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With the prospect of weekend ICE raids hanging over the Bay Area, a few hundred people came out to Berkeley’s Civic Center Park on Saturday to protest federal migrant detention centers.

Bookended by musical performances, the early afternoon rally featured a string of elected officials and undocumented residents giving impassioned and personal speeches to a receptive public. Shouts of “Close the camps!” and “Shame!” shot out from the crowd sporadically throughout the event.

While the downtown Berkeley park has hosted its share of rallies organized by community groups and activists, Saturday’s was a bit unusual in that it was dreamt up by City Councilwoman Rashi Kesarwani and sanctioned by a unanimous vote from her council colleagues.

“When I read reports of children like my child sleeping on concrete floors, not being able to take a bath with soap, not even having adequate food, it was not something I could just let go by,” Kesarwani said in a phone interview before the rally. “It hit me in several ways — I’m the daughter of immigrants to this country, and I’m also a new mom.”

Revelations in June that children were living in unsanitary, overcrowded federal migrant detention centers, without access to basic supplies, prompted widespread alarm and claims of human-rights violations.

Big crowd shot of people in the park, with Old City Hall in background
Several hundred people turned out on a sunny Saturday in Berkeley for a protest against federal migrant detention centers. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Legal investigators who visited a facility in Clint, Texas, and interviewed dozens of children held there, were so horrified by what they saw that they went to the press. The lawyers told the Associated Press that children held at the facility were prevented from bathing or changing their clothes for weeks. Many were sick or had been quarantined for medical issues. Some older children told the investigators that Border Patrol agents had asked them to care for a toddler they didn’t know, who was not given a diaper.

Federal policy says children can only be held for 72 hours before they’re transferred to a youth facility run by Health and Human Services, which is supposed to deliver the kids to relatives. But with an influx of arrivals and a backlog of cases, children like those in Clint have been kept for weeks at sites designed for temporary stays. This month, independent federal auditors released a report on “dangerous overcrowding” in both child and adult detention facilities they had visited. The report included photos of people lying on top of each other in rooms that were sometimes at double their capacity.

A young kid holds a sign that says "Am I next?" Three adults and a teenager stand with him.
Eli, 10, in front, said he came to protest kids as young as he is being put in “basically cages.” Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Eli, 10, in front, said he came to protest kids as young as he is being put in “basically cages.” Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Kesarwani opened the Berkeley rally around 12:30 p.m. by reading out the names and ages of seven migrant children who’ve died in custody.

Several Berkeley parents brought their own children to the protest in the park.

Eli, 10, held a sign that said, “Am I next?”

“I feel that it’s horrible that kids my age, and maybe even younger kids, are being put into basically cages and jail,” he told Berkeleyside.

His grandmother, Diane Crowe, said she came to the protest with her family because, “We are appalled and offended and nauseated by the actions of the Trump administration.”

On stage, Berkeley School Board member Beatriz Leyva-Cutler said that, while the issue has gotten more attention recently, and conditions have worsened, the detention of immigrant children predates the current president.

Leyva-Cutler, executive director of bilingual child care center BAHIA, said she got the opportunity to visit a children’s detention center in Arizona in 2012, where kids ages 4 to 17 were held.

“I was shaking,” she said to the crowd. “History will one day come full circle and we’ll hear from these children. They’ll say, ‘Why didn’t you do something?’”

One young undocumented woman, Carolina Martinez, told protesters she had taken matters into her own hands, launching Berkeley City College’s Undocumented Community Resource Center as a student there.

Another undocumented student, Larissa Martinez, a Yale undergraduate in Berkeley for a summer internship, gave the crowd a mini history lesson.

“The current wave of migration…has its roots in six decades of U.S. policies,” she said. “You need to shift from the narrative of ‘saving’ and the need for ‘saviors’ to one of U.S. imperialism and the need for accountability.”

As the protesters chanted and cheered in Berkeley, some residents and activists throughout the rest of the Bay Area were busy bracing for expected immigration raids. Immigration Customs and Enforcement actions announced by President Donald Trump earlier this summer — and then postponed — could start Sunday, according to various media reports. The enforcement will reportedly target 10 cities nationwide, including San Francisco, and focus on 2,000 people facing deportation.

In response to the expected enforcement, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, who spoke at the rally, re-shared a guide on his website of local immigration resources and rights. A colorful banner now hangs from the city government offices, declaring, “Berkeley is a sanctuary city.”

At Saturday’s rally, a woman working in Rep. Barbara Lee’s office said they had heard “no indication” that raids would include the East Bay.

One protester Saturday held up a homemade sign that said, “Straight up: no ICE.”

The protest concluded shortly before 2 p.m., about an hour before vendors at the adjacent farmers market started to pack up their produce.

Will the cries from a few hundred people protesting in Berkeley reach the kids in detention centers in Texas — or the policymakers in Washington, D.C.?

“I do recognize that this is really a national policy issue, so it’s challenging for us to directly change the policy,” Kesarwani told Berkeleyside. “But the idea of sitting back and doing nothing is also not acceptable to me. I also thought about the fact that there are undocumented people in our community in the East Bay feeling scared right now. I have a role as an elected official to signal to those community members that I see them, I know no human being is illegal, and they are valued members of our community.”

protest crowd, some people shaking hands
Protesters shake hands after a speaker encourages them to meet each other. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Two people hold signs made of balloons that say "Love"
Berkeley rallies against federal migrant detention centers. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Two adults hold three kids in their laps. One has a sign that says "no kids in cages"
Multiple multiple-generation families came to the rally Saturday. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
People, many in purple, play horns and drum in a park
The Musicians Action Group marches into the rally. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
A young woman speaks at a podium while people standing behind her hold anti-Trump signs
Carolina Martinez founded the Undocumented Community Resource Center at Berkeley City College. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...