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‘Lights for Liberty’ Vigil Reflects Growing Resistance to Immigrant Detention Policies

Galvanized by the steady stream of disturbing details spilling out of U.S. immigrant detention centers, protests of inhumane conditions at the facilities are expanding. Now, a plan for a rally and vigil on Friday, July 12, has drawn widespread support, with more than 600 demonstrations planned on five continents. 

Lights for Liberty is helping organize vigils across the country with the goal of ending immigrant detention, and the coalition has struck upon a moment of mounting attention and action.

In June, lawyers and doctors toured facilities along the southern border holding migrant children, whose treatment is governed by the Flores Agreement. The result of a 1997 lawsuit, Flores established standards of care for minors. Appalled at what they discovered, including lack of basic nutrition and hygiene, the attorneys said they witnessed “flagrant and persistent” violations of the law and asked a judge to order immediate inspections. 

One of the lawyers on the tour was Toby Gialluca, and she was determined to spread the word. She called her friend and colleague, Elizabeth McLaughlin, an activist and attorney who also has a broad social media following. 

“We spoke for about an hour and it was really upsetting,” McLaughlin said. “She saw babies that were listeless and unresponsive. She saw teenage mothers who had gotten no medical attention, and a preemie baby born in Mexico who had not been given any medical attention and was in a dirty onesie.”

McLaughlin shared Gialluca’s accounts on Twitter, quickly garnering more than 55,000 retweets and linking with other immigrant rights organizations. Eager to parlay the momentum into something more substantial, they came up with Lights for Liberty. 

It started with five core events, in New York City, Washington, D.C., San Diego, El Paso, Texas, and Homestead, Fla. After three weeks of organizing, 608 local events in more than two dozen countries have joined the network. The first Women’s March in 2017 had 680 worldwide events, McLaughlin said, and Lights for Liberty hopes to exceed that figure by Friday. 

“Our perspective is that asking for asylum is legal and immigration is a civil matter, and there is no need for someone to be in detention if they are not charged with a crime,” McLaughlin said.

Lights for Liberty’s stated goal is to end “human concentration camps” and the group plans to keep going after the vigil, with a chief objective of supporting the numerous organizations at the local and regional level that are doing hands-on work with recent immigrant arrivals. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum rebuked Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for calling the detention centers “concentration camps,” but since then more than 400 Holocaust scholars have signed an open letter supporting the comparison.

“I did human rights law and they definitely meet the United Nations definition of crimes against humanity and genocide,” McLaughlin said. “ … Either intentionally or by negligence these facilities are designed to cause the death and elimination of a group of people.”

More than 52,000 immigrants were in federal custody in May, and at the end of 2018 a record number of immigrant children, 14,000, were being held. More than two dozen immigrants have died in custody since the start of 2017, and at least six migrant children have died in federal custody or shortly after they were released since September. 

In the last month, various sources have supported the Flores attorneys’ account. A recent inspector general report from the Department of Homeland Security discovered inhumane and squalid conditions, including standing-room only cells, at five Texas facilities. A joint New York Times and El Paso Times investigation of a Clint, Texas, detention center found unchecked outbreaks of scabies, chickenpox, and shingles.

President Donald Trump dismissed the Times investigation as a “hoax” and vowed to allow more access to the facilities. 

“I had people there that told me the job that they are doing is incredible.  And, in all cases, if you look—people that came from unbelievable poverty—that had no water, that had no anything where they came from — those are people that are very happy with what’s going on because, relatively speaking, they’re in much better shape right now,” Trump told reporters Sunday

While Lights for Liberty organizers felt compelled to action, they were surprised by how quickly it spread.  

“I think it demonstrates that what people are now seeing is far outside the norm and the outrage is worldwide,” McLaghlin said.  “… The reports we’re getting are that many of the people organizing these local events have never organized before, never sought permits, but this is a tipping point for them.” 

As the evidence of inhumane conditions has mounted, so has public resistance. In June, a newly formed group led by Jewish activists called Never Again Action disrupted activities at Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in Boston and New Jersey, where 36 people were arrested.

The Lights for Liberty events will kick off at 7 p.m. local time Friday with speeches from immigrants, advocates, faith leaders and other supporters, followed by a candle-light vigil at 9 p.m. 

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