On Wednesday afternoon, the Main Street sidewalk in front of Congressman Morgan Griffith’s office in Christiansburg was filled with sign-carrying people decrying US policy of separating of children from families as a tool to deter illegal immigration.
The gathering, organized on social media by the community group Indivisible New River Valley, drew an estimated 225 people, many with children, some coming from as far away as Bluefield.
The crowd, which stretched more than a block from the Invision glasses shop, past Griffith’s office to the traffic light on the corner and dotted across the street, was a much larger crowd than recent demonstrations addressing workers’ rights and health care.
“It’s horrible to hold a protest and nobody comes,” Alexa Casey, an Indivisible organizer, said through a bull-horn, “It’s good to have a lot of ‘Likes’ on Facebook, but it’s great to see people’s faces.”
No one in the representative’s office would comment, but the congressman’s public relations officer wrote in an email that Griffith was not surprised at the attendance.
“He is aware that New River Valley Indivisible has a few hundred members and is not surprised they showed up,” Kevin Baird said, although multiple groups took part.
Passing around the bull-horn, people spoke about their own experiences as migrants, professors spoke about the history of immigration in the US, and American strength coming from its connections and alliances.
One read a poem that pointed out that, “No one puts his children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
Although early in the gathering, a speaker announced that moments before, the president issued an executive order to end the separation of families, demonstrators were undeterred saying there was no indication that the executive order would authentically address complex problems of immigration or basic logistical questions around reuniting children and parents pulled apart by this episode.
Even after the announcement, people continued to express worry over successful the re-unification of children with parents and general dismay about the administration’s apparent inability to develop complicated policy and thoughtful, just leadership.
There is currently no protocol to reunify children, some very young, with their parents.
One woman, standing quietly in a pool of shade by the Union Bank & Trust drive-thru held a simple file folder on which she had magic marker’d the word ‘Compassion’.
“As a mental health professional,” she said. “I understand the impact that separation has on families. It saddens and appalls me that this can happen in America…again.”
Several people pointed out their own immigrant experiences.
“My mother was born in a displaced person’s camp in Stuttgart in 1947,” said Erika Meitner, a Virginia Tech professor, “and the US was turning back refugees.” Many of her family died in concentration camps she said. “The trauma is intergenerational and deep.”
Others bemoaned the American reputation in the world.
Cars drove by, some honking support, others not. A black pickup truck waving a large blue Trump banner and playing “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greewood, loudly as several demonstrators yelled “Welcome!” and “Stop! Come talk to us!” It did not.
Susan Olivier, a Blacksburg resident originally from South Africa said that to her friends and family abroad have said that even notorious South African President Zuma “looks better” than the US president.
“Friends and families in other countries, they can’t believe it,” she said tearfully.
The demonstration met for about an hour leaving messages chalked on the sidewalk telling the congressman and passersby that families should be together. The chalk was gone the next day.