by Leslie Layton
In matching teal-colored T-shirts, a group of Chico teens Saturday led some 100 people on a downtown march to protest immigration policy and conditions for refugees at the border.
The teens, all of whom are students at Chico High and Inspire School of Arts & Sciences, said they chose teal to reflect the color in the Statute of Liberty torch-holder for a protest designed to recall the conditions that led to the Holocaust.
The protest was titled “March for Freedom: Never Again is Now,” and opened with student and parent speakers at City Plaza downtown.
Jordan Michelena, an organizer who is an Inspire student, said the protest “turned out pretty well for such short notice.”
Jordan’s grandfather fought fascism in World War II. “We can’t let history repeat itself,” she said.
The student organizers pointed out that during World War II, many people said Nazi soldiers “were just doing their job” — not unlike what some Americans say now about officers working for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Anael Contreras, an Inspire student, spoke about the terror she felt when police showed up at a family member’s home soon after President Trump warned there would be massive raids by ICE.
“I don’t want to grow up in a world where I can’t open the door,” she said. “There are families being torn apart. We don’t need to build a wall to protect ourselves from people trying to make a better life for themselves.”
The event drew a diverse crowd from Chico, including immigrants, members of both Jewish congregations and Christian churches and Mayor Randall Stone.
Stone reminded the community that his grandfather came to this country as an asylum-seeker from Mexico, and said that immigrants are sometimes taken advantage of in Chico’s tight housing market.
“They’re taking advantage of people that otherwise can’t complain that are illegal here and jacking up rents,” Stone said.
The mayor said he’ll ask City Council to impose a fee on landlords to pay for code enforcement and “to ensure we don’t have people living in substandard housing.”
Claudia Desilles, a native of France, said that when she heard about the protest she decided quickly to attend.
“What is so appalling is that there are children, sleeping on concrete floors, in conditions that not even criminals are exposed to,” she said of the border detention centers.
Then, waving her hand toward the teen organizers, she added: “There are kids as young as 15 organizing this. My friend and I had been asking, ‘What can we do?’”
One teen organizer, Chico High senior Lucinda Law, pleaded with people to vote, and “not for [Congressman Doug] LaMalfa, [Assemblyman James] Gallagher and Trump. We have to register to vote because ‘never again’ is now.”
The only opposition to the event came when a man at the plaza hopped up on a ledge and, addressing the crowd, complained that the protest was too small and rule-abiding given the gravity of the matter. But parents and other protest participants quickly came to the defense of the students and told the man he should organize his own event.
Lauren Asrael, a Tucson resident who volunteers at a shelter for asylum-seekers and was passing through town, said she was moved by what the Chico teens had accomplished. “I will come to any march to protest” conditions at detention centers, Asrael said.
Many migrants have had to wait for months to get through a port of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border and ask for asylum, she noted. And that’s after spending thousands of dollars to get to the border.
Asylum-seekers that have been released from Border Patrol detention facilities arrive at shelters traumatized, she said. Often, families have been split up and migrants have lost track of relatives. And as regulations become tighter and more asylum-seekers are pushed into other countries, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to pursue cases or find attorneys who can help them.
Many of the asylum-seekers who are released in this country by Border Patrol have been placed in GPS ankle monitors, she added. The monitors beep loudly if they’re not recharged regularly, which means the migrants are “electronically shackled” to outlets.
Asrael said that working with asylum-seekers is heart-breaking. “I always try to cry in private,” Asrael said of her work.
Leslie Layton is editor of ChicoSol.