AUGUSTA — Hoai-nam Hoang stood on State Street near the statehouse Saturday holding a simple sign.

Hand printed on cardboard, it said thanks to compassion, an immigrant family came to the United States.

That family was her own. Hoang’s parents and her older brother and sister traveled to the United States as refugees in 1980 after the Vietnam War; she was born here.

In the midday heat, Hoang and her young son were part of a nationwide series of more than 600 rallies and demonstrations scheduled for Saturday, protesting the zero-tolerance immigration policy of the administration of President Donald Trump, which recently resulted in children of undocumented immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas being separated from their families and housed at locations across the country.

That policy was stopped via executive order nearly two weeks ago, but questions remain about how and when families will be reunited.

And while Maine is 2,500 miles from the center of the controversy, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have been conducting citizenship checks at the bus station in Bangor, which prompted a bus driver to tell passengers mistakenly that U.S. citizenship is required to ride the bus.

Border patrol agents also have conducted vehicle checkpoints in eastern Maine, stopping southbound vehicles to ask drivers and passengers about their citizenship and immigration status and to search the stopped vehicles with sniffer dogs. A man from Haiti was arrested and drugs were seized.

In Augusta an organizer estimated nearly 1,000 people attended Saturday’s event. People carried signs and chanted, lining both sides of State Street in front of the Maine State House.

“We’re unhappy with how our government is dealing with immigration and how they’re treating people just because they’re from somewhere else, they look different and sound different. It’s not very fair,” Hoang said.

Kathryn Rice, 13, of Rumford, holds an American flag on Saturday while she stands on Main Street in Farmington participating in the Families Belong Together rally. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

FARMINGTON RESIDENTS RALLY

Earlier Saturday and 40 miles northwest of Augusta, Elizabeth Kuhlman told her own immigration story at a similar rally in front of the post office in Farmington.

In 1900, said Kuhlman, 75, her grandfather immigrated illegally to the United States from Finland.

“I believe that immigration is the foundation of this great country,” said Kuhlman, who lives in Farmington in the summer and Salt Lake City the rest of the year. “Adding immigrants to the population will enrich both our culture and our economy.”

Kuhlman joined about 200 people gathered on Main Street, carrying signs that read, “Families belong together,” “Reunite,” and “Asylum seekers are not criminals.”

Eileen Liddy, an organizer of the Farmington event, said the goal was to bring awareness to elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R–2nd District, about opposition to Trump’s immigration policies. At a nearby table, a group of women from SWARM, a newly formed women’s group encouraging community involvement and political engagement in Franklin County, encouraged people to send postcards to their elected officials and to register to vote.

“We need something that is humane and compassionate to deal with immigration, both in the long term and short term,” Liddy said in between leading the crowd in chants in support of immigrants.

Others said they were simply moved by the news and images of children being separated from their parents in recent weeks after the implementation of Trump’s zero-tolerance policy.

Abbey Rice, of Rumford, held a sign that said, “Families Belong Together,” surrounded by her five children, who also held signs and carried an American flag.

Rice said she had been reading news about the family separations last week when her 9-year-old daughter, Betty, started reading over her shoulder and crying at the news.

She said her children wanted to come to the rally to show their support for immigrant families.

“We do love America, but we don’t love everything right now,” said Rice’s oldest daughter, Kathryn Rice, explaining why she was holding an American flag.

“They understand,” Abbey Rice said. “I don’t make a point of telling them all the bad news in the world, but they are aware of what’s going on. I want them to know what’s going on and that they can make a positive difference through things like this, through voting when they’re older.”

People carry signs during a rally Saturday on State Street between Capitol Park and the Maine State House in Augusta. Rally participants opposed the Trump administration’s immigration policies. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

CHANTS, HONKS IN AUGUSTA

Many of the hundreds that showed up in central Maine wore white to signify solidarity and to echo historic social justice movements whose members showed their allegiances in the color of their clothing.

Many people, though, wore what they wished in the early summer heat. Mohammad Aljendi, a 17-year-old Syrian immigrant, held a Syrian flag near the steps of the Statehouse alongside two friends, Abdul Haluuah and Mouareih Haluuah, all dressed in black.

“We’re feeling good and we would like other people to feel like us — good and safe,” said Aljendi, who left Syria for Turkey in 2012 and came to the United States in 2016. “Nobody leaves their country (for no reason). They leave because there’s a war or something else. That’s why they’re leaving. If there’s no war, nobody would leave.”

“It’s been building up,” said Darcey Poulin, who traveled to Augusta from Oakland with her young son to take part. “We’ve reached a point where people are not going to pass and let it go by. We’ve seen those images and understanding that those people are coming to this country to save their children, and they’re being taken from them. It’s heart-breaking.”

At times, the protest chants and songs competed with the honks of cars and SUVs and engine sounds of pickup trucks and motorcycles passing by on State Street.

Candidates and elected officials turned out at rallies across the state. U.S. Sen. Angus King, who is running for re-election, spoke In Brunswick.

The Augusta rally drew speeches from former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Betsy Sweet; Crystal Canney, an independent candidate for the Maine Senate District 27 seat, representing the Portland area; independent gubernatorial candidate Alan Caron; and Zak Ringelstein, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, who was arrested a week ago for refusing to leave a child detention center after being told he would not be allowed inside. He had gone there to bring toys and books to the children detained there.

Some rallygoers said there is a strong economic case to be made for allowing immigration.

Across central Maine, where the unemployment rate is historically low, many businesses have “help wanted” signs posted year-round as they look for workers to do a wide range of jobs.

Jennifer Day, who came to Saturday’s rally with her husband and her daughter, said what’s happening with immigrant families doesn’t reflect her own family values.

Day, a councilor-at-large on the Augusta City Council and a Democratic candidate for the Maine House of Representative in District 86, said the state’s growth and economy depends on immigration.

“It’s the workforce that we need,” Day said. “It’s the growth our schools need to stay open. We need to be inviting and rebuke the culture that’s being created at the upper administration and focus on families and communities and neighborhoods in our state and being a part of the movement that moves it forward.”

Day said she’s a part of the Capital Area New Mainers group, and she sees the benefits that immigrants bring to central Maine, including the global perspective they bring to schools and communities.

Maya Freed-Barlow, of Hallowell, is now 18 and voted for the first time this year. She said she plans to continue voting.

“We want to spread awareness and we want to do what we can to get these kids back with their parents,” Freed-Barlow said. “We want to help families stick together.”

Hoang said she knows from her family’s experience how important such help can be.

“We came, just like a lot of other Vietnamese immigrants, because there were people who cared and were willing to help support families like mine leave a country destroyed by war and they were not able to do well in anymore,” she said.

Her parents had worked as teachers, but the government that had fallen to the North Vietnamese during the war. They wanted to leave to find a place that would be safe and offer opportunities for themselves and their children.

Initially, Hoang said, her parents were supported by a church, but they got multiple jobs, started their own business and put their three children through college.

Hoang, who is a physician, said her sister is an attorney and her brother has a master’s degree.

“We are giving back to this country as much as we were given, and then some,” she said. “I see that potential with a lot of these other immigrants. They are not even being given a chance. They’re being told they got here the wrong the way. Well, the right way’s not working, and if they keep waiting, they will die.”

Even with the threat of losing custody of their children, she said, they are still coming.

She said this new wave of immigrants recognizes that the United States represents opportunities, but they realize they have to work for them.

“As scary as it may seem and as angry as some people may be,” she said, “there are some people who are welcoming and who well help.”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632
[email protected]
Twitter: @JLowellKJ

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368
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Twitter: @rachel_ohm