When local pediatrician and Queen Anne resident Susanna Block returned from the U.S.-Mexico border last month, she was left wondering what could be done to help the families that had been separated as part of a “zero-tolerance” immigration policy enacted by the Trump administration.

"It was really shocking coming back from El Paso and realizing that there’s no transparency,” she said.

She wanted to hear from experts in the field, and to have a sense of the next steps forward.

An event Sunday at the Queen Anne Community Center was the culmination of that uncertainty, drawing nearly 100 people to hear from a trio of speakers working on immigration issues locally, and empowering attendees to take direct action to help those affected by a policy she called “deliberately cruel,” and designed to hurt the most vulnerable.

“The terrible damage has been done,” Block told those on hand, but said it will only get worse the longer children are separated from their parents.

Robert Free, an immigration lawyer with the ACLU and former law professor at both the University of Washington and Seattle University, said in his 40 years of practice, he has never seen such inhumane, restrictive, and negative anti-immigrant policies.

Though the administration was forced to end the separation policy soon after it was enacted, he noted that it is far from the only effort to break up families. Free mentioned the uncertainty surrounding the nearly 800,000 DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients, the end of prosecutorial discretion when undocumented people are arrested, the termination of Temporary Protected Status for Hondurans, Salvadorans and Haitians who left turmoil in their countries of origin, and efforts to cut legal immigration.

"We have to be alert to this,” Free said, “and if those proposals look like they might become law, we need to take action.”

Free said he was optimistic, however, that with sustained action the country could again become one that’s welcoming of immigrants.

“It’s concerned citizens like yourselves that have really made a difference,” he said.

Jorge Barón of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) shared the stories of several parents held at the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac. In each instance, they were given essentially no warning before being separated from their children.

“These are folks who are trying to do what I think we expect of any parent,” he said.

Barón said these are families merely seeking protection, and that most sought out border patrol after crossing the border in hopes of starting the asylum process.

"Our administration is making it as difficult as possible to try and seek that protection,” he said.

Of the 50-plus parents held in Western Washington after being brought up from the border, 24 of them have received bond and been released as of Sunday, Barón said. Of that group, 12 have been reunified with their children.

Like Free, he also mentioned the need to remain focused not only on family separation, but broader immigration issues as well. There’s still much to be done to make the process fair and respectful of people’s dignity, he said.

“I think [for] a lot of us, this country was founded on this notion that all people are created equal … If we’re founded on that premise, how can we justify treating people — just because they’ve been born in a different place — the way we’ve been treating them,” he said.

Juan Bocanegra of the Seattle-based social justice organization El Comité said that no matter how much money is raised or resources gathered, different action is also needed to create change. The current situation did not develop overnight, he said, and is indicative of systematic issues.

“By and large, we need to take some different types of actions, some different types of approach to what’s happening to us in this country today,” he said, noting the idea of a general strike.

In addition to the speakers, attendees were able to write letters to elected officials, make cards for the children being held in detention, and donate to the organizations that are making a difference in the ACLU, NWIRP, and El Comité.

Block said she was hopeful that Sunday’s event proves to be the beginning of further community efforts to help.

“I am so thrilled that it’s turned out this way,” she said.

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Organizer Susanna Block (left) shares a sheet with reasons why people attended Sunday's action event, and why the issue of family separations matters to them. Photo by Joe Veyera