You might have seen Bill Compher standing on a street corner in downtown Spokane, wearing a red, white and blue sandwich board with an urgent message.
“Migrant Children Traumatized,” the sign reads. “What If They Were Yours?”
Compher, a 69-year-old musician and grandfather, has been doing this for months, spending as many afternoons as he can with that sign, waging a lonely protest against the federal government’s treatment of immigrant children. That includes separating children from their parents and housing them in detention centers that critics, including Compher, call concentration camps.
“What’s going on at the border is a nightmare. It’s inhumane,” he said one recent afternoon, watching cars zip by him at Ruby Street and Mission Avenue. “If you treated pets as bad as they’re treating these kids, you’d be going to prison.”
Compher is from Ashford, Washington, near Mount Rainier, but he’s been staying with family in Spokane since October. He never has company while demonstrating. He said he doesn’t belong to any activist organization. He’s just dismayed by tragic stories that have emerged as President Donald Trump’s administration has tightened restrictions on asylum seekers and grappled with a surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I don’t have either party’s name on my sign,” Compher said. “It’s a moral question, not a political question.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s own internal watchdog, the Office of Inspector General, warned in a recent report of “dangerous overcrowding” and prolonged detention of migrants, including children, in squalid conditions in Border Patrol facilities in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. The report detailed a lack of food, hygiene and laundry facilities.
“They’re not like the Nazi death camps,” Compher said. “But they are, by definition, concentration camps.”
He fears those conditions are not widely known, however, which is why he’s made himself a human signpost.
“It’s all about public awareness,” he said. “The more that comes to light, the more people are going to be outraged, because I don’t think most Americans support that.”
Trump signed a $4.6 billion spending bill on July 1 to help cash-strapped agencies address what both parties have called a humanitarian crisis, though many Democrats had demanded stronger protections for migrants than the aid package provides.
Under the new law, agencies may not hold migrant children in unlicensed influx shelters for more than 90 days, and agencies must notify lawmakers within 24 hours if a child dies in custody.
Compher said he doesn’t believe that money will be used to improve conditions for detained migrants, whom he called “political prisoners.” He said he has received plenty of shouts of support for his message, but also plenty of anger.
A few weeks ago, Compher said, a man stopped his car at the intersection of Mission and Ruby and flashed a large knife while glaring at him.
“I still get nasty drive-bys,” he said. As if on cue, a passing driver shouted an expletive from a rolled-down window. “But I still think the good outweighs the bad.”
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