Their hair was mostly gray and their voices were occasionally thin, but spines and spirits stood strong during a dramatic Independence Mall immigration protest Wednesday by nearly 75 senior citizens.
Many among the group confined themselves in a fenced, makeshift “detention center” to call attention to the seven migrant children who have died either in custody or shortly after being apprehended by U.S. authorities — and to demand an immediate halt to the jailing of boys and girls at the southwest border.
“It’s a cage,” said Steve Gold, 77, standing within the four plastic-barrier walls. “I’m in a cage and I can’t get out. I’m trapped and I can’t get out. I feel like crying.”
The group, called ElderWitness, set up its “jail” between the landmarks of Independence Hall and the National Constitution Center. They called out the names of the dead children, held up their photos, and told their stories for an hour or more on an oppressively hot and humid Philadelphia morning.
“We’re hoping people will pay more attention,” said Mary Regan, 72, of East Falls.
The 90-some degree heat, people said as they wiped sweat from their brows, was nothing compared with that of the southwestern desert, traversed by mothers, fathers and children looking for a better life. The deaths of the children, they said, are the most horrific proof of the dire, overcrowded conditions in which migrants are being held by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Seeking asylum, several noted, is a legal means of entering and staying in the country.
“As elders, how can we sit back and not say something about how we’re treating children?” asked Lynne Iser, 69, of Mount Airy, a grandmother and organizer of ElderWitness, which plans more demonstrations. “We don’t put children in cages. We don’t separate children from parents.”
She and others described ElderWitness as a grassroots group of local seniors outraged at the detention of children under Trump administration immigration policies. They advocate, they said, for “moral, kind, and legal” policies that truly represent a nation of immigrants.
In a city where protests against Trump immigration actions are frequent, often large, and occasionally confrontational, this one was smaller and quieter — but provocative.
Tourists walked by, not quite sure what they were seeing with people crowded into a plastic-fence pen. Some stopped to take photos, or stood on the edge of the crowd to listen to the speeches and songs.
A man cut through the demonstrators, shouted, “Build the wall!” and kept on walking.
One protester, Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, 70, of Mount Airy, said, “This is personal for me.” In Poland in the 1930s, his grandmother — a widow with four children — was turned down when she tried to immigrate to the United States. All but one, he said, were later murdered by the Nazis, his mother the only survivor.
“Had America allowed them to come, they would have all lived,” he said.
Liebling said he sees a parallel today, as Central American families try to flee impoverished and dangerous homelands, seeking safety and security in the U.S.
“The threat of somebody losing their life for not being able to enter the country,” he said, “that’s the same.”