Benjamin Takes Mayors to U.S.-Mexico Border, Leads Largest Press Conference in USCM History. Mayors Express Outrage Over Family Separation. El Paso Region is Ground Zero on Immigration for 400 Years.
Conference President Columbia (SC) Mayor Steve Benjamin led a delegation of 17 mayors to the border town of Tornillo, Texas yesterday and there was a total and unified expression of deep concern of the administration's policies related to the treatment of immigrants at our nation's border.
El Paso Mayor Dee Margo called on Congres to have "the intestinal fortitude" to fix the flawed immigration policy. El Paso is indeed ground zero for the immigration issue where two nations and three states are joined together. El Pas has been at the center of the immigration and border issue, according to Mayor Margo, for 400 years.
As we landed in El Paso in what was a rapid mayoral response to the family separation zero tolerance policy, we learned that President Donald Trump had signed an Executive Order to stop the family separation policy issue at the border. This action did not stop mayors from speaking out at the border yesterday morning.
Mayor Benjamin had assembled mayors from across our nation from every region and it was a solid bipartisan group all on the same page - all united in the United States Conference of Mayors.
As we arrived in Tornillo at the Marcelino Serna Port of Entry, we were hit by the largest contingent of press and media that I have ever experienced or witnessed in my 40 plus years at the Conference of Mayors. No doubt, it was the largest press conference in the 86-year history of our organization. In the boiling heat of the Texas desert sun, Mayor Benjamin, with passion, expressed his opposition to the policy that does not represent the America we are. For over an hour, each mayor had the opportunity to speak, not to just say where they were from.
PHOTO CREDIT: Ivan Pierre Aguirre
Each mayor came to the makeshift podium we used on the site. USCM Vice President Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett came after Mayor Benjamin and Mayor Margo, expressing his sentiments as a mayor and a father. "There’s a defining opportunity in front of us to combine law with human decency, civility, and kindness," said Mayor Barnett.
He was followed by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti who said that, "Children are not poker chips" and they "should not be used to bargain for whatever the Administration wants from Congress. Garcetti was most personal, telling the story of how his grandfather came across the border in his mother's arms. He expressed if the baby had been taken away, he would not be here to tell us about it. He said about our nation, "We are better than this."
West Sacramento Mayor Christoper Cabaldon gave examples of Main Street citizens in his city. "Hear the voice of the person in the pub who may not have ever voted for me" was a theme of his remarks. He cited a vast array of his people of his city. Hear their voice. Hear their voice. He cited examples who all come to the concluding opinion that the zero-tolerance policy and the treatment of families as being totally repugnant by people in all walks of life.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, a former U.S. Attorney and prosecutor before becoming mayor, understands immigration law. As a legal expert, she makes the point that the family separation policy is new to this Administration and she further says that the broken immigration policies of the nation will not make our nation safer from terrorists. Mayor Durkan brilliantly handled the legal questions from the press assembled in the question and answer period, as well.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, representing our nation's largest city, called attention to the voice of the mayors assembled. He praised Mayor Benjamin for the gathering of the bipartisan group and went on to say that Congress and the Administration could learn from the Conference of Mayors in how to bring a bipartisan voice on immigration issues.
Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait, who began earlier talking to me about this mission just days after we left our 86th Annual Meeting in Boston, went to the podium to remind all of the long and winding road we have had with the immigration issues. He praised Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza as his Co-Chair of the Conference's Immigration Task Force. Mayor Tait, a Republican, called on the Administration to work across the board to fix the broken U.S. immigration system. Mayor Elorza wanted so much to come on this mission but he has a baby about to be born anytime now and could not leave Providence during this time.
Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber did not hold back his deep criticism of the Administration's policies and he probably was the toughest speaker going against the current immigration policy.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, the Chair of our Criminal and Social Justice standing committee spoke with the authority of a former Attorney General of her state, a mother, and yes, a leader within our organization for years on these critical issues.
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller brought with him to stand by his side, his wife Elizabeth. The two brought the stuffed animals that their children received from Santa Claus this past Christmas. Keller voiced his feelings of anger and frustration. His partner, his wife, and the mother of their children wiped away her tears of sadness as she spoke of her empathy for the children in tents behind the chain fences and barbed-wired installation of the port of entry.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler, no stranger to the broken immigration system conversation, was vocal as he vowed that we must fight forward and keep on until Washington acts and changes the un-American policies against innocent families seeking asylum to our nation. He said with one collective voice that we are the power, that we will not be silenced or stopped.
Central Falls Mayor James Diossa was most personal in his concern and said that his father came through this same port of entry, citing he was a product of immigrants.
Findlay Mayor Lydia Mihalik, another Republican and Chair of our Children, Health, and Human Services standing committee was strong in expressing her deep concern against the way the families are being treated. "There are still 2,300 children who need to be reunited with their families and substantive conversations and action needs to be had around immigration."
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, coming from a family of Cuban immigrants, empathized with families and children in today's confusing and heartless policy. He spoke, as did Mayor Garcetti, in Spanish, to the Latino national and local news outlets that were joining us as our message was carried into other nations to our south.
Augusta (GA) Mayor Hardie Davis, the Vice President of the African American Mayors Association stressed the concern as to the locating of the displaced children declaring that the policy needs to be changed so that officials have information on where the immigrants are being placed.
Novato Mayor Josh Fryday brought forth his history of work as a J.A.G. military officer in Guantanamo Bay. "I've seen first hand that when we jettison our morality, turn our back on basic humanity, and when we skirt the rule of law, start pursuing things like indefinite detention policies, we don't make our communities safer, we don't make them more secure. But that was never the intention of this policy and it contradicts everything we aspire to be."
Mayor Fryday has a background in human rights law, having served in the U.S. Navy J.A.G. Corps and served as an officer in Guantanamo Bay. He's the father of three sons. When he heard about our mission, he said, "I had to go." Further, he said, "My main message is that it is our job to solve problems and to help make peoples lives better. These cruel and inhumane border policies do neither and the time is now to re-united every child with their parents."
Conference President Steve Benjamin has said yesterday was another "defining moment" of the United States Conference of Mayors. In both formal and informal conversations, he inspires mayors to follow him on his path to lead against inhumane policies against families and children.
Yesterday, mayors did not cite statistics, did not use background studies from experts and foundations, polls, surveys to validate the feelings and their actions. They spoke from their hearts. Voices cracked. Tears flowed from several during the time we stood in the desert heat.
We are determined to follow up with the Department of Health and Human Services to get answers. They owe it to the governors, to the county officials, and to city officials - our mayors - to be transparent with who they are sending and where.
This morning, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo addressed the nation, calling for the Department of Health and Human Services' "no response policy" to be repugnant to the elected officials and people in America. He stated and we support the request for the federal government to provide information as to how many people, what the conditions are like, and where they are sending thousands.
Conference President Benjamin will continue to seek answers on behalf of our mayors, for answers as we seek a policy that is transparent and accurate.
We will continue to raise our collective voice, together, as one United States Conference of Mayors to get the answers that should be forthcoming and provided by our own federal government.