Out of sight, not out of mind

Some 200 people showed up to the Lights for Liberty vigil held at Freedom Park in New Brighton on July 12. The event was one of more than 800 happening nationally to protest conditions at migrant detention centers along the U.S.-Mexico border. (photos courtesy of Maria Paik )

Attendees lit each other’s candles prior to observing a moment of silence at the vigil. Many of those present were from New Brighton proper, but some came from as far away as Ramsey — 20 miles to the north — to attend the event.

New Brighton residents hold vigil for migrants detained at southern border

At Freedom Park in New Brighton, roughly 2,000 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, residents gathered on July 12 in solidarity with migrants being detained along the nation’s southern edge.

The vigil was one of some 800 held simultaneously across the country aimed at protesting overcrowding, lack of proper sanitation and long stays at detention centers along the border. The movement, started via social media, is called Lights for Liberty.

New Brighton’s vigil, organized by resident and public health professional Catherine Harrison, was the only one of its kind in the north metro. Others were held at the Ramsey County Law Enforcement Center and Fort Snelling, where the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has its state headquarters. 

Harrison said organizing her own event in the community, as opposed to attending a larger gathering, was a chance to see where her neighbors were on the issue and to form connections in a more intimate setting. 

“Our opportunity was more to start a conversation,” she said. “I didn’t really know how many people would come to something like that in New Brighton.”

According to Harrison’s sister and co-organizer, Maria Paik, about 150 people marked themselves as “interested” in the event on Facebook. Harrison expected only 50 or so to actually show up, and was pleasantly surprised by the more than 200 people who came out.


Reports out of Texas

The gathering began around 8:30 p.m., when residents were invited to share their reasons for attending the event. Almost everyone who spoke cited reports coming out of the south, detailing inhumane conditions in detention centers where migrants who cross the border illegally are now being held for extended periods of time.

A report released in early July by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security detailed overcrowding at facilities along the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. It described standing room-only cells, children without showers and many migrants being detained for longer than the 72 hours generally permitted. 

A 124% increase in the number of border patrol apprehensions since May 2018 has caused a backlog in the system, making ICE unable to take migrants from the patrol, because it too has nowhere to house the people, according to the report. 

In addition, the U.S. government has severely limited the number of asylum-seekers it lets in at the border, according to advocacy group the American Immigration Council. This has led many fleeing violence to seek entry illegally, often leading to detention.


Reasons for showing up

A few who spoke at the New Brighton event were teachers; many were parents, who said they wouldn’t want what was happening to migrant children to happen to their own family. 

One resident recalled the Vietnam War protests and the Civil Rights Movement, saying that direct action has always been one of the most effective agents of change. Others encouraged everyone present to get out and vote the people responsible for the current immigration policy out of office.

“While I appreciate a long-term plan,” one woman responded, “in the meantime, we have children dying in our custody. That requires more than voting differently. We don’t have time, those children don’t have time.”

New Brighton City Council member Graeme Allen addressed the audience and said one local action residents could take was educating immigrant neighbors on their rights when confronted with immigration enforcement. 

Because President Donald Trump has ended temporary protections for some immigrants already living in the U.S., more residents are able to be deported. In an interview, Allen recalled that the last time ICE had done a large sweep in New Brighton was almost two years ago. 


New Brighton’s policy

According to New Brighton Mayor Val Johnson, it’s not protocol for city employees or law enforcement officials to ask about a person’s immigration status. 

“We want everyone to feel that they can call the police if they need help, if there’s an emergency situation, a medical situation,” she said.

Tony Paetznick, the city’s director of public safety, said his department does not have a cooperative agreement with ICE, and is usually the last to find out about the federal agency’s presence in the city. 

“We don’t really get involved in the function of immigration policy, because it’s a federal issue,” he said. 

The Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office has a similar policy of not asking about a person’s immigration status during questioning, and not holding people solely on federal immigration offenses, according to Public Information Officer Roy Magnuson.


A lot of faith, a little time

After residents had shared their reasons for coming, the Rev. Amy Wick Moore, associate minister at New Brighton’s United Church of Christ, addressed the crowd. 

She read a passage from the Bible: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”

In addition to Moore, a handful of the residents who spoke also brought up religious reasons for attending the event. Many were Christian and said that they felt called by the Bible to act.

After Moore spoke, she led the crowd in singing “This Little Light Of Mine,” while lighters were passed around and attendees lit candles, one by one. At 9 p.m., the crowd observed a moment of silence in solidarity with the other Lights for Liberty events happening across the country.

Despite frequent mentions of faith, the event was secular. Said Harrison, “I have not yet met anyone who says that those detention centers represent their values, and that they actually believe people should be treated that way.”

She added that organizing the vigil came at a particularly busy time for her. She felt that the stressors of work, family and other commitments are the primary factors keeping more people from taking part in direct action protesting detention center conditions.

“Part of what we need to do is not just address the issue itself,” Harrison said, “but the conditions that are allowing us to be less connected, less democratically engaged, less civically aware of the systems and policies that allow things like this to happen.”


Next steps

She said she hopes to continue organizing with the New Brighton residents she met at the vigil. A fair amount of people signed up for an email list to stay in touch and try to organize future action.

While brainstorming, Harrison mentioned the importance of relationship building and said that the next step might just be a year of in-home meetings. Maybe, she said, next time the group meets, everyone could bring one person who’s less familiar with the issue or less clear on where they stand.

“Policy change is super important,” said Harrison. “But, if it’s not supported by hearts- and mind-change, we’re going to create further division.”


–Bridget Kranz can be reached at bkranz@lillienews.com or 651-748-7825.

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