Photo: Denise Civiletti

Hundreds of North Fork residents gathered in Greenport Saturday for a rally in support of the #FamiliesBelongTogether day of action — a day that saw tens of thousands of people at more than 700 rallies across the country protest the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy and separation of migrant children from their families.

Residents, wearing white for solidarity and holding signs with messages condemning the administration’s policies, crowded the waterfront Mitchell Park in the blistering mid-day heat, as about a hundred more sought shelter from the sun in the shade of the long pergola behind the carousel.

Signs and speakers alike condemned the administration policies that have separated more than 2,000 children from their families at the Mexico-U.S. border.

“Leviticus 19:33 states, “When a stranger resides with you in your land you shall not wrong them,’” Rabbi Barbara Sheryll of the North Fork Reform Synagogue in Cutchogue said. “‘The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens. You shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’”

Sheryll called for immigration reform with the passage of effective yet “humane and compassionate” laws that protect the nation and at the ame time protect children and asylum-seekers.

Social worker Tehmina Tirmizi recalled the 1983 film “El Norte,” which she said her Spanish teacher showed to her class in seventh-grade.

“It stuck with me forever,” Tirmizi told the crowd. The Oscar-nominated independent film tells the story of two indigenous teens who flee ethnic and political persecution during the Guatemalan Civil War in the early 1980s. It portrays their arduous and dangerous journey to “the north” as well as the difficulties of living as undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

“In this chaotic political climate… it still is with me,” Tirmizi said.

“No one leaves their home country unless violence or turmoil is too graeat for them to bear,” she said. “No one looks forward to a harsh journey that leaves many of our immigrant friends vunerable to discrimination, low wages and distress. We all need to raise our voices and stand together for these families.”

Retired American Baptist Rev. Margaret Cowden made a passionate and eloquent speech about the intersection of religion and politics in America.

“I was dismayed by the attorney general smugly quoting scripture to defend the utterly indefensible policy of zero-tolerance and the deplorable practice of spearating families seeking asylum,” Cowden said. She was referring to Attorney General Jeff Sessions on June 14 citing the letter of the Apostle Paul to the Romans “and his clear and wise command … to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.”

“My outrage was both as a citizen and as a Christian,” Cowden said.

“It is appropriate for people of all faith traditions to turn to their own scriptures for guidance. But when holy scriptures of one tradition are used in a multi-ethnic, multicultural, multi-faith nation as a weapon to justify inhumane actions and policies, the wall of separation between church and state is breached,” Cowden said. “And I would suggest that that is the only wall we need to protect our national safety.”

Cowden said she recognized the bible Sessions was quoting did not “recognize the God” he referred to.

“He must be talking about a different God, a God who does not weep at the sound of children crying for their mothers or pleading for their poppas. That is not the God I know,” Cowden said.

“If you think the denial of due process for those powerless immigrants represents no threat to our freedom, history has taught otherwise,” she continued. “I never thought I’d live to see hints of some of the cruelest moments of our history repeated or to hear the blasphemy of the same words of scripture used by slaveholders to justify the evils of slavery used to defend the abuse of immigrant children and parents,” Cowden said.

“As a citizen I say, not in my name. As a Christian I say, not in the name of my God,” she said to applause.

“We cannot grow weary of speaking truth to power. We must hold each other up and sustain each other for the long struggle ahead. We must be the voice for the voiceless. We must be the conscience of leaders who have lost their way. We must light the torch of lady liberty and uphold the promise she has held for the world since she came to our shores.”

Greenport Village Trustee Doug Roberts, who founded One Greenport, said everyone acknowledges that U.S. immigration policy is a “broken system” and needs to be fixed by Congress.

“But using helpless, innocent children as collateral in this effort is depraved and disgraceful,” Roberts said.

He reminded the crowd gathered for the rally that, while their numbers were many, they were speaking out for many, many more members of the communty who “might be afraid to speak for fear of retribution or who worry they might be the next ones ripped from their families.”

“This policy of ripping children from their families has brought great shame to this country I love,” Roberts said. America is better than that, he said. “We must work together to regain the moral authority we once had We must restore America as the beacon of light in the world, protecting the most vulnerable and offering asylum to those fleeing from horrific terror in their homelands. And most importantly, we must remember that families belong together.”

Roberts led the crowd in singing “God Bless America.”

The crowd also sang “We Shall Overcome.”

Poetry Street cofounders Robert “Bubbie Brown” of Riverhead and Susan Dingle of Cutchogue recited original poems about the border crisis and its impacts on families.

The event was hosted by North Fork Spanish Apostolate and organized by Sr. Margaret Smyth and Dr. Carolyn Peabody of Orient.

Riverhead Antibias co-chairs Constance Lassandro and Noreen LeCann attended the rally as did a contingent of about 20 Riverhead residents who are members of the Indivisible North Fork group.

One member, Steven Kramer of Riverhead, said with the level of dependence on immigrant labor for the functioning of the local economy, residents, business owners and officials across the East End should be supporting immigrants “in the interest of the East End, even from the perspective of self-interest,” he said.

“From a human perspective…Well, that answers itself.”

The survival of local journalism depends on your support.
We are a small family-owned operation. You rely on us to stay informed, and we depend on you to make our work possible. Just a few dollars can help us continue to bring this important service to our community.
Support RiverheadLOCAL today.

Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.