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House Democrats try civil disobedience to protest Trump’s family separation policy

Democrats blocked off an entire street. Police didn’t arrest them.

Ella Nilsen/Vox

A group of eight House Democrats had every intention of getting arrested while protesting the Trump administration’s family separation policy on Wednesday.

But no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t seem to get led away in handcuffs.

“We are violating the law, clearly,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez. “I have never seen a violation of the law, and the police let the lawless just do nothing. They’re ashamed of themselves, and they won’t take action.”

Gutierrez and chair of the House Democratic Caucus Joe Crowley led their colleagues Reps. John Lewis, Pramila Jayapal, Jan Schakowsky, Al Green, Raúl Grijalva, Judy Chu, Adriano Espaillat, and Jimmy Gomez, as well as hundreds of immigration activists, in a peaceful demonstration on the steps of the US Customs and Border Protection building in Washington, DC — the headquarters of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They sat down and wouldn’t budge.

Actor John Cusack even showed up and called President Donald Trump a “fascist.” Activists held a moment of silence, and sang, “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

Try as they might, the police did not take them into custody. The minutes ticked by, as police guarding the Department of Homeland Security building stood still, apparently due to a Customs and Border Patrol policy of not arresting members of Congress.

The protest is one of many that are popping up around the country to bring increased focus to the new Trump administration policy of family separation. A group called Families Belong Together plans to hold more protests on Thursday around the country.

As Vox’s Dara Lind explained:

To be clear, there is no official Trump policy stating that every family entering the US without papers has to be separated. What there is is a policy that all adults caught crossing into the US illegally are supposed to be criminally prosecuted — and when that happens to a parent, separation is inevitable.

Children are kept in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services — often in warehouses and jail-like conditions — until the government can figure out what to do with them. The children are supposed to be released to parents or family members, but that’s increasingly difficult as parents are detained and family members who are undocumented are reluctant to come forward and claim children for fear they’ll be deported.

There have been more and more stories of young children being separated from their mothers, who have no idea if — or when — they’ll see their children again. It’s something Democratic lawmakers have been speaking out about increasingly in the past few weeks, and Wednesday‘s protests showed a number of House Democrats taking direct action. Democrats have also introduced bills to try to stop family separation, but those bills are likely to go nowhere under the Republican-controlled Congress.

During Wednesday‘s protest, as House members linked arms and blocked off 15th Street, Crowley collapsed in the street due to heat exhaustion, but recovered at a nearby restaurant.

Gutierrez and other activists shook their heads in disbelief at police cordoning off the street and then watching them calmly, in a standoff.

Democrats eventually disbanded but vowed to come back for a future protest.

“During the height of the civil rights movements, we had what we called surprises,” said Rep. Lewis, a civil rights icon. ”We’ll come back, whether it’s here, on the Hill, or someplace else, on the borders, wherever! We will come back with greater determination. We will have a victory for the children, for the mothers, and for our country.”

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