PORTSMOUTH — A vigil was held at South Church Friday night coinciding with nearly 800 similar events worldwide, shining light on the migrant crisis at the southern U.S. border, where the Trump administration continues to separate families, and migrants are being detained in unsanitary conditions.
The mass Lights for Liberty mobilization, which saw two events on the Seacoast in Dover and Portsmouth, came about 48 hours before Immigration and Customs Enforcement is expected to carry out raids in major U.S. cities. The Washington Post reported the raids will target 2,000 families in as many as 10 cities.
Nearly 100 people attended the vigil at South Church, which featured affidavits written by detained migrant children read aloud to attendees. The children’s stories referred to the detention and border patrol centers as “dog cages,” where they sleep on mats with aluminum blankets and use the toilet in front of a room of 50 others.
“I was full of anguish, I felt horror to see where we were,” a minor female from Ecuador wrote. “Officers have not told me anything about why I am detained, or about the immigration process. I do not have a lawyer, I have not spoken to a lawyer.” The same minor female wrote she was sleeping next to the toilet, because the room was so crammed.
Claudette Barker, a Portsmouth lawyer doing pro-bono immigration work through Immigration Justice and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, spearheaded Friday’s vigil. Last fall, she traveled to Dilley, Texas, home to the largest family detention center in the country.
“Most of these women didn’t have anyone to hear their stories,” Barker said. “They were just fleeing with their children in hopes to stay alive. They’re not coming to our country to steal from us, to take our jobs. They’re coming because they’re already dead where they were before, and I hate to make that so grave.”
David Shultz, who travels with Barker as an interpreter and also serves as a remote interpreter for Immigration Justice, said, “I think we’re all here because we all love our country and care deeply about how our country welcomes people, and how we care for people.”
He shared stories he’s heard from migrant women first hand, mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. “Many of the life stories I’ve heard are difficult for me to understand, and difficult for me to talk about,” Shultz said.
Shultz cited gang violence, police corruption and domestic violence as three major reasons people flee their countries. Gangs are recruiting boys as young as 12. Gangs charge women “taxes,” Shultz said, and as they fall behind in payments, the fear of death, rape and kidnapping becomes greater.
He called many of the women he’s spoken to “strong, smart and entrepreneurial.”
“They come to us because they’re desperate and they deserve to be treated humanely,” Shultz said. “I want us all to remember that these are human beings who have been suffering, and they come to the U.S. because they need help. They’re not just statistics.”
Lisa Cote, an American Civil Liberties Union volunteer, spoke about related upcoming events, including a forum at South Church on Aug. 8 called The Stark Reality for Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Immigration in America Today, featuring immigration witnesses, experts and activists. Beginning Wednesday, Aug. 21, a Solidarity Walk For Immigrant Justice will take place; a three-day walk from Concord to the Strafford County jail in Dover, which houses ICE detainees.
“What is being done by the U.S. government is outside of the realm of human decency,” Cote said. “Some of our ancestors were also fleeing persecution and terror, like many of those detained today.”
Cote called the situation at the border and the practice of family separation “a disgraceful episode of our nation’s history.”
Another affidavit read aloud, written by an 11-year-old girl from Ecuador, said the girl’s father disappeared in Mexico during their trek to the border.
“We eat, sleep and live in room 198,” the girl said. “There about 50 kids in there and eight or 10 beds. There are no workers inside to take care of us, so the kids try to take care of one another.”
The girl said she had only brushed her teeth once, and taken one shower.
“The reason we’re here tonight is about us, and all of us are us,” said the Rev. Lillian Buckley. “Everybody in the world is us.”
Buckley said no matter a person’s political affiliation, “we all have children and grandmothers. We know people need certain things.”
“It’s time to say we will not accept this,” she said. “We can fly during times of injustice. We don’t have to be bent over and afraid.”