking out at local parks and taking in showers of fireworks across Hall County, others took to the downtown Gainesville square to protest the federal government’s response to the migrant crisis at America’s southern border with Mexico.
“This was the event we wanted to be at,” said Jami Pederson, a Dahlonega resident and member of Indivisible Lumpkin, a politically progressive group that opposes how President Donald Trump’s administration is handling the hundreds of thousands of Central American migrants seeking asylum in the United States.
Pederson said she felt it was important to bring awareness to the “unhealthy, frightening, filthy” conditions of detention camps where migrant families and children are being held.
Trump signed a $4.6 billion aid package on Monday, July 1, to help the federal government cope with the surge of Central American immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Border Patrol made 132,887 apprehensions in May, including 84,542 adults and children traveling together. With long-term facilities for adults and children at capacity, Trump’s administration has said it has to hold people in unsuitable Border Patrol facilities for much longer than the 72 hours normally allowed by law.
Auditors from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general recently visited five facilities and two ports of entry in South Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, where more people cross the U.S.-Mexico border than any other section.
The report details several potential violations of federal law or Border Patrol standards.
Facilities that house detained migrants are vastly overcrowded and advocates and attorneys have decried conditions inside. Border facilities are meant as temporary holding stations, built to hold a maximum of about 4,000 people, but have routinely held as many as 15,000.
And at least seven children are known to have died in immigration custody in the last year. U.S. Customs and Border Protection had not reported a single death of a child in its custody in the previous decade.
Marisa Pyle, of Dahlonega, one of the lead organizers of Thursday’s protest in Gainesville, called for more empathy for migrants and refugees seeking asylum in America.
“Right now in our country, funded by our government, paid for by our tax dollars, there are thousands of living, breathing human beings locked in cages … locked away in concentration camps,” she said, speaking through a bullhorn to a crowd of about 50 demonstrators. “What is their unforgivable sin? They are seeking asylum … a basic human right recognized by U.S. and international law.”
Trump suggested this week that he would continue with plans for a nationwide immigration sweep in July to deport undocumented immigrants and dismissed the conditions that most people seeking asylum in the U.S. face in their home countries. He said they are lodging “frivolous asylum claims.”
But the president’s own views were dismissed by demonstrators in Gainesville on Thursday.
Roger Drake, a Hall County resident who served in the U.S. Air Force, said that asylum claims are not being fairly vetted, which is compounding a growing humanitarian crisis at the border.
“They’re being abused and that’s no way to treat any human being … they are here for asylum,” Drake said of migrants. “Their cases need to be adjudicated. And they should be properly cared for in the meantime. Then they can be deported back to their home country if they don’t qualify.”
Other demonstrators countered perceived criticisms that they should not protest on Independence Day, saying that doing so was in line with the country’s very founding.
Jon Mehlferber, of Dahlonega, said, “The Declaration of Independence was all about protesting what the (British) government was doing. And the people wanted change. So this is an interesting parallel to that. It’s in the tradition.”
Josh McCall, a Gainesville resident who also helped organize the rally, and a former Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives for Georgia’s 9th District, said, “I think that the Fourth of July is the perfect day to protest injustice. On the Fourth of July, a group of seditious and treasonous, armed insurrectionists declared independence from what everybody agreed were the established laws of Britain.”
“The law doesn’t mean justice,” McCall said.
And if it did, he added, Thomas Jefferson may have been sent to the gallows.
“It’s time for America to start listening to the voices of the oppressed,” McCall said.
Kim Copeland, chairman of the Hall County Democratic Party, said the migrant crisis had disheartened him.
“I love America. I love the Fourth of July,” he added. “What I see right now is not America. We should be ashamed of ourselves. I love the promise of America. But this is not the country that I grew up in. This is not the country that I love.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.