Federal workers toting takeout containers and ID badges were met Tuesday by dozens of protesters, arms linked and blocking the doors to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters.
The protest, in which hundreds marched from the Mall to ICE’s front door, was meant to disrupt the agency’s daily operations. The group descended on the Southwest Washington building at lunchtime.
“I need to get back to my desk. I’m supposed to leave in an hour,” said one federal worker who declined to give her name.
Tuesday’s protest was the latest in a national mobilization of Jews and immigration allies that have turned up over the past month outside ICE facilities in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Jersey and Philadelphia, calling for the dissolution of ICE and an end to the federal practice of detaining migrants at crowded detention centers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
More than 100 activists have been arrested at the protests, which invoke President Trump’s policies, as well as the unwillingness of some Democratic lawmakers to take a harder stance against them. Organizers said there will probably be more protests.
Unlike several prominent Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Relations Council, which have rejected comparisons that liken migrant detention facilities to concentration camps, activists calling themselves Never Again Action have supported the comparison popularized by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
“You can’t use a dictionary or an encyclopedia to understand the word ‘concentration camp,’ what you need is a calendar, because concentration camps over time turn into death camps if you don’t stop them,” said Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 85, who came from Philadelphia to stand outside the doors of ICE headquarters.
Waskow, who became a rabbi after beginning public life as a civil rights activist more than 55 years ago, said he was ready to be arrested. He stood at the door as officers inside milled about. On his shirt, Waskow wore this message: “Resisting tyrants since Pharaoh.”
“I’m not tired, but I am sad that it is still necessary to do this. I can’t imagine how my grandparents, who came to this country thinking they could make a life of freedom here, how they would be feeling now,” he said, his voice shaking. “It horrifies me to imagine.”
Several formerly undocumented immigrants told their own stories to the crowd, recounting their journey to this country and the fear they felt before being granted legal status.
The demonstration came days after a slew of nationwide immigration raids President Trump promised would begin Sunday failed to materialize.
Immigrants and advocates had been bracing for mass arrests after Trump said Friday he wanted agents “to take people out and take them back to their countries.” But federal law enforcement officials said they worried the unusual public disclosure of the plan endangered officers and threatened its effectiveness.
Activists said they were seizing on the opportunity to disrupt ICE and put a dent in the organization’s ability to do its job.
As Jews, several said, they felt compelled to stand against what they felt was a dangerous repetition of history.
“We are here as a diverse community to say, ‘We stand for human rights,’ ” said Sarah Manasrah of New York, who attended the march with her 4-month-old daughter in tow. “Just two generations ago we were being mass-murdered. We haven’t forgotten. Never again.”
Signs outside ICE headquarters bore passages from the Torah and compared ICE to Nazis — “ICE = Gestapo,” one read. “ICE, KKKops, Nazis ALL THE SAME!” said another.
Several workers who paused to take in the commotion while searching for a way back inside bristled at the comparison. One ICE employee who said he has worked for the agency for 13 years hurled an expletive at a demonstrator carrying such a sign.
“We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got,” he said. “The law is the law.”
Never Again Action organizer Sophie Ellman-Golan told him, “Laws can be anything you want them to be. The question is, are we going to decide when they are immoral and wrong or are we going to stand with them?”
As the day progressed, tensions grew sharper.
After watching several ICE employees emerge from doors on other sides of the building, demonstrators ran around to D Street SW to block the agency’s garage.
Linking arms as they stood toe to toe with officers from the Department of Homeland Security, activists called out to workers: “Quit your jobs,” they shouted. “Stand with us.”
But workers kept walking to the beat of their cries. One man did a jig as he strode past.