Metro

Grass-roots rally draws crowds protesting separation of immigrant families

Madeline Sheldon-Dante of East Boston brought her 4-month-old son, William Sheldon-Paris, to the rally against family separation at the State House Thursday.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Madeline Sheldon-Dante of East Boston brought her 4-month-old son, William Sheldon-Paris, to the rally against family separation at the State House Thursday.

On Wednesday, Emily Ross, 41, bought a megaphone. A cheap one from Amazon, ordered hastily and delivered late that night.

On Thursday, Ross spoke through that same megaphone to a crowd of an estimated 300 people who gathered outside the State House during lunchtime. They rallied as part of a nationwide event called Families Belong Together, organized quickly at the grass-roots level, to protest the Trump administration’s controversial policy of separating immigrating children from their parents at the US border. Similar rallies were held in more than 20 cities across the country.

“The important thing is to do something,” Ross said before stepping back to hold her little red-and white striped megaphone out to amplify the voice of anyone who wished to speak.

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And speak they did. For more than an hour and a half, people lined up to address the assembled crowd, telling stories and describing feelings in both English and Spanish. Chants and applause reverberated off the State House steps as they did in parks and plazas nationwide to support the same message.

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Unlike tightly scripted rallies organized by official groups in some other cities, Thursday’s rally was open-mic style, organized quickly by Ross. After hearing about Families Belong Together and finding no Boston event online, she said, she used Facebook to organize one herself.

“I did this because, mainly, I’m a mom,” Ross said simply. “And I have a child who I love very much.”

Many attendees were also mothers who had come after reading about federal immigration action at the border in recent weeks. The actions crossed a line for some parents at the rally, who said they could not sleep imagining what would happen if they were separated from their own children.

“I’ve never been to a demonstration before, but you just don’t take children from their families,” said Amy Hutton, 55, an accounting professor at Boston College and a parent. “Have I explained it to my children? I couldn’t. I have a 7-year-old, and he would be afraid.”

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She paused to take a breath, her voice quavering and her eyes filling with tears.

“I’ve always wondered, if I lived in Nazi Germany, what I would have done?” Hutton said. “This is my test. And I have to be here.”

The rally, with all its informality, is part of what some community leaders see as a growing trend in local public action. Several community leaders at the rally said people view political issues as more interconnected than ever before.

“I am seeing many of the same people in multiple spaces in the resistance,” said Ayanna Pressley, a Boston City Council member who is running for Congress in Massachusetts’ Seventh District, in an interview after the rally. “The same people that are here today affirming that immigrant rights are human rights, I also saw testifying at the State House for criminal justice reform, I also saw at the women’s march, I also see advocating for trans rights.”

To the assembled crowd, Pressley spoke of solidarity and progression, advocating for the passage of the Safe Communities Act, a bill that would codify specific protections for immigrants in Massachusetts. A rally supporting the inclusion of a version of those provisions in the state budget was held on Wednesday at the State House.

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“In the darkest of the bluest of the states,” Pressley said, “we still have legislation that we need to get passed to support the safety and the well-being, the livelihood and upward mobility of immigrants.”

As the crowd began to disperse, several people approached Ross to ask how she organized in just a few days.

“When I saw there were no rallies organized for Families Belong Together in Boston a few days ago, I asked myself: ‘Well, why can’t I organize a rally?’ ” said Yoshi Campbell, 55. “This was really cool to see that someone like me, another mother, another concerned citizen, could just step up and make this happen.”

Ross tucked her megaphone under her arm and turned to trade ideas with Campbell, the two women standing on the steps as lunchtime crowds moved on.

As the attendees returned to their work, families, and errands, the two mothers stood talking about hosting another grass-roots action sometime soon.

Amelia Nierenberg can be reached at amelia.nierenberg@globe.com.