Singing songs and carrying signs, South Valley residents took to the streets last week to voice their concern over the treatment of children at the southern border with Mexico by agents of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The candlelight vigil and protest were held the evening of Friday, July 12, at Memorial Park in downtown Visalia. More than 100 people attended the event, which was held in conjunction with Lights for Liberty, a series of more than 800 similar events held around the globe.
The mass protests are a response to conditions at several detention centers ranging along the US border with Mexico. More than 20,000 children–who have been separated from their families–are being held in crowded and unsanitary conditions, often without adequate hygiene and access to drinking water while being subject to abuse, according to independent observers and official reports from case workers for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
‘Racism and Hate’
Julia Jump Doyal, who organized the Visalia event, said the intent of the protest was “to close the camps, to shine a light on the concentration camps.” It was President Trump’s online remarks, however, that inspired her to take up the cause.
“Every single day, I check my Twitter feed and there’s some insane tweet (from Trump),” she said. “The racism and hate have just been emboldened. Now, he wants to get rid of the brown people.”
Doyal, who describes herself as a recovering evangelical Christian, says she believes she was called to make the effort.
“I had a near-death experience nine months ago. I was in a coma for a week,” she said. “I recovered, and I feel like I have to pay back. I really feel I was spared.”
A Matter of Faith, Democracy
Reverend Suzy Ward of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, who spoke during the candlelight vigil portion of the event, said she was there both for herself and as a representative of the church. Ward expressed deep concern about the Trump administration’s policy of dividing families of undocumented immigrants who have entered the United States without permission.
“I’m speaking as a person of faith,” she said. “This policy doesn’t reflect our baptismal covenant that calls on us to respect every person.”
Ward’s sentiments are in line with her church’s official stance. In May, the Fresno-based Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin, sponsored the Pilgrimage of Hope. During that event, members of the church marched from Fresno to Sacramento to highlight the plight of those immigrants seeking refuge in the US. Treating migrants, especially children, humanely is part of the American ideal.
Ward cited the biblical story of the Good Samaritan–a parable told by Jesus, who described a traveler using his own resources to aid another who had been attacked, robbed and injured–as a standard for behavior.
“I think our values–whether they’re small-D democratic–requires us to respect the Statue of Liberty,” she said. “But, my faith also calls me to be like the Good Samaritan.”
Shades of Nazi Germany
The signage on display at the rally called for keeping children with their families and condemned the behavior of ICE, as well as the unsanitary and crowded conditions at detention facilities. There were also many comparisons between ICE’s treatment of migrants and the concentration camps used by the Nazis during World War II.
Inka Christansen, who migrated to the US from Germany in 1981, says the images she sees of the migrant detention centers are frighteningly reminiscent of events in her former country’s past.
“It really brings back the feelings of what happened during the Nazi era,” she said. “It’s just inhumane and unthinkable this can happen.”
Most of those passing by Memorial Park during the Lights for Liberty event honked and waved to show their support for the protesters. While it wasn’t clearly an objection to the protest, only one motorist seemed upset by what he saw.
“Go Trump and God bless America,” the man screamed as he drove past.
Martha Widmann, a resident of Three Rivers, said compassion drove her to join the protest.
“I’m here because I have been heartsick with the whole fiasco at the border,” she said. “I recognize this is a complex issue, but it’s very un-American.”
She believes those who support the actions by ICE would feel differently if their own children were treated in a similar manner.
“I know there are people who have children that wouldn’t like it,” she said.
LIsa Alvarado, an activist with the Latino Community Fund, said she was concerned about the damaging impact on children who have been separated from their families and detained by ICE.
“I was talking with the teachers about the long-term effects,” she said. “It re-fired my commitment.”
Alvarado also wanted to set an example.
“We embody the courage for others,” she said. “A lot of people feel helpless, and this is a good way to overcome apathy.”
Among the speakers who addressed the vigil was Vera Castillo, a Visalia resident who recently visited the Migrant Resource Center in San Antonio, Texas. Busloads of recent migrants have been dropped off in that city’s downtown with little or no resources, she said.
“The border is a militarized zone,” Castillo said.
Much of the imagery currently in the media depicts Latinx immigrants from Mexico and Central American countries, but many of those she spoke to were refugees from Haiti and the Republic of the Congo. Those depictions, she said, create unfounded fear.
“They’re (major media outlets) projecting brown Latin people,” Castillo said. “On the ground, it’s different. That was an experience that changed my life.”
Jovita Harrah, an immigrant who came to the US from Guyana, called for more than just thoughts and prayers to aid those languishing in ICE detention centers.
“We can’t just pray. We have to do something else,” she said. “We came here for a better life; they came here for a better life. We need to help them.”