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Students Protest Ahead of Obama's Civil Rights Speech

The day before President Obama speaks at the Civil Rights Summit, a group of about 30 protesters took aim at the president’s record on deportations during a demonstration at the University of Texas at Austin.

Patrick Fierro and other activists chant during a protest at the University of Texas at Austin on April 9, 2014. They were protesting the Obama administration's record on deportations.

The day before President Obama gives his keynote address at the LBJ Presidential Library's Civil Rights Summit, a group of about 30 protesters took aim at the president’s record on deportations during a demonstration at the University of Texas at Austin.

“I want to show my community that I’m here for them, that I will fight for them,” said Juan Belman, 21, an engineering major and one of four protesters who chained themselves to a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. during Tuesday’s demonstration on the east side of campus.

An immigrant himself, Belman said his father went through deportation proceedings three years ago and that he has several close friends who have been deported. “Too many families are being separated, and we cannot stand for children being left behind,” he said.

The Obama administration is on track to oversee a record number of deportations. During President George W. Bush’s time in office, just over 2 million people were deported. During Obama’s time in office, 1.8 million people have been deported so far. The administration has said that it’s following the law and that deportations target criminals first.

At Wednesday’s protest, organized by United We Dream, a national youth-led organization devoted to immigrants rights, and UT-Austin’s University Leadership Initiative, students and local activists rallied with signs that read “Obama’s civil rights legacy: 2,000,000 deportations” and classic protest songs, including “We Shall Overcome.”

Immigrant advocates at the protest said the deportations are tearing families apart.

“Once Obama goes home, he gets to see his children, while many parents don’t have that opportunity,” Belman said. “I hope he hears about this and understands.” 

The three-day Civil Rights Summit is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In addition to Obama, former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, along with lawmakers from around the nation, are taking part.

Elisa Ramos, a spokeswoman with UT-Austin’s dean of students, said the university was notified of the protest on Tuesday.

“We respectfully support the students’ right to express their opinions,” Ramos said.

Along with immigrants rights advocates, LGBT advocates were part of the demonstration.

Transgender individuals are especially at risk for discrimination in immigrant detention centers, said Patrick Fierro, 36, the state leader of GetEqual, a national group dedicated to ensuring the safety and equality of the LGBT community.

“Many of them are seeking asylum after leaving the country where they were being assaulted or raped, just to be sent back to be violated again,” he said.

Fierro, who also chained himself to the statue during the protest, is the son of immigrants. Six years ago, he said, his father was deported to Mexico. “I haven’t been able to come out to him as gay,” he said, “because I’d really like to do it in person.” 

Fierro and other advocates chanted “undocumented and unafraid, queer, queer and unashamed."

Moses Bravo, 20, stopped by when he heard a demonstrator speaking in Spanish. As a first-generation American, he said, the issue of deportations resonated with him.

“It really hit home,” Bravo said. “This is America, a country built on hopes and ideals and dreams.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. The LBJ Library and Museum was a corporate sponsor in 2011, 2012 and 2013. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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