Hundreds of community members gathered at the Federal Building on Friday night for the Ann Arbor: Lights for Liberty vigil, joining more than seven hundred events planned around the world to bring awareness to and demand an end to conditions at immigration detention centers along the southern U.S. border.
Waving homemade signs and candles, protesters filled Liberty Street from Fourth Street to Fifth Street, which was closed off for the event. The mission statement on the official Lights for Liberty website said the events are planned to call out the “inhumane conditions faced by migrants.”
“We are a coalition of people, many of whom are mothers, dedicated to human rights, and the fundamental principle behind democracy that all human beings have a right to life, liberty and dignity,” the website reads.
As migrant families fleeing violence and poverty from Central America continue to be apprehended on the southern border in record-breaking numbers, an independent watchdog of the Department of Homeland Security reported “dangerous overcrowding” in migrant holding facilities.
Held for days, weeks or sometimes months past the 72 hour limit for short-term detention, migrants awaiting processing live in “squalid” conditions and often without necessary medical care. Twenty-four immigrants have died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement care thus far, including seven children.
In late June, Congress approved a $4.6 billion aid package for these detention facilities, passing a less restrictive Senate bill in a compromise by the House of Representatives. On Wednesday, the House Oversight and Reform Committee conducted a hearing on detention conditions.
Discovery of a secret Border Patrol Facebook group in which former and current agents joked about migrant deaths and threatened Latinx legislators has also provoked further outrage and an investigation into the group.
The vigils come ahead of ICE plans to begin arrests and deportations of undocumented individuals in 10 major cities this coming Sunday. Ann Arbor Lights for Liberty organizer Corky Wattles reminded the audience of this fact as she began the event.
Wattles led the audience in chants of “Don’t look away” before her opening remarks and explained the latter half of the event would be “solemn” and “in mourning” of border conditions. In her speech, she particularly urged young people in the audience to vote and become involved in activist efforts.
“Kids, hear me now: if everyone gets involved we can take our country back, the land of liberty and compassion,” Wattles said. “Not voting is never an option… Doing nothing is no longer an option.”
Earlier in the night, Wattles told the audience the event staff was collecting donations for several organizations. Rebeca Ontiveros-Chavez, an attorney at one of those organizations, the Michigan Immigrants Rights Center, spoke about her work representing hundreds of children in immigration court for deportation proceedings and other immigration matters.
“I want to make absolutely clear that it is not unlawful to seek asylum in the United States,” Ontiveros-Chavez said.
Ontiveros-Chavez explained she frequently works with clients who are detained for civil infractions, such as driving without a license. She told the story of one young boy who MIRC eventually helped reunite with his family but is showing the effects of trauma as he learns to walk and speak.
“I do want to say the pain and the suffering that is on the border extends here, to Ann Arbor, to Washtenaw County — here, to Michigan,” Ontiveros-Chavez said. “And I see it every single day… It’s really important to recognize trauma affects even children who cannot verbalize what has happened to them. What is happening to them now, they will experience and take with them for life.”
Ontiveros-Chavez explained individuals do not have the right to a free attorney to represent them in immigration court, as immigration proceedings are considered the jurisdiction of civil courts.
“But if you ask me, there is nothing civil about this system,” Ontiveros-Chavez said.
To end her remarks, Ontiveros-Chavez urged audience members to continue to raise awareness through activism, donate to immigrants rights organizations and contact their legislators.
Ann Arbor resident Sonja Knighton spoke about her interaction with another mother as she was dropping off her daughter at pre-school. Overcome with sadness and anger thinking of children in detention facilities, Knighton said she sighed, which prompted the other mother to comment “it’s been that kind of morning.”
Knighton, with “righteous” anger, told the mother what was actually on her mind. Believing she had confronted another’s ignorance, she was shocked when the other woman shared her ex-husband’s struggles as an undocumented immigrant.
Earlier that morning, Knighton’s daughter remarked Knighton had been “crying from love.” In reflecting on the incident, Knighton shared it reminded her of the power of “radical love.”
“And so what I’m asking for all of us is to stand in radical love,” Knighton said. “We must see that these children are sacred, that these families are sacred. We must stand up and step into our own sacredness, and step forward in radical love that inspires you to direct action.”
Hawa Hassan, a University of Michigan Social Work student pursuing her master’s degree, performed her poem, “Carrying Anticipation.”
“We carried with us the anticipation of the red, white and blue, until the red burned us, the blue drowned us and the white blinded and choked us with fear to return us to the homeland that couldn’t hold us,” Hassan said.
Following the speeches, attendees lit their candles and sang “This Little Light of Mine” as the sun began to set. Around 9 p.m., the crowd filed out of the Federal Building square and walked a loop through downtown for more than half an hour.
Ann Arbor resident Paola Walker explained she felt compelled to attend the event as she feels the immigration detention centers are an “abuse of power.”
“As a mother, it’s something that keeps up at night thinking about my children not having me tuck them in at night,” Walker said. “I don’t see why anybody wouldn’t be here.”
Walker said she came to the United States as a baby and is now a U.S. citizen. When she sees the detention facilities, she expressed she thinks “it could’ve been me.”
“I contribute to society, I’m the CEO of a company,” Walker said. “Immigrants come here not for handouts but to prove ourselves, to have the same rights and responsibilities as everybody else.”
LSA sophomore Stephanie Sorter said she thought it was important to attend the vigil because she believes the detention centers are a human rights violation.
“I felt like I had to try to do something,” Sorter said.
Similarly, Holly Hughes, School of Art & Design professor at the University, stated she believes protesting “illegal and immoral” immigration policies is a moral obligation.
“Detention camps are just concentration camps by another name,” Hughes said.
In an interview with the Daily, Wattles shared she had not anticipated how large the vigil would become.
“I expected ‘Oh, this will be a quiet little gathering of maybe about a hundred of us with our candles,’” Wattles said. “It was a great turnout, it was a great event. I’m real pleased.”
Ann Arbor resident Kathi Dvorin was eating at a restaurant downtown when the protestors walked past her. After the event, she commented on Wattles’s reflection post, sharing she felt “nudged” by the “incredible juxtaposition.”
“I just want to share what that quiet protest (the long, almost silent parade of people with candles) meant to me in my upper middle class comfort zone, sitting at a Main Street restaurant, drinking a cold glass of wine because I wanted to,” Dvorin wrote. “I wept. I was so moved by the many people quietly shuffling by with candles. I was moved by the children and their signs. I was embarrassed to be sitting there having a glass of wine.”
At the end of the event, Wattles reminded the audience to continue to fight against the immigration policies of President Donald Trump’s administration.
“Coming here, that’s wonderful, thank you all for coming,” Wattles said. “But now, you’re going to look at me, and you’re going to vow to do more.”
An earlier version of this article misidentified Rebeca Ontiveros-Chavez as Rebeca Chavez.