From the West L.A. Federal Building to a child detention center in San Diego, Westsiders join the fight to keep immigrant families together

By Joe Piasecki

A student of Citizens of the World Charter School in Mar Vista was among some 1,500 people who rallied outside the West L.A. Federal Building on Saturday in support of reuniting families separated at the border. Photo by Maria Martin.

Last Monday was the tipping point for Mar Vista entrepreneur Jonathan Verk.

Bombarded by images of children sleeping on the concrete floors of chain-link cages and haunted by desperate cries for “Mami” and “Papá” recorded inside a “tender age” immigration detention facility, Verk, a father of two, felt compelled to act. So he did what anyone else would do when government officials are up to no good: he called his city councilman.

Five days later, some 1,500 people joined Verk and Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin outside the West L.A. Federal Building for a Saturday morning rally in support of children separated from their parents at the border. That afternoon, Verk led a caravan of about 75 people to deliver truckloads of donated blankets and toys to a children’s detention facility in San Diego and join protests outside the Otay Mesa Detention Center holding adults nearby.

“I was affected at a gut-wrenching, primal level,” said Zeena Pliska, a transitional kindergarten teacher at Walgrove Avenue Elementary School of the journey to San Diego. During the long ride on the bus Verk had chartered, she and others listened to translations of letters to children that demonstration participants had written in Spanish earlier that day. “They said things like ‘We’re here. We feel for you. … You’re not forgotten,’” Pliska said.

“I’ve been doing these marches for a long time, but this one … we’re all crying,” said West L.A. Democratic Club President Cara Robin outside Otay Mesa. “That’s the big difference. It’s darker; it’s sadder. And we’re all feeling it — they’re children.”

1. A mother and daughter protest outside the West L.A. Federal Building
2. Rep. Maxine Waters fired up the heavily Democratic crowd with calls to impeach Trump and publicly shame administration officials
3. “If it is this next generation that’s going to heal us, they’re bringing this trauma with them,” said South Bay resident Jessica Perez, who marched with her 7-year-old daughter Kali
Photos by Maria Martin

As emcee of the federal building rally, Bonin spoke not just as an elected official but as an adoptive dad.

“I’m a father who is heartbroken and an American who is angry,” he told the crowd ahead of introducing a cavalcade of Westside community activists and elected officials, among them state Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), Women’s March Los Angeles co-organizer Emiliana Guereca, Westside LAUSD board member Nick Melvoin, actress Kristen Bell and Rep. Maxine Waters (D- Los Angeles).

In public remarks that prompted a direct Twitter response from President Donald Trump himself, Waters advocated for the impeachment of Trump and urged those morally opposed to Trump’s immigration policies to shun and publicly shame members of his administration.

Earlier that week, diners heckled Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen at a Mexican restaurant in Washington DC and a restaurant owner in Virginia made international headlines (and provoked debate among Democratic officials and activists) by refusing to serve White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

“Stay the cause. Let’s make sure we show up wherever we have to show up,” Waters, whose district includes Westchester and Playa del Rey, urged the crowd during a spellbinding speech that elicited eruptions of cheers and applause. “And if you see anybody from that cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”

Trump, whose advisor Roger Stone has been advising the campaign of Waters’ dark-horse Republican challenger in November, tweeted Monday: “Congresswoman Maxine Waters, an extraordinarily low IQ person, has become, together with Nancy Pelosi, the Face of the Democrat Party. She has just called for harm to supporters, of which there are many, of the Make America Great Again movement. Be careful what you wish for Max!”

Jon Katz, president of the Santa Monica Democratic Club, had preemptively answered Waters’ call with a handmade sign targeting a Santa Monica High School graduate turned White House policy advisor. “Stephen Miller is not a real Santa Monican,” it read — “playing off his xenophobia and how he talks about people not being ‘real Americans,’” Katz explained.

During the demonstration, Waters also taunted Trump as being “scared” by public pushback and criticized his directive to halt family separations at the border as a “fake” remedy because it fails to order reunification for more than 2,000 children already housed in foster care or detention facilities.

A day earlier, Rep. Ted Lieu (D- Torrance) played the recording of detained children’s cries on the House floor over the objections of a presiding Republican congresswoman.

“We want the children back, we want them connected with their parents, and we want it done now. We’re going to insist on it. And if you think we’re rallying now, you ain’t seen nothing yet,” said Waters, alluding to the massive immigration demonstration planned for this coming Saturday in downtown Los Angeles.

Others who spoke on Saturday stood back from partisan politics and based their appeals on family values.

“I’m here as a human being, a father-to-be, an educator and an American who’s just been absolutely shocked that somebody in our government thought it was a good idea to separate children from their families. It’s incredibly cruel, and it’s so counter to everything I know about what it is to be in a free society that respects people’s rights,” said Allen, formerly president of the Santa Monica – Malibu school board. “There’s no question some of these kids will have PTSD from this experience. I just want to remind people these are children we’re talking about here.”

He didn’t have to remind

UCLA Psychiatry and Bio-behavioral Sciences Professor Jeanne Miranda, who attended the rally with the daughter she had adopted in Colombia.

“They were 7 and 14, and I remember how terrified she and her brother were to leave with someone everyone promised would be their family forever. To imagine what it would feel like to be thrown into a cage, it’s terrifying,” Miranda said.

Later in San Diego, Verk would succeed in his plans to bring at least some measure of comfort for detained children. After speaking to local activists outside Otay Mesa who cautioned that protests and other disturbances could frighten or create other hardships for the children inside, he and only one other person approached the gate.

“We walked up to a very industrial-looking, tarp covered fence and very calmly rang the buzzer. Nothing. We rang it again. Nothing. We rang it seven more times … and then they answered,” Verk recounted.

“We weren’t allowed to cross the property line and we certainly didn’t meet the kids, but we did share the letters and toys and blankets,” Verk said. “It was an amazingly joyous and spectacularly cathartic experience.”

Aaryn Belfer contributed reporting from San Diego and Kyle Knoll contributed from Los Angeles.