Laura Tepen of Bloomington has seen first-hand the conditions facing refugees along the southern U.S. border. In February, her family of five volunteered at a respite center in McAllen, Texas, where they helped feed and give clothes to people released from detention centers.
“It really was serving people just like us: young kids, teenagers, parents,” said Tepen, who joined her 8-year-old son Michael in holding protest signs during a Friday night vigil outside Bloomington City Hall targeting the treatment of immigrants held at the detention centers.
“Sometimes it gets discouraging when you think, ‘If I call my representatives is it really going to help?’ When I read different things from history, any of the times when people have rebelled with peaceful protest it’s really inspiring,” said Tepen. "So this was a perfect example of that to me, people coming together and bringing their voices together to show that we’re thinking of all the people who are suffering.”
The gathering was part of a nationwide event titled “Lights for Liberty: A Vigil to End Human Detention Camps.” Rev. Cyndy Ash of Jubilee Farms United Church of Christ in Clinton and Sonny Garcia, an Illinois People’s Action board member, organized the Bloomington event.
“We’re the richest country in the world and we should be able to handle a migrant crisis like we have right now and protect the children at a very minimum. That’s not happening,” said Garcia. “We want to make sure people in this community, especially immigrant families, know that there’s a lot of people in this community who support them and are rooting for them and want them to feel safe and welcome.”
Several protesters carried signs with messages such as “We Are All Immigrants” and “Keep Families Together.” Addressing the crowd of approximately 150, Ash expanded on those messages.
“This country is nothing great without diversity, without the celebration of our differences, our differing languages, religions, beliefs, festivals and food,” she said. “That’s what makes this country great.”
The ceremony at dusk concluded with a candle-lighting ceremony honoring immigrants currently held in detention centers. Although the vigil was billed as a nonpartisan protest, many of the speakers targeted the Trump administration’s stance on immigration as well as Illinois congressmen who support it.
“The act of justice demands that we speak and dare to confront oppressive systems,” said Rev. Justo Gonzalez II, Interim Conferece Minister for the United Church of Christ in Illinois. His rousing speech drew several rounds of applause.
“Recognize that you have the power to speak, to transform situations and confront political systems, to challenge those who would deny us access and deny us respect,” he added. “I hope that you tonight will make a commitment to stand up and to be heard.”
Garcia provided the audience with a list of “action steps” to help the cause, beginning with contacting elected officials on the county board and city councils as well as at the congressional levels.
“The opposition is being stirred by messages of fear, hatred and division,” he said. “Certain leaders are preying on people’s economic insecurity to blame the immigrants.”
Between the parade of guest speakers, the crowd engaged in chants of “Stand up, fight back” and “Si se puede,” which translates to “Yes, we can.” Other featured speakers were Susie Ruby of Illinois People’s Action, Sandy Crowe of Indivisible Peoria, and Charlotte Alvarez, executive director of the Immigration Project, which provides low-income individuals with legal services.
“We can make progress if we come together. … We all need to be a part of shining some disinfecting sunlight on the border crisis,” said Alvarez. “My hope though as we shine that sunlight is that we also come together and shine that light on the quieter injustices that are happening and infecting our communities here in Illinois and across the nation, not just at the border.”
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