Hundreds of people gathered in First Ward Park on Saturday to protest the Trump administration's immigration policies that have led to the separation of thousands of children from their families at the southern U.S. border.
Charlotte's "End the War on Immigrants" rally and vigil was one of hundreds of events nationwide critical of the administration's "zero-tolerance" policy, which prosecutes all undocumented immigrants who attempt to cross the border.
Protesters came to the rally donning white shirts and carrying signs with messages such as "Immigrants Make America Great" and "Families Belong Together." The main "Families Belong Together" event took place in the nation's capital. Sister rallies were held in cities, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
In addition to reuniting families, speakers rattled off a list of demands, including calling on elected officials to defend detained families and their right to due process. The protesters also called for the resignations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
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"We're not just here to listen, all of us," Hector Vaca, one of the speakers, said. "We're here and we will leave ready for action."
The group's largest demand was for an end to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Liz Millsaps Haigler, a Charlotte activist, stood to the side of the crowd holding a sign that read "Abolish ICE," with a picture of a jailed child.
Dissolving the agency would be just one step toward comprehensive immigration reform, she said.
"We already have an immigration department, so we don't need ICE, and we don't need to put people in detention while they're waiting for citizenship," she said. "It hurts our communities to separate families."
Criticism of ICE was a theme nationwide Saturday, and President Donald Trump took to Twitter to defend the agency and its practices.
"The Democrats are making a strong push to abolish ICE, one of the smartest, toughest and most spirited law enforcement groups of men and women that I have ever seen," Trump said in a tweet Saturday morning. "I have watched ICE liberate towns from the grasp of MS-13 & clean out the toughest of situations. They are great!"
The president sent additional tweets Saturday criticizing the nation's immigration laws. In one tweet, he called the nation's immigration policies "the dumbest anywhere in the world," and insisted undocumented immigrants should swiftly be escorted out of the country when they try to enter illegally.
In Charlotte, protestors called for a shift in how people view immigration. Speakers said many of the families detained at the border are seeking asylum from dangerous conditions in their home countries.
"This country literally saved my mom's life," José Herández-París, a speaker from the Latin American Coalition, told the crowd.
Herández-París’ mother fled to the U.S. to escape an abusive relationship, and he has lived in Charlotte for 40 years. He called on the crowd to promote a welcoming environment in the U.S.
"I'll be damned if I let my children inherit a community of hate, violence and bigotry," he said.
In addition to Charlotte, rallies were held in other North Carolina cities, including Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, according to the main protest website.
LaVendrick Smith: @LaVendrickS