Hornell Lights for Liberty walk protests government's treatment of immigrants

HORNELL — Some two dozen peaceful protesters, many carrying lights and placards, quietly walked Hornell’s Main Street Friday night in a protest against the United States government’s treatment of immigrant families in U.S. detention centers.

The local group included members of Indivisible Hornell, the Arkport Catholic Workers Homestead and the Alfred-Hornell Unitarian Universalist Society, according to Lee Marcus, one of the organizers of the walk.

The Hornell vigil took place simultaneously with many hundreds of gatherings worldwide on Friday that marched, sang and prayed in observance of Lights for Liberty: A Vigil to End Human Concentration Camps.

Advocates and concerned citizens around the country oppose what they say are inhumane conditions faced by migrants at government detention facilities. According to the Associated Press, six children have died in government custody in recent months, either in the custody of Border Patrol, where migrants are first held when they cross the border, or in the custody of Health and Human Services, the agency responsible for the shelter of unaccompanied children.

A pediatrician who testified before a House Oversight and Reform subcommittee last week said there are scores of doctors ready to help — but they were turned away by government officials, and begged to be allowed inside the facilities.

The treatment of migrant children and the Trump administration’s policy of child-parent separation for immigrants seeking asylum at the border was a major motivation to march, said Penelope Whitford of Canisteo whose placard said “Unite the Families Don’t Look Away.”

“It’s what it does to children, for children taken away and put in this place that is cold, and bad things are going on around them, and the permanent damage that it does to them,” Whitford said. “They will never be the same. As a parent, I can’t imagine it.”

The vigil in Hornell included a walk from the initial meeting spot in front of 198 Main Street to the Route 36 intersection. Several motorists honked car horns as they passed by the marchers, who numbered 26 people. Two dogs accompanied the group, and a drummer kept a solemn beat.

Sign slogans included “Playgrounds not prisons,” “close the camps,” “Save the children/Impeach The Imposter” and “Asylum is legal immigration.”

“Trump in 2020,” an onlooker yelled from the opposite side of Main Street.

After reaching Route 36, the group crossed the street, and began the trek back through the heart of downtown. The vigil concluded across from the Hornell Area YMCA, with a few remarks by one of the organizers, a closing prayer by the The Rev. Katherine Griffis, and a moment of silence.

The Hornell Lights for Liberty gathering came together on short notice, Marcus acknowledged.

“We only had a couple of days to pull it together,” Marcus said. “For me, I needed to express it. Watching what’s going on at the southern border is unconscionable, and it seems to get worse every day. I feel powerless. Sometimes when you express yourself, you feel a little less powerless, and I had the idea that other people might feel the same way.

“I didn’t know about this event, Lights for Liberty. I just messaged (organizer) Sharon (Saker) and said, ‘We’ve got to go and do something.’ And within 24 hours, she got back to me and said, ‘There’s this thing called Lights for Liberty. Let’s go and do that.’

“It’s just a need to express the feelings, but of course we hope if enough people express the same kind of feelings, it will make something change.”

Griffis asked God “To lift up to you the children of the world, children all over the world, children of South America who are about to set off, or in Central America about to set off on a very dangerous journey, risking their lives trying to get away from unsafe, untenable conditions in their countries, those who may die before they ever reach our borders, those who are within our borders illegally and live in fear of deportation.

“And particularly tonight, we pray for the children at our border, children who have been separated from their parents, children who have been kept without adequate food, without adequate water, without adequate bathing facilities, children who are in places of fear.”

What comes next? Another meeting is scheduled for next Thursday, July 18, at 7 p.m. at 198 Main St. Participants will talk about further action, Saker said.

“On Facebook if you look up Grannies Respond, and you don’t have to be a granny to participate in their actions,” Saker added. “We will be writing letters to the detainees in Spanish, very short. They give you Spanish phrases, and they want colored paper. I have lots of stamps. They want pictures, just to try to give the folks some hope.”

In her prayer, Griffis left open the possibility for hope and a change in direction from those in power.

She said, “We pray for the guards who are with (the detainees) and want to care for them. Some of them are compassionate; some are not. We pray for all of them. We pray for those who are trying to help them and are turned away. We pray for all those in charge of making policy. We pray for all of us that our hearts may be softened, and they may be open.”