Hundreds filled Park Square, all dressed in white, to protest the Trump administration.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — After years of living under Pol Pot's reign in Cambodia, Sopheap Nhim's family knew they had to get out.
In the fall of 1979, they made their break. Four adults and five children found themselves on the shores of the United States, just as so many other immigrants had throughout the history of this country.
"It is a miracle that 11 of us, five adults and six children, children between the ages of 18 months and 10 years of age, together we were able to escape and come to the United States. I am the youngest of those six children," Nhim said.
But Nhim's experience wasn't quite like it is today. President Donald Trump implemented a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to immigration that led to families being detained separately when they entered the country beginning April 6.
"When we arrived we were not held in detainment camps or separated from one another. We were not sent back or refused refuge. We were welcomed and given a second chance at life. I know that if my family was turned away and not allowed in the United States, if we were sent back to Cambodia, we would be dead," Nhim said.
Life wasn't easy here for Nhim. She was bullied and made fun of. She heard more than her share of racist remarks. But now Nhim has a master's degree in autism spectrum disorders and helps children in her job as a behavioral analyst. She is raising a family of her own. She's educated. She's worked hard.
"I speak because families deserve to be together and deserve a second chance at life," Nhim said.
Retired pediatrician Dr. Eli Newberger warned of the long-term impacts child separation has on the child.
"Separation from the people who can give them comfort is a traumatic impact and has lifelong implications," Newberger said.
Nhim told her story in front of hundreds, all dressed in white to denote peace and unity and holding signs in opposition to Trump's policies. A court has ruled against the administration's practice of separating families and has ordered they be back together within 30 days, and for children under the age of 5, 14 days. Although a recent executive order now calls for detaining families together, thousands of children have been relocated around the country and it is not clear when, or if, they will be reunited with their parents.
However, the zero-tolerance policy also remains in effect and many children may be held indefinitely.
For the hundreds in Park Square, and thousands across the country, that's unAmerican.
"This is not a place where we do this to people regardless of their nationality, regardless of their status. We do not separate families and we do not put children in cages. This is not the America all of us here live for, dream of, and love," Mayor Linda Tyer said.
The protestors were particularly upset with the administration's policy that separated families.
State Sen. Adam Hinds reflected on the last week when the court had to make a ruling on the immigration policy and the Supreme Court upheld the most recent travel ban on Muslim countries.
He remembered being in Iraq -- which isn't included on the list of countries on the ban list -- when a man came to him with a piece of paper, covered in blood, and with a bullet hole in it. The paper was in the man's son's pocket when he was shot.
"That's who is looking to come into this country as refugees. And yet, we are closing the door even after endless background checks. That's not who we are," Hinds said.
Hinds said the current immigration policy is a far cry from the principles upon which the country was founded. But, as he looked out at the hot and boisterous crowd, he said that in Pittsfield, the Berkshires, in Massachusetts, "you're welcome."
U.S. Rep. Richard Neal said twice in the last two weeks he voted against a "bad immigration bill." And he hopes Congress can come to an agreement on a bill.
"We ought to be able to find a way to reform the system because our economy right now, they need this immigrant labor -- high end, medium, and low end. We simply need them," Neal said.
But one thing he completely objects to is building a wall along the Mexican border.
Attorney Donna Morelli discussed some of the pending legal issues with immigration and urged people to donate to help pay the bonds for the families detained at the border. South Congregational Church's the Rev. Joel Huntington also spoke on the issue.
Similar protests were held throughout the country, organized by Families Belong Together and sponsored by numerous local activists groups. Close to a dozen local groups teamed up to organize the event in Pittsfield, which drew protesters from all over the county. There were also rallies held in Williamstown and Great Barrington and 38 other Massachusetts communities.
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