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30 parents & their kids protest family separation at McSally's office

About 30 parents and their children held a "play date" at U.S. Rep. Martha McSally's office in Tucson on Wednesday to protest the separation of thousands of migrant children from their parents as part of a new "zero tolerance" policy along the U.S.-Mexico border.

For just over an hour Wednesday, while staff from McSally's office looked on, parents read books to their children, while other kids drew pictures, ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or painted signs, including a large one hung on the wall that read "family separation is state violence." 

Staff allowed parents to leave with their children for bathroom breaks, but tried to hold the media at bay.

TucsonSentinel.com covered the event, but our reporter was soon asked to leave by Taj Sultan, McSally's director of operations. Other media outlets also covered the event, and were asked to leave and conduct interviews in the hallway.

The demonstration at McSally's Tucson office came as public outcry grows against a policy set by the Justice Department and Homeland Security to prosecute parents for illegal entry or illegal re-entry. While parents may face 30 to 180 days in prison, their children are held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement before they're turned over to another federal agency, and eventually handed over to family members, guardians, or foster families. 

At least 10,000 migrant children are being in government custody, and that number will grow even as U.S. officials struggle to find places for their custody. On Tuesday, McClatchy uncovered that officials with Health and Human Services are considering using Fort Bliss, an army base near El Paso, Texas, as the site for a tent city to hold up to 5,000 immigrant children pulled away from their parents.

At the Republican congresswoman's Midtown office, Kate Selby Nierenhausen sat on a leather couch and read books to her daughter, 3-year-old Ada. 

"The thought of families being separated cuts me to the heart," Nierenhausen said. "It's awful, and knowing that we are inflicting psychological harm to these children to gain political points is just awful. It's inhumane." 

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Nierenhausen said the demonstration was "an opportunity to talk about that in a positive way." 

"I feel so lucky to spend time with my child, and I can't imagine her being torn away," she said. "So, anything I can do is worth trying." 

After an hour, the group left the office marching into the hallway signing "You are my sunshine." 

Todd Miller, who was with his 2-year old son William, said earlier, "As a father, better you rip my heart in half than forcibly separate my two-year-old from me. What is happening today is the most depraved form of torture, a dire violation of the human spirit and human rights. It needs to stop immediately."

Alison Harrington, the pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church, known for its immigration activism since the 1980's when thousands of Salvadorans came to the U.S. seeking asylum, was there with her daughters, Naomi, 6, and Julia 4. 

Harrington said that the event was parents and children coming to pressure McSally to "speak out against family separation and call for immediate reunification of children who have been taken from their parents." 

McSally is in Washington, D.C., and did not communicate with the group with they were in her office. 

Members of the House, including McSally, are negotiating over immigration legislation likely to be voted on next week. This includes legislation now backed by McSally after she abandoned a previous bill that would have regularized the status of "Dreamers"—young people who were given deferred action from deportation by immigration authorities. 

Last year, McSally signed on to a letter that asked House Speaker Paul Ryan to move forward on the bill, arguing that "Congress has a responsibility and a duty to address this problem legislatively" and that the status of DACA recipients "should not be left to the political winds of different administrations that come to power."

However, in recent weeks, McSally has pushed hard for the Securing America's Future Act, a GOP-led bill that would only allow DACA recipients to reapply for their deferred status while giving billions to DHS for border security measures. 

On June 1, McSally brought Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to Arizona to tour the border, and during the trip both McSally and Nielsen defended the separation of parents from their children while arguing that people were exploiting "legal loopholes." 

This includes the Flores settlement, an agreement made between the government and plaintiffs following a 1997 lawsuit on the treatment of children in detention, and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, a 2000 act of Congress designed to protect victims of human trafficking, which limits DHS from promptly returning unaccompanied minors to their home country if they from anywhere besides Canada or Mexico. Covered by law are more than 25,000 children who have fled violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras and come to the United States this fiscal year. 

Also included is Zadvydas v. Davis, a 2001 Supreme Court decision which said that the U.S. government cannot hold an immigrant in indefinite, potentially permanent detention, and thus must release an immigrant after six months if their home country will not accept their return.

Trump administration officials have tried chipping away at these protections over the last year, including a decision on Tuesday from Attorney General Jeff Sessions who ordered immigration judges and asylum officers at U.S. ports to halt considering sexual violence and domestic abuse as a reason to accept immigrants into the country to pursue their case.

"We're heartbroken, disgusted, nauseated at what we're doing right now. So we came to change dirty diapers, so she could change her dirty ways, and if she doesn't change these horrible dirty policies, then we'll make sure there's a change in the leadership," said Harrington during the office protest.

Harrington said that although they did not hear from McSally during the event, but that "we were able to communicate with her staff, and we will continue to press forward and do everything that we can." 

"If any of us were in this kind of situation, we'd hope that the community would rally around us to get our kids back to us," Harrington said. 

Harrington finished her thought, and turned to her youngest daughter, 4-year-old and asked to tie her shoelaces. 

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Kate Selby Nierenhausen reads a book to her daughter Ada during a 'play date' to protest the separation of immigrant families at the U.S. border, in U.S. Rep. Martha McSally's office in mid-town Tucson Wednesday.