ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — Pink bow in her hair, 8-year-old Heather Piña kept her head down as she walked by the front-row pews and past two sitting senators on her way to the podium.
“I don’t feel safe when I say the pledge of allegiance,” said Piña, the daughter of two unauthorized immigrants who stood silently behind her. “I am afraid they will separate me from my parents.”
Next to speak in the Annapolis church was Nathaly Uribe, 22. Earlier this month, the father of her friend was deported back to Mexico. Uribe's parents are also unauthorized.
"We're terrified of being separated," Uribe told the church as her mother looked on and wept. "Since the election, we live in daily anxiety and terror of being deported. It could happen at any minute."
Maryland Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D) and Ben Cardin (D), along with Rep. Anthony Brown (D), came to Annapolis on Sunday for a town hall forum on immigration and refugees.
In national media, fights over health care, Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, and the coming tax reform debate have taken center-stage as the crucial questions facing the resistance movement and Democrats in Congress.
But at the local level, immigration continues to draw grassroots enthusiasm. Hundreds of unauthorized immigrants have themselves turned out at town hall forums held by members of Congress since Trump took office, according to a spokesperson for the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
"There's something really unsettling on the attacks on refugees and immigrants. And they've been explosive in activist circles since the early days of Trump's campaign," said Ben Wikler, the Washington director of MoveOn.org. "For all the talk about the rise of xenophobia on the right, there's a growing well of energy among progressives to fight for the idea that we're a nation of immigrants."
Grassroots efforts show how polarized the debate is getting
Since the election, Democratic Party politicians have been playing “catch-up” with their fired-up activist base, increasingly embracing single-payer health care and voting against Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees in unprecedented numbers.
A similar leftward shift is underway on immigration. Immigration debates were once much more bipartisan, with some Democrats in favor of more stringent immigration restrictions and some Republicans championing visas for migrant workers. But partly because Trump yanked the Republican Party dramatically rightward on immigration, the Democratic rank-and-file and its politicians are moving in the other direction.
“On deportations, on the DREAM Act, on refugee admittances — the party has moved significantly to the left. You’re seeing a rapid acceleration of clarity from Democrats on this issue,” Wikler said.
That acceleration was on vivid display in the Annapolis church on Sunday. All three Congress members stressed their opposition to the border wall with Mexico, to local police carrying out enforcement actions to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and to Trump’s “Muslim ban.”
During the town hall, the Annapolis church had already reached capacity. Dozens more crowded the hallways, craning their necks to listen until the fire marshals told them to leave. More were turned away at the door.
“We want to end profiling of racial and religious minorities,” Cardin said to loud applause. “There’s nothing I can say in support of the president’s executive order: It’s wrong, and it needs to be repealed.”
Brown talked about how his grandparents arrived in America as unauthorized immigrants. “My grandmother didn’t live to see her grandson become a member of the United States Congress,” he said. Then he pointed to Piña’s parents: “But I have no doubt that your daughter can be in Congress.”
Even so, in the Q&A that followed, all three were immediately challenged by the crowd to do more and go further.
A man named Lester Solomon called on his legislators to speak out against the Republican-controlled Maryland government, which has promised full cooperation with ICE on finding unauthorized immigrants. “Are you going to engage the county executive on this issue?” Solomon asked.
Rep. Brown responded by saying that he’d just learned that there would be a county government meeting later in the week. “It’s tomorrow!” came the response from someone in the crowd.
“Okay, tomorrow,” Brown said. “We need to petition our general assembly. We need to hear from you. We don’t say, ‘Oh, it’s not a county issue so it’s not our business.’ So I’m going to engage the county executive on this issue.”
A business man named Kevin Bell told the Democratic Congress members to not trust whatever Republicans do. “They will destroy these families,” Bell said, as a cry of “They’re fascists!” came down from the balcony and was met with applause.
“Given the political system we’re in, your voices must be heard in this debate. We’ve already seen the way they changed the debate on health care; we should change the debate on immigration the same way,” Cardin said.
But Uribe, the daughter of unauthorized immigrants and herself a DREAMer, noted that her family doesn’t have citizenship and thus can’t hurt Republicans on Election Day. That’s why, she said, it was so important for her to arrive in person whenever members of Congress came to town.
“We can’t voice our opinions through the vote,” she said. “So we have to come here and show them what we’re living with.”