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A smaller but vocal crowd speaks up at Philly labor rally to support immigrant children

"We are here in solidarity with each other," said AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer Elissa McBride, "as Americans, as labor unions, as social-justice warriors."

Members of the clergy lead hundreds of union protesters from Penn's Landing to the Customs House on Chestnut Street to protest family separations by the Trump administration.
Members of the clergy lead hundreds of union protesters from Penn's Landing to the Customs House on Chestnut Street to protest family separations by the Trump administration.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

It was a crowd of 2,000 or so — short of the 5,000 predicted by Philadelphia union organizers — that turned out at Penn's Landing late Wednesday afternoon to support immigrant families who have been detained or separated at U.S. borders.

But it was a crowd that made a noise: of resistance, of demand, of hope.

"I'm an immigrant, and we're fighting for immigrant rights," said Araceli DeLaCruz, 26, a housekeeper at a Hampton Inn who came to the United States from Mexico.  She is a member of Unite Here, a union mostly representing hotel, food service, and casino gaming workers.

Leaders said the rally, billed as "Labor United to Free the Children," would be apolitical and based solely on empathy for the boys and girls separated from their parents. Roughly a half-dozen local and national unions took part in the demonstration, which concluded in the early evening with a march to the nearby U.S. Custom House, home to several federal agencies.

On the stage, 12-year-old Ashley Tellez spoke on behalf of Juntos, the immigrant-advocacy group, as her mother watched from the crowd, tearing up behind sunglasses. Tellez said she was worried about her undocumented mother being deported to Mexico, even though South Philadelphia has been home for 15 years.

"Please stand up and speak out and hit the streets and help us," Ashley called out as Queen's "We Will Rock You" began to blare from the speakers.

Her mother rushed over as her child left the stage.

"I'm so proud of her," Linda Hernandez said. "She's growing up as all of this is going on. She's fighting and getting involved. We don't want anything major. We just want to keep our family together."

President Trump rescinded his administration's policy of separating immigrant families in June, amid a national outcry and news coverage of terrified children and tearful parents. Instead, the administration intends to expand the number of beds and facilities in which to jail families, as is done now at the Berks County detention center in Pennsylvania.

>>READ MORE: Berks family detention center: A model for jailing migrant families?

"What's happening in this country right now is really disturbing," Esteban Vera, business manager for Laborers Local 57, said before the rally.  "If it's a fight the leadership wants, it's a fight they're going to get."

The president's crackdown on immigration, legal and illegal, has driven rights groups and their supporters into the streets. Philadelphia has been a center of protest and resistance as a "sanctuary city," a place that generally strives to treat undocumented immigrants like everyone else.

The Kenney administration fought and won a federal lawsuit over Attorney General Jeff Sessions' attempt to withhold grant money unless city authorities more actively assisted federal agents in arresting and deporting undocumented migrants.

>>READ MORE: Judge rules for Philadelphia in 'Sanctuary City' case

Last month, Kenney announced an end to an agreement that gave Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents access to a real-time police database known as PARS. That came as protests by Occupy ICE took place around Center City, resulting in dozens of police citations to demonstrators.

The rally came ahead of the midterm elections, in which the  administration's immigration policies can become an important means of mobilizing opposition voters and labor-union support  key to Democratic Party hopes. At the same time, the relationship between labor and immigration remains complicated and nuanced, with concern among many building-trades workers that undocumented workers depress wages.

In 2016, the powerful International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, led by John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, announced a plan to use airborne drones to monitor disputed work sites with high-definition video cameras. The union said the drones would "identify unlicensed workers and, in some instances, undocumented workers," and the footage would be sent to labor and immigration agencies.

The plan was quickly denounced — Erika Almiron, director of Juntos, called it a "disgrace" — and the union retracted its statement on targeting and sharing information about undocumented workers.

On Wednesday, people sweated in a sun that baked the brick and concrete of Penn's Landing, making water and shade valuable commodities. National and local labor leaders and members traded handshakes and hugs. It seemed like everyone was wearing a union-logo T-shirt.

Philadelphia schoolteachers Benjamin Hover and Sonny Bavaro said that every city classroom has at least one immigrant student or students whose parents are immigrants — and they're all worried about their families.

"It's only right for us as teachers to stand up for our kids," said Hover, who teaches at Central High School.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has spoken out loudly and often for the rights of immigrants, saying that all children, regardless of status, are entitled to a public education. PFT president Jerry Jordan and his staff have supported the family of Carmela Apolonia Hernandez, who avoided deportation by taking sanctuary in the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia in December.

>>READ MORE: In Philly and across the nation, more immigrants take church sanctuary to block deportation

Her four children leave each day to attend public school, returning after dismissal, while their mother stays inside the church. Hernandez says her family could be killed by gangsters if they are forced to return to Mexico, and need time to pursue their legal claims in the United States.

All five have standing deportation orders. ICE agents generally avoid making arrests at churches, hospitals and other "sensitive locations." and so far have not attempted to detain their children on their way to or from school.

Hernandez's 13-year-old daughter, Keyri, addressed the crowd in Spanish at the rally.

"Every school year we risk deportation Monday to Friday, each time we go to school," she said. "We can't go out to breathe fresh air, to see other people. …We are willing to keep fighting for our freedom."