The rally began with drums and a reminder that the story of most Americans began somewhere else.
A representative of the Piscataway Indian Nation addressed a crowd of thousands assembled in Lafayette Square on Saturday in Spanish, then English. Sebastian Medina-Tayac burned tobacco, a Native American prayer tradition, said a prayer and then sang an indigenous-language song from Bolivia that means, “take courage.”
“We don’t believe in borders. We don’t believe in walls,” Medina-Tayac said.
The rally ended with a march past the White House and the Trump International Hotel and on to the Department of Justice, where protesters affixed signs to the building gates:
“We are better than this,” one said.
“Las familias merecen estar unidos,” said another, which translates to “Families deserve to be united.”
Starting around 9 a.m., thousands had made their way to Lafayette Square, with many more filling in along 16th Street and into Farragut Square, areas that had been blocked off in anticipation of 50,000 protesters’ arrival in the District.
The crowd seemed somewhat shy of that, although organizers said aerial photographs indicated it was still in the tens of thousands.
About 750 similar “Families Belong Together” rallies were planned throughout the country in every state — from big cities such as Boston, Chicago and New York to tiny ones such as Antler, N.D., which has a population of 27.
The message: End President Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which has split children from their parents and detained families crossing the southern U.S. border.
With temperatures hovering in the 90s in downtown Washington, organizers made repeated calls to the crowd to drink water and use sunscreen. About two hours into the rally, several demonstrators received medical attention after apparently falling ill from the heat. A few hundred yards from the stage, at the intersection of Jackson and H streets NW, a firetruck began spraying its hose into the air, cooling off the crowd. Children attending the march with their parents streamed into the spray.
There were many immigrants in the crowd — some whose families came long ago and others much more recently arrived. Several near the stage cheered and shouted “Bienvenidos,” or “Welcome,” as one of the latter, a woman named Jocelyn, took the microphone early in the day.
Jocelyn, who did not give her last name, said she came to the United States with her son from Brazil in August of last year. That’s when it happened to her, she said: The two were separated.
Held in a detention facility in Texas, Jocelyn did not know where her child was for two months, she said. Authorities at the facility told her he could be relinquished for adoption, she said, as gasps came from the crowd.
“I spent many days sick and without hope,” she said in Spanish. “I wanted to join this fight to get my son back and for all the mothers who are suffering so far away from their children.”
It took nine months to be reunited with her son, she said.
At each mention of the government, Border Patrol agents or the Trump administration, the crowd erupted into chants of “shame, shame, shame.” Later, as they passed the Trump International Hotel, protesters booed and chanted “vote him out.”
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), attended rallies in their home states. In New York City, marchers heckled the headquarters for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, as they passed. Demonstrators in Kentucky gathered outside Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s Bowling Green office, and massive crowds in Chicago chanted “sí, se puede” — yes, we can.
Some protesters held signs calling for the dissolution of ICE, a recent rallying cry of lawmakers and immigration-rights groups. But that was not the purpose of Saturday’s march, organizers said.
“We have three main demands,” said Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn.org, which co-sponsored the event. “Reunite families now, end family internment camps, and end the zero-humanity policy that created this humanitarian crisis and chaos in the first place.”
Several celebrities, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the musical “Hamilton,” singer-songwriter Alicia Keys and actor America Ferrera, lent their fame to the protest.
Miranda, who walked out to screams from the Washington crowd, said simply: “We’re here because there are parents right now who can’t sing lullabies to their kids. I’m just going to sing a lullaby that I wrote.”
He sang, a cappella, a song from his megahit show in which founding-father characters Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton sing to their newborn children during the Revolutionary War.
Keys and Ferrera, herself the child of Honduran immigrants, read letters from parents and grandparents separated from children.
Later, a tearful 12-year-old from Florida named Leah, whose mother is undocumented, told the crowd that she is afraid every day that the government could take her mother away from her. She sobbed as she recalled the stress of her daily life, not knowing whether today or tomorrow would be the day her family is confronted by immigration officials.
She struggles to concentrate, to sleep, to do homework.
“I don’t understand why they are being so mean to us children,” the girl said. “Don’t they know how much we love our families? Don’t they love their families, too?”
The list of nearly 30 speakers in Washington included a Holocaust survivor, who was separated from her mother for two years while the two were in hiding, and a survivor of a U.S. internment camp for Japanese Americans who was taken from his mother for three weeks because he was ill and would not be allowed into the same camp as his family.
Actor Diane Guerrero cried as she recalled the deportation of her Colombian parents and the struggle she and her brother have faced since.
They all said the separations affected them and their relationship with their families for the rest of their lives.
“We have been this way before, and we mustn’t forget,” the Rev. Traci Blackmon of the United Church of Christ said. “History says remember. History says love always wins. . . . We are standing on the side of love.”
The crowd that stood, listening, was full of families, mothers and children with homemade signs and T-shirts, hand-drawn and finger-painted.
In the midst of it all, an infant sat on a parent’s shoulders, red words written on the back of his onesie: “Ni una mas.” Not one more.
Florencia Fuensalida and John Van Zandt, who have both worked for years with immigrants, admitted that they have not told their 3-year-old son Bastian why they are marching today, but they have practiced chants with him: We respect everybody. We love our friends.
“Immigrants are coming here to survive,” Fuensalida said. “Then they get here, and they get ripped of the only thing they have, their families.”
At seven months pregnant, no one would have blamed Caitlin Crowl for sitting out the nearly two-mile walk or the 90-plus-degree day — but, she said, she wasn’t going to let any of that stop her from attending this rally.
“This is one baby I can take care of, but there are thousands of others that aren’t being taken care of, who don’t have a voice,” said Crowl, 28.
The bulk of the protest took place on a stage assembled just across the street from the White House, symbolism organizers relished. But President Trump was not there. He was scheduled to spend the weekend at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J.
Still, that did not discourage speakers from name-checking the president in their remarks or protesters from making the trek to Washington to be seen in his backyard.
Lexi and Mya Thompson, sisters from Phoneix, Ariz., said they decided to attend Saturday’s protest in the middle of a family vacation with their mother because of the president’s rhetoric on immigrants.
Lexi and Mya, who at 19 and 17 are both studying at Arizona State University, said being from Arizona, they were particularly troubled by Trump’s assertions that “border cities” are unsafe, plagued by criminals who cross the border illegally from places like Mexico.
“Living there, I know that’s not true,” Lexi said. “We live miles away from the border. Nothing happens. I feel safe in my city.”
Her sister nodded and took a sip from her pink water bottle, readjusting her grip on a sign reading, “AMERICA, DO BETTER.”
Protesters, led by organizers from MoveOn.org, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, were joined by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who earlier in the week had been arrested along with nearly 600 others in a sit-in at the Hart Senate Building.
“I see this, as my colleague John Lewis would say, as good trouble,” Jayapal said in an interview before the march. “I see standing up against horrible, inhumane policies and not allowing my name to be linked to this to be just as important as standing up for the good things that the government does.”
One protester from Alabama said he had traveled 11 hours alone to be in Washington on Saturday because he felt the country was on the wrong path. In his hands, he held the Bible and an American flag, hung upside down on its post.
“We’re in distress,” said Garrick Rawls, 32. “This is what distress looks like.”
Reis Thebault, Miela Fetaw, Perry Stein and Amy Zahn contributed to this report.