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As a young child, Dayana Paula was separated from her mother for several years — now 34, she couldn’t remember exactly how long — when her mother left their native Dominican Republic to build a better life for the family.
They reunified eventually, but she said she was never the same.
“Being separated from my mother was like one of the most traumatic things that I ever endured,” said Paula, who now researches childhood development at Florida International University.
On Saturday, Paula was one of several hundred Floridians with a message for President Donald Trump: Give migrant children separated at the border back to their families. She was among those protesting Saturday evening at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, which is housing about 1,200 migrant children, including 70 recently separated from their parents at the border.
“I empathize with these children,” Paula said. “I didn’t even have the same kind of trauma. This is on another level.”
Just before 5 p.m., the group marched toward the shelter, where guards and police officers waited. Mothers held their kids’ hands and fathers hoisted youngsters onto their shoulders at the front of the line. They chanted, “No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here!” and left stuffed animals along a short wall outside the shelter.
“I do not know you but you are my child now,” one woman’s sign read. Another read, “Jesus cares.”
The federal government’s policy of separating immigrant parents from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border has angered many, with two-thirds of Americans calling the policy unacceptable, according to a recent CBS News poll.
While President Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order that called for keeping families together, the order did not address the estimated 2,300 children separated at the border since Trump enacted his “zero-tolerance” policy in April.
Earlier in the day, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, was one of five members of Congress — including U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, and U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami Gardens — who toured the facility.
Wasserman Schultz told the Miami Herald that two other shelters in Miami-Dade County were housing young children who were 5 and younger. Those shelters were His House Children’s Home in Miami Gardens and Catholic Charities’ Msgr. Bryan Walsh Children’s Village, formerly known as Boys Town, in Cutler Bay.
At the protest, police officers handed out water bottles to any who wanted them. As the crowds streamed toward the shelter and cars driving in the opposite direction honked, some more radical propositions surfaced.
“Abolish what?” one demonstrator shouted into a megaphone.
“Abolish ICE!” many in the crowd replied, referencing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Michelle Assaad, 24, was joined by her mother Natalia, 48. The two drove to Homestead from Tampa on Saturday morning to send a message to the nation’s leaders.
When she was 5, Michelle and her mother fled Venezuela ahead of Michelle’s father. She spent a week separated from her father, an experience she said has always stuck with her.
“I just remember feeling sad,” she said. “I put myself in their shoes because I kind of know how they feel.”
Kathleen Laraz, 25, said she took a train and two buses to get there from Coral Gables, even though she was sick.
“I’m here because I saw pictures of children in cages and I couldn’t sit idly by and do nothing about it,” she said. “I don’t really feel that this protest will change anything, but my conscience wouldn’t let me stay at home knowing that this event was going to happen.”
The protesters were met by a Trump supporter who called them Nazis and shouted insults their way.
“Shame! Shame! Shame” they retorted.
“I don’t want to divide families. Just come legally,” said Bob Kunst, one of the counterprotesters “The Democrats and the Republicans are both full of it, and we have to pick up the tab.”
As the chants reached their climax — at least one protester began to cry as she yelled for someone to listen — the bloated sky popped, dumping curtains of rain on the ground below.
And as quickly as it began, the protest ended. Demonstrators walked back to their cars parked a mile away, but the children inside the migrant shelter remained.
Virginia Kondas, 43, shielded her black hair from the rain with a white picket sign that read, “Outrage! Families belong together.”
“I came to support the children, to support these immigrant families — because it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “For me, it’s a blatant human rights violation and I could not sit back in my comfortable apartment and watch things happen and unfold before my eyes and not take action.”
Miami Herald staff writer Joey Flechas and Miami Herald writer Tiana Headley contributed to this report.