By Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio
Clutching a cardboard sign that read, “No human being is illegal,” a young woman stood under the arch at Washington Square Park on Saturday. She shook her head as her friend gently put a hand on her shoulder.
The young woman, Damariz Damken, 21, said she was angry and sad because soldiers have set up camp in her hometown of McAllen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley. Damken said that friends, family, and residents of McAllen are scared by the increased military presence in recent weeks since President Donald Trump announced his decision to deploy troops to the U.S.-Mexico border.
She was one of about 50 people participating in a walk to show solidarity with the caravan of Central American migrants making their way to the U.S. border. The New York march was organized by a non-profit immigration activist organization called Cosecha.
Some troops have set up tents and are stationed near McAllen, Damken said, adding that the militarization of this once-peaceful town has made residents anxious and angry.
“It’s really infuriating,” said Damken, an NYU student. “As a citizen, I shouldn’t feel like my existence is threatened but I do feel that way….I have so many family members and friends that aren’t citizens, and we are all living with a constant uncertainty. The government is causing a lot of anxiety and fear and terror.”
The migrants are now arriving in Tijuana, Mexico, a city right across the U.S. border and only a 45-minute drive from San Diego, Calif.
The migrants, most from El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras, have now been on the move for more than a month and have covered at least 3,000 miles, according to Mexican officials. Estimates from Mexican authorities put the number of people who are now arriving at the Mexico-U.S border at around 2,000 with another possible 5,000-7,000 people still making their way towards Tijuana.
As the marchers made their way north on Fifth Avenue, they were surrounded by several police officers who were walking and riding their motorcycles, keeping them on the sidewalk.
Many onlookers along the route applauded the protesters or gave them a thumbs up when they heard the chants of “No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here.” Others stopped to take photos and videos. Two young men smiled and waved from the second-floor window of NYU’s international dorm. About half a dozen people joined the group along the way.
Members of a small band with trumpets, drums and a trombone accompanied the protesters for the one-hour march, often playing pop classics such as Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” among other songs.
Before the walk began, Jesse Ortiz, 24, an organizer for Cosecha, was busy writing signs, recruiting supporters, and planning the order of speakers.
“My hope for the event today is that we show solidarity with the people in the migrant caravan,” he said, “and for all of those affected directly by this administration’s racist, xenophobic, and violent ways, many of whom are my friends.”
Ortiz, sporting a red beanie, banged a tambourine along with the band while he walked and chanted, “Immigrants are welcome here” on his way to Union Square.
Volunteers are hoping to meet migrants at the border in early December, Ortiz said. Cosecha organizers and others who sign up to the Cosecha-sponsored effort to reach migrants are planning to provide various legal, translation and first aid services there. Ultimately, Cosecha is working up to a planned seven-day strike of all undocumented workers in New York, Ortiz said. But on Saturday, he focused on marching through the streets of New York.
‘We are with you,’ and the Spanish translation of the phrase—“Estamos con ustedes”—was written in black paint on the main banner carried at the front of the march throughout the day.
Damken led the march. “I didn’t think I was going to be at the front the whole time holding the banner,” Damken said, laughing when the protest concluded.
At the end of the event, participants applauded and some hugged each other.
“I think it went really well,” Damken said. “It was incredibly energizing and seeing everyone’s positive reactions on the street was uplifting.”
Participants chanted a Spanish phrase together as the walk concluded on the corner of East 14th Street and Union Square West. “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido,” they said, their voices rising. (“The people, united, will never be defeated.”) Damken joined in, exchanging smiles with her fellow participants.
As she turned around to reconvene with her friends, the sparkles outlining the word “Texas” on the back of her denim jacket glistened under the small bit of sunlight still shining its way through the early evening dusk.