WATSONVILLE — More than 500 people gathered at Watsonville’s City Plaza for Friday’s Lights for Liberty vigil, a worldwide event planned across five continents hoping to raise awareness of conditions in the immigration detention facilities at the U.S.-Mexico border.
A who’s who of officials from the local, county and state levels spoke to the hundreds circled around a makeshift altar in the Plaza’s lawn — an acknowledgment of the indigenous people of Watsonville, according to organizers.
Many carried signs reading “immigrants are welcome here,” “build bridges not walls” and “no more lost children” as they followed speakers in cries of “si se puede” and “these are our kids.”
“They are us and we are them,” Watsonville Mayor Francisco Estrada said.
Started by a loose coalition of grassroots activists, Lights for Liberty quickly picked up steam in June and grew into a world-wide call to the U.S. government to close the camps at the country’s southern border.
There were more than 700 registered Lights for Liberty events scheduled across the globe on Friday.
Watsonville's Lights for Liberty event ended with a five-minute candlelit vigil. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian
The separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border has for months been a contentious topic as Border Patrol has struggled to deal with the increased numbers of people arriving at the country’s southern doorstep. According to Politifact, officials have tallied roughly 539,500 apprehensions in the first eight months of the fiscal year, compared to the 396,600 they made all of last fiscal year.
That increase has led to overcrowding in several detention centers that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials called “dangerous” in a July 2 report from an unannounced visit to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. The report also demanded DHS to take immediate action to alleviate the overcrowding and prolonged detention of children and adults, some of whom had no access to showers, clean clothes and beds.
At least seven children have died in immigration custody over the last year, according to NBC.
A few speakers in Watsonville on Friday also addressed the reported Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids set to begin Sunday.
Paulina Moreno of the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County urged people to talk to organizers after the event to learn their rights if they are ever faced with the possibility of deportation.
“We want to respond with power, not panic,” she said.
People of all ages were present at Friday's Lights for Liberty event in Watsonville. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian
Community Bridges CEO Raymon Cancino also reassured the crowd that the organization would continue to serve the immigrant community, which is on high-alert following the reports of ICE raids.
“There’s no doubt that the Trump Administration is stoking fear through hate and racism,” Cancino said, “but what I see here is beauty, love and hope, and that’s a whole lot more powerful.”
Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah spoke about his family’s migration from Iraq to escape the Iran-Iraq War, and his disappointment that he is seeing the same “atrocities” that happened in his native country happening in the U.S.
“The experience of immigrants is painful enough without separating children from their parents,” Sabbah said. “My grief and rage turns into hope when I see you standing here with us, fighting to end the criminalization of hope, fighting to keep families together.”
Longtime community activist Mas Hashimoto, a Japanese-American interned during World War II, was discouraged by the situation at the border, and said now is the time to change.
“The people who are coming here now, they’re innocent of any wrongdoing,” Hashimoto said. “All laws are not fair, all laws are not just, and we have to change those laws.”
Former Watsonville Mayor Luis Alejo, now a Monterey County Supervisor, and a representative from Congressman Jimmy Panetta’s office also spoke. Assemblyman Robert Rivas made the four-hour drive from Sacramento to lend his voice, too.
“This issue isn’t about being a democrat or a republican,” Rivas said. “It’s about being an American...This isn't who we are.”
Meanwhile, in Santa Cruz as many as 500 people gathered outside the Courthouse and spilled over into Soquel Avenue waving homemade banners that read, “Homeland Humanity,” “Close the Camps,” “Stop Torturing Refugees,” and "No Kids in Kennels.”
The peaceful gathering drew blares from the horns of passing motorists, thumbs up, waves and hollers.
“I think what the Trump Administration is doing is atrocious, it’s despicable,” said Chris Warner of Santa Cruz. “There’s great energy out here today and I’m glad there are so many people getting the message out. We definitely need more young people out here though.”
Caroline Elam came as Lady Liberty Friday to the Lights for Liberty demonstration Friday evening in front of the Courthouse in Santa Cruz where as many as 500 people gathered. — Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian