Family separations at southern border prompt Detroit display

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
A sign reads "for the thousands of separated immigrant children" sits in front of the first Unitarian Church on Cass. Ave, in Detroit, June 17, 2019.

The scene is stark and eye-catching: hundreds of wooden stakes, topped by stuffed animals and other toys facing the street.

A banner that has hung over the display outside the Cass Corridor Commons in Detroit for the last two weeks explains its origins: “For the thousands of separated immigrant children.”

The message is meant to generate more than double-takes.

“We hope people would just realize the enormity of the wrong that was done, and is still going on, down at our southern border,” said Elaine Roseborough, the exhibit’s creator. “It can’t be swept under the rug.”

The 86-year-old retired attorney from Huntington Woods spent months working to create a public response to President Donald Trump's administration's actions last year separating more than 2,500 migrant children from their families at the U.S. border with Mexico.

International outrage forced Trump to halt the practice and a judge ordered the families reunited.

In January, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s internal watchdog reported that thousands more children may have been separated since the summer of 2017. The department’s inspector general said the precise number was unknown, the Associated Press reported.

The Justice Department said in a court filing in April that it will take at least a year to review about 47,000 cases of unaccompanied children taken into government custody between July 1, 2017, and June 25, 2018 — the day before U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw halted the general practice of splitting families, AP said.

The situation dismayed Roseborough, but she noticed that “after a few weeks it started to disappear from the news cycle. I thought something this enormous ought not to drop from public awareness. I felt there needed to be something dramatic to make the public realize just how many” youths were affected.

Through talks with friends and relatives, as well as inspiration from other public memorials honoring major events, Roseborough decided on an elaborate presentation that showcased the scope of the separations. She envisioned clusters of poles, representing large groups reaching the border, affixed with toys symbolizing youngsters. Some stakes are larger or smaller to depict their ages.

To gain support to bring it to life, Roseborough eventually connected with Indivisible Fighting 9, a grassroots advocacy group from Michigan's 9th Congressional District, which contributed volunteers.

Incorporating about 1,000 wooden pieces and curios found at Salvation Army shops, they erected the exhibit in late April near First United Methodist Church in Ferndale, where the group routinely meets.

The members, some of whom are involved in Amnesty International, also helped connect Roseborough with First Unitarian Universalist Church in Detroit, which has ties to Cass Corridor Commons, a nonprofit and green space, and is involved in social justice efforts.

The display dovetails with a campaign the church’s social justice committee has launched that focuses on highlighting refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants, UUC vice president Dan Wiest said.

It immediately attracted attention.

“As we were installing it, we had people who wanted to come help us,” Wiest said. “A lot of people (were) taking pictures on their phones, thanking us for doing it.”

The display of hundreds of stakes is set to remain near Cass and Forest for at least the next week. The third stop has not yet been finalized but could head to another church, Roseborough said.

“This is a moral issue as much as it is political.”