Last week, people across the nation came together in solidarity, in shared outrage and in collective grief. The spontaneous “Lights for Liberty” vigils held in tiny towns like mine and in huge cities alike compelled tens of thousands of Americans to protest the inhumane treatment of immigrants at our border.
For many, we stood unified not just in our shared fury, but in our privilege, too.
Few of us who gathered that night in my town, Chester, needed to worry about being deported. Violent crime in my town is virtually nil. If we suffer heat or cold in an outage, we just wait a bit for the power to come back on. If we are separated from our families, it is mostly through choice, and is perhaps temporary. When we stood Friday night in protest, few, if any, of us had reason to worry that our homes were being illegally searched and our possessions seized.
And even as we bore witness to the suffering of refugee families, we were enjoying several of the very freedoms denied them but contained in the Bill of Rights, which we read aloud as a community.
We were exercising: our right to free speech, to peaceably assemble and to petition our government for redress of grievances — in other words, to protest. This combination of safety and choice is the definition of privilege, and we must not take it for granted.
Among the night’s speakers were Mohammed Hamou, a 14-year-old from Old Lyme whose family fled war in Syria, crossed through Turkey and was ultimately given shelter in Old Lyme. We heard from Arjun Badami, a senior at Haddam-Killingworth High School, who talked about why the 14th Amendment, concerning citizenship, meant so much to him and his parents, who emigrated from India. We heard from activists who’ve been at social justice work for decades, religious leaders, U.S. military veterans, artists, and town officials.
All united in privilege — for some, it was there from birth, and for others, like Mohammed and Arjun, it was hard-won and therefore all the more deserved.
So, how it hurts our hearts and strains our credulity that our own government is breaking international law when it comes to other migrant families. We stood there on that quiet town green painfully aware that an estimated 81,000 people are in U.S. custody, terrified, suffering and at risk for lifelong trauma, sexual abuse, and even death.
They are being held in states like Texas, which, until now, most of us associated with the Alamo, the South by Southwest music festival, bluebonnets and Buddy Holly.
They are being “reprocessed” and sent hundreds of miles away to holding cells and jails in other states, formerly known for Spring Break, great skiing, potatoes, arts colonies, and Harvard University.
Now, to our astonished eyes, these are the places of detainment. It begins, of course, at our borders, where at least seven children have died over the last year in concentration camps. And yes, let’s get comfortable using that word, because that’s what they are, according to the United Nations, according to Japanese Americans who survived internment during WWII, and according to expert witnesses.
Make no mistake, our government is now criminalizing human desperation.
According to historian Andrea Pitzer, “Detainees are typically held because of their racial, cultural, religious, or political identity, not because of any prosecutable offense — though some states have remedied this ‘flaw’ by making legal existence next to impossible.”
It’s unthinkable that in 2019 we are echoing the Nazi playbook of dehumanizing people — questioning their very right to exist.
And yet, people are being held in these concentration camps, “processed,” and then scattered like leaves across our country — as far north as the Yakima County jail in Washington State, and as far east as the Plymouth Country Correctional Facility in Massachusetts. To me, this fact has particular significance: 265 detainees await their fate there, just 11 minutes from where the Mayflower landed to escape religious oppression exactly 300 years ago.
In November of 1976, when I was a young newspaper reporter, I traveled to South Korea. Before I left America, I had sent my absentee ballot in for Jimmy Carter, the first president I was old enough to vote for. The day after the election, a Korean cab driver asked me, “Now that you have a new president, will you be allowed to go home?” He assumed I was in political exile.
Recently, that same president said, “Every day we send a disgraceful signal around the world, that this is what the present U.S. government stands for, and that is the torture and kidnapping of little children.”
So, what can we do?
ALL of us must use whatever influence we have to protest this atrocity loudly, often, and fearlessly.
I know there will be political fallout from my decision to organize this vigil. I’ve gotten some pretty angry emails questioning why I think this is part of my job as a state representative.
But I believe it is my job because many of the people I represent understand that while all politics may be local, human suffering and dignity are universal. And we who hold state office cannot let immoral federal actions set precedent for state actions.
That’s why I’m proud to serve on the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, which was able to pass some significant legislation this year, including Senate Bill 992, a law strengthening the Trust Act by making it harder for ICE to hold undocumented immigrants for minor civil offenses and thereby protecting due process for us all.
I am proud that on behalf of our state, Attorney General William Tong is suing the Trump administration for several actions he rightly refers to as Trump’s “Reign of Terror.”
I applaud Gov. Lamont for making a priority of Senate Bill 880: An Act Increasing Fairness and Transparency in the Criminal Justice System.
And as always, I support our Washington delegation for continuing to speak out.
What can individual citizens do?
First, it costs money to defend immigrants — please consider donating to any of the many legitimate legal rights groups working with these families.
2. Join local resistance groups like the Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance (CIRA), the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), Shoreline Indivisible, the ACLU, and local groups such as The Valley Stands Up, and Together We Rise.
3. Any discussion of holding our government accountable has to begin with a free press. Do you subscribe? Please do not rely on the internet for your news. Pay to get your news from a reliable independent news organization. Because Democracy does, in fact, die in darkness.
4. Next, think about where your money goes. Does your mutual fund invest in CoreCivic, the second-largest private prison company? Teachers should be aware that TIAA-CREF invests in this company. Consider pulling your money out and investing it with a firm that will be accountable to your ethical code. And be sure to TELL the CEOs and investment personnel at TIAA you are going to do it.
Are you traveling this summer? Please boycott the hotel chains that are cooperating with ICE’s plans to use hotels as temporary jails for immigrant round-ups. These include Best Western, G6 Hospitality, Hilton, Marriott, Red Roof, and Wyndham.
5. Speak up when you hear people blame immigrants for not “coming in legally, the way MY people did.” Remind them that U.S. foreign policy in places like Honduras has, for decades, destabilized countries to the point that their people have no choice but to flee. You might even point out that long before “Banana Republic” was the go-to place to shop, it was a term coined in the early 1900s by author O. Henry to describe small countries where U.S. economic interests push governments to corruption and the brink of collapse. Yes, we have a long, sordid history of causing people to emigrate.
Finally, please, never forget that we are our brother and our sister’s keeper. On some very real level, we are responsible for what happens to them, because long after the vigil candles are extinguished, the suffering continues, and our federal government continues to lead the nation not in human rights protections, as we once did, but in their violation.
Christine Palm is the state representative from the 36th District covering Chester, Deep River, Essex and Haddam.
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