Protesters outside Rep. Lee Zeldin's office Wednesday. Courtesy Photo

More than 100 people gathered Wednesday afternoon outside Rep. Lee Zeldin’s Patchogue office to protest the Trump administration policy of separating children from parents at the U.S. border.

“We feel so sad and angry at so much injustice, people coming here are not criminals, they just seek a better life, away from violence and poverty,” said CASA-Riverhead community liaison Noemi Sanchez. “The pain is deep and the whole community is together in uniting against what’s happening.”

Protesters representing a dozen organizations — including Indivisible North Fork, New York Civil Liberties Union, SEPA Mujer, OLA of Eastern Long Island, Long Island Jobs with Justice, Empire Justice Center, CASA Riverhead and the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health — and private citizens, parents and faith leaders held signs with messages like “keep families together” and “stop terrorizing immigrants” and chanted “We are the people” and “This is what democracy looks like.”

“We may be thousands of miles away, but we feel as strongly. The community came in force to support immigrants victims of violence and to protest the inhumane policies of Donald Trump’s government,” said Martha Maffei, executive director of SEPA Mujer, a non-profit organization that empowers Latina women on Long Island and the rally’s main organizers.

“The level of cruelty this government has reached is unacceptable and the people are outraged,” she said. “They have dehumanized entire blocs of people and have victimized and caused damage to children and women. The people say enough.”

Courtesy photo

A series of decisions that have greatly impacted immigrants have stemmed from what the administration has called a ”zero-tolerance” policy, established at the beginning of May and reaffirmed earlier this month by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The policy has placed thousands of families and children in a precarious situation between May 5 and June 9, has seen more than 2,300 children placed in detention centers without their parents, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics released Monday.

“There was no plan in place, they didn’t care about the families,” said Maffei. “There is no record for many of these children, we don’t know where they are, when or if they will see their parents ever again and the horror they are enduring is heart-breaking and psychologically and emotionally long lasting.”

President Donald Trump — who on Twitter falsely accused Democrats of creating the crisis — signed an executive order yesterday to halt the separation of children after millions of people pressured the administration to end the policy. The pressure mounted as multiple photos made their way into the media showing children inside the detention centers in structures similar to cages and on thin floor mattresses, as well as audio recordings of children begging and crying desperately for their parents.

“It’s not good policy to separate children at our border from their parents and release them into the US as UACs,” Zeldin said on Twitter, adding, “It’s not good policy to just immediately release an entire family together into the US when that family enters our country illegally.”

Legal experts and immigrant advocates say the new executive order is problematic for reasons that include authorization for the indefinite detention of children with their families, contrary to a court decision, Flores v. Reno or “The Flores settlement,” limiting detention of minors to a maximum of 20 days. The order will likely soon face a court challenge.

Zeldin (R-Shirley) said today he is in favor of detaining an entire family together, but that requires new legislation, which he would support.

“In the meantime, my advice for anyone who doesn’t want to be detained for entering into the United States illegally is to not enter the United States illegally,” Zeldin said.

Courtesy photo

The “zero-tolerance” policy — which the executive order says will continue — automatically charges people crossing the border with a crime. Previously, border-crossers were charged with a civil offense and dealt through the immigration court system, not criminal courts.

“He washed his hands with the order, but what about the thousands of kids already separated?” asked Maffei. “It is a country’s responsibility to take care of the children who are here, regardless of their status, and he cannot violate their rights,” she said.

“It really is quite amazing how many of the people upset about 2k separations under Pres Trump said nothing about 72k separations in 2013 under Pres Obama,” said Zeldin in a tweet. “Regardless, the Flores Settlement requires a change in law & I’m all for getting that done ASAP.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2013 carried out more than 72,000 deportations of parents who said they had U.S.-born children, according to reports the agency made to Congress. Those deportations were of people already living in the U.S., most of whom had criminal convictions, according to ICE reports; they were not people attempting to cross the border.

“This is simply monstrous,” said Maffei. “People need to wake up, stop with the lies and realize this is not about immigration, this concerns all of us.”

Additionally Sessions also announced the decision to deny asylum claims for immigrants fleeing their countries due to domestic violence and gang violence, even if they enter through regular ports of entry at the border.

Immigrant advocates said that the administration is directly attacking families, especially women, with this decision, by turning away victims of violence when they ask for asylum legally and then prosecuting them criminally when they cross the border.

“We used to be a country of values, where we acted with compassion and love, especially when others were suffering,” Maffei said.

Advocates also urged Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act before the end the fiscal year, because they fear that in light of the recent decisions “this would be a third attack against women and children victims of violence.” Sessions, then a senator, opposed the reauthorization in 2013.

Enacted in 1994, VAWA —which provides grants administered through the U.S. Department of Justice and funds programs and resources for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse—is vital to organizations like SEPA, who fight to help these local victims who, many times, are undocumented.

“This is all related, what’s happening at the border, the denying of asylum to victims of violence, and the reauthorization of VAWA,” said Maffei. “Local women and children who are victims of crime already are being affected, we must fight for them.”

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María del Mar is a contributor to RiverheadLOCAL and the editor and founder of Tu Prensa Local, a Spanish-language local news outlet on Long Island. Maria has won several awards for her work, including a first place best column award from the New York Press Association. Email Maria