WOODSTOCK – More than a hundred people gathered in front of the Shenandoah County Historic Courthouse Friday night, rallying around a cry for the more humane treatment of men, women and children fleeing their homes and searching for respite in the United States.
Debra Mace helped coordinate the local Lights for Liberty event, one of 788 identical vigils that took place across the country and internationally on Friday night.
As the sun began to go down and shade overtook the square, protesters carried their signs calling for an end to the detention centers holding immigrants awaiting their time before an immigration judge. Some of the protesters stood near the road, receiving approving honks and cheers from passersby.
Eric Stocker, a Star Tannery resident, said he has been a human rights activist for years. The fact that families were being separated at the border, Stocker said, was appalling.
“Human rights are human rights,” Stocker said. “They’ve got 12-year-olds taking care of 2-year-olds in these cages. That’s nuts. If you’re going to arrest the mother and child, you keep the child with the mother so she can take care of it.”
The Trump administration officially ended the policy of separating families at the border in June but there are still some exceptions that some accuse the administration of exploiting.
Tom Howarth, a Warren County resident who visited a respite facility in Texas, got up to speak from the courthouse steps, telling protesters about the sadness and confusion he witnessed.
The facility, run by Catholic Charities, served as a drop-off point for men, women and children who were released from detention facilities, Howarth said. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents would drop them off after leaving the camp as a midpoint before they got on buses to locate somewhere in the country while they await a hearing.
One man, Howarth said, was bound for Boston in March. The man didn’t know where he was going, Howarth said. When Howarth told him to go into a closet and grab the things he might need, he said he only picked up three T-shirts — he didn’t know what the weather was going to be like, Howarth said.
Before assisting in the respite facility, Howarth told the crowd he spent years traveling back and forth to El Salvador, meeting dozens of people he has kept in touch with.
Some of them, he said, he doesn’t hear from anymore because they have dropped off the map. Their families were targeted by gangs and, without the ability to fight back, they fled.
Howarth, with a soft voice, painted a vivid picture of the situation thousands of people wrestle with before beginning their journey to the border.
Lisa Johnson-Firth, an immigration attorney, told ralliers that the U.S. was responsible for these people running away from home, citing what she described as years of destabilization, often wrought by U.S. foreign policy, that contributed to gangs rising to power and forcing people from their homes.
“For the most part, I think people would prefer to remain in their own countries if they’re safe,” Johnson-Firth said. “What’s driving the migration crisis we have are extraordinary circumstances south of our border.
“We’re talking about reparations for slavery in our country,” she continued. “We may need to think about reparations for the harm that we’ve done south of our border. We have an obligation to those people. A moral obligation.”
Jorge Amselle, a candidate for Warren County sheriff, said he could sympathize with the families waiting at the border for their hearings. He was born in the U.S., he said, but he and his family traveled back and forth before they settled here during the revolution — which revolution, Amselle said, he couldn’t remember.
“I’ll tell you first hand, people want to live in their own countries,” Amselle said. “They don’t necessarily want to come here if they don’t have to.”
Amselle, who has a Juris Master degree from George Mason University, and Johnson-Firth both referred to spoke about the process of denying asylum to people flooding the border.
Amselle said it wasn’t hard to follow the law. If it’s on the books, he said, that’s what should be done.
Johnson-Firth said the U.S. is impinging on the due process rights of migrants by putting them in camps while they await a hearing with an immigration judge to determine their status. If their rights are violated, Johnson-Firth said, every citizen should be concerned about what could happen next.
“Their erosion of rights is the canary in the coal mine that should give us an awakening as to what is happening to our legal system and our due process system,” she said. “It’s very important we keep an eye on that and stand up for all people’s rights and human dignity.”