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Commissioner Womack leads way in signing commitment to discontinue ICE contract in Kent County

The immigrant right group Movimiento Cosecha GR came out in numbers again to the Kent County Commissioners meeting on Thursday, July 26, 2018 to protest Kent County's contract with the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Commissioner Robert Womack stands to speak during public comment

Commissioner Robert Womack stands to speak during public comment /John Rothwell

Signatures of Commissioners Womack and Melton on the contract from Cosecha GR

Signatures of Commissioners Womack and Melton on the contract from Cosecha GR /John Rothwell

Protesters sit in after public comment at Kent County Commission

Protesters sit in after public comment at Kent County Commission /John Rothwell

The immigrant rights group Movimiento Cosecha GR came out in numbers again to the Kent County Commissioners meeting on Thursday, July 26, 2018 to protest Kent County's contract with the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The commission recognized Eugene Gary from Juvenile Detention for his service and thoroughly questioned David Allen after his presentation on the Kent County Land Bank. Then over 20 people spoke during the public comment time, urging Kent County to end its contract with ICE, including Commissioner Robert Womack.

The commission chambers were noticeably different from last month's meeting when protestors filled the center of the room and crowded around the microphone to give their comments. Previously the media were along the side wall and behind the commissioners. At Thursday's meeting, at least one row of public chairs had been removed and media were encouraged to fill in that space. Line belts closed off the dias on either side and the center of the room with one bearing a sign that read "staff only beyond this point." Line belts also marked the line for public comment.

Gema Lowe, lead organizer of Cosecha GR began public comment. "There's an incentive for local agencies to stop people for minor traffic violations in case they don't have documents. There is money coming to the county because of this contract," Lowe said. Lowe then rolled from the podium a scroll of 1600 plus signatures from people in Kent County who don't want the Kent County Sheriff's Department to contract with ICE.

She was followed by several others including Matt Kruger who mentioned abuses by ICE recently reported including stealing identities, rape and other abuses. He then used the reminder of his three minutes playing the recording of separated children who were crying. Commissioner Betsy Melton briefly left during the recording.

Tonisha Begay presented the commission with an oversized check for $18,000 which she left in front of the podium, saying, "Is it worth it to separate 185 families?"

JR Martin noted, "ICE is very new. ICE was founded in March 2003. I am older than ICE is and most people in this room are older than ICE. We've all lived without ICE. A future without ICE is not just an ethical hope but an imminent possiblity. Listen to members of your community and respect their need for safety."

After 10 more commenters all calling for the ending of Kent County's contract with ICE, Commissioner Womack waited in line and spoke during public comment.

As Womack came up to give his comment, Lowe motioned a marker towards him and to cheers from the crowd, he signed the statement written by Cosecha. "With what all people of color go through in America, and they don't come to commission meetings every week. People are coming because babies are being ripped from their mother's breast. And we have to stop that and we can't be complicit in it. We do have some power and influence over the contract. We were a part of it. I wasn't on the board there and I wondered when I got on the board when people got grants from the state, why we would vote on it. Now I do understand why we do vote on that. We have to protect the public interest and this is the public," he said, motioning behind him.

Thomas Cavieros spoke about how his father was an undocumented immigrant, escaping the ravages of being forced to be a child soldier in Guatemala, saying "For all this county's flaws, I won the lottery," and emphasizing how different his life was able to be than his father's because his father had come to America.

Sergio Cira Reyes, volunteer organizer with Cosecha GR, called for "leadership and responsibility from elected officials." Cira Reyes then announced they were "going to sit in this morning until you sign the contract."

Several Cosecha supporters then gathered in front of the podium on the floor while Lowe lead the crowd in chants of "ICE out of Kent County!" and "End the Contract!"

Commissioner Jim Saalfeld called a "temporary suspension since we're out of order." Protesters sang "What side are you on? On the freedom side!"

Commissioner Betsy Melton stayed in the chambers while most other commissioners left the room or gathered in small groups to discuss the situation. Melton told Cosecha supporters her signing the contract was only symbolic and wouldn't hold up legally. She teared up as she was speaking, saying she agreed with them. Protesters pressed her saying her signing of the agreement was not just symbolic but a commitment to work to end the contract with ICE. Womack returned and said the signing was not just symbolic to him. He also urged those sitting in to let the meeting resume for 15 minutes, as the county had other regular business it needed to move through and then he and other commissioners were going to speak during a time called "Miscellaneous" on the meeting agenda. Lowe and supporters conferred with each other and Womack and Melton, seeking reassurances that resuming the meeting would lead to calls for the Kent County Sheriff's Department to end it's contract with ICE.

At about 10:55 a.m. the meeting resumed. Cosecha supporters held Womack and Melton to their 15 minute promise by calling out "5 minutes," and "10 minutes" on the dot. The commission approved the motions on its consent agenda and adopted some planned resolutions. When the agreed upon 15 minutes between Womack and the protesters were up, several phone alarms went off.

During the miscellaneous time on the agenda, Melton commended Womack for his stand and asked the commission to look more deeply at what could be done. She spoke passionately about how she felt as a parent in seeing other families separated from their children. Commissioner Jim Talen echoed her request to have a conversation among commissioners.

Womack again spoke fervently about his concerns. "It means something [to sign Cosecha's statement.] Us that say we support this, we can't be cowards at this time." He then compared the grilling the land bank recieved previously in the meeting over its original mission statement saying, "Where is it in the original mission statement that we will collaborate with an organization that's kidnapping children? Why aren't they held to the same level of scrutiny as the land bank?"

The crowd made several calls at this point for the commission to have the work session right then.

Commissioners David Bulkowski and Matt Kallman also spoke about their concerns with ICE and called for a work session. Melton again mentions her desire to deal with the issue and that signing the posterboard wouldn't really do anything.

Womack responded "Other counties are not suffering because they are not participating. I understand that signing that today is very important to me. Because somebody asked me to sign it if I agree that babies should be ripped apart [from their mothers] so I signed it because I totally agree. I know that signing that is just ornamental. But I'm not only willing to sign for human rights, I'm willing to die for human rights."

When the meeting was adjourned, Cosecha supporters chanted "We'll be back." Betsy Melton then came back out and signed the contract under Womack's name to cheers from the crowd. She hugged a child who'd come with her mother to speak against the contract with tears in her eyes.

Womack, Melton and Talen stood around after the meeting discussing the situation with Cosecha supporters. The next Kent County Commission meeting is Thursday, August 23, 2018 at 8:30 a.m. The meeting is on Kent County's YouTube channel in two parts, before the suspension and after the meeting resumed. There is a video of the entire proceeding, including the suspension from Movimiento Cosecha GR here.

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