Rachel Jennings held a white poster board with the words “Close the concentration camps” written across it in thick black marker. She was one of approximately 300 people to gather at Travis Park Friday evening to show their support for migrants and protest current immigration policy.
San Antonio was one of nearly 800 places to host a Lights for Liberty vigil to protest the conditions that migrants held in detention facilities face. Jennings, a member of Travis Park Church, said she has been keeping up with the United States’ treatment of asylum-seekers, and recent events left her horrified. She cited instances where politicians and advocates have pointed to migrants being kept in crowded facilities, the lack of drinking water, and lack of toothbrushes for children.
“That has outraged me because refugees are human beings and we need to welcome them into our country,” Jennings said.
Jennings was surrounded by other San Antonians who came from all over Bexar County to protest immigration policy and conditions for asylum-seekers. Jewel Gutierrez drove down from her home in Converse to the rally with her mother because she did not want to be “complicit or silent.”
“This will be a point where historians will look back, and I don’t want my grandkids to ask, ‘What did you do to stop this?’” she said. “You’re American, right? It’s the greatest country, we grew up with this knowledge. Now in the last few years, I questioned that. [But] when I’m surrounded by others willing to stand up and say, ‘This is wrong,’ that makes me believe in that quote from Abraham Lincoln – we are the ‘last best hope.’”
The rally featured several speakers, including State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), and a representative for U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin). Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and mayor of San Antonio Julián Castro also attended. The presidential candidate recounted his experience visiting the Homestead, Florida detention center where children were being held. Neither he nor any of the other presidential candidates there were allowed inside. There was a place with a ladder that allowed people to peek over the wall, and he saw kids walking from tent to tent.
“The activists [outside of the detention center] said if you yelled loud enough they could hear you,” Castro said. “It struck me as we yelled messages of support, even though sometimes it seems your compassion and the hope you offer is a drop in the bucket, it is heard, it does make a difference, it does mean something to them.”
He thanked the crowd for coming to the vigil, and asked them to continue to challenge people in power and to make their voices heard by voting.
“When we’ve seen this darkness before, there have always been those who’ve spoken up for compassion and understanding instead,” Castro said. “You are doing that. And the best way you can do that is vote. That we elect people to choose compassion instead of cruelty, choose unity instead of division, and welcome the stranger instead of denying them. For every person here, there are thousands out there that think like you and when they see you they are emboldened too.”
Lights for Liberty organizer Vianca Vargas looked out at the sea of faces listening to elected officials speak. She was invigorated by the turnout on Friday – when the event page first went up on Facebook, only 14 people RSVP’d, she said. But she and other organizers were working up to the last minute to get speakers confirmed and equipment fixed.
Vargas and two of her friends spearheaded the organization process, though they had a lot of help from volunteers and groups like the Texas Organizing Project. Throughout the 19-day process of organizing the rally, Vargas said she discovered many different groups who work with migrants. She was able to bring them to the rally to show people how they can volunteer their time, she said.
Pre-K teacher Anna Vuich volunteered to help coordinate speakers after she went to Carrizo Springs to protest outside of the detention facility there.
“This crowd tells me that people are sick and tired of just seeing the torture these people are going through and feeling like they can’t do anything,” Vuich said. “People don’t want to be behind their screens and watching things happening. They don’t want to stay home. People want to do something, and we’re all figuring out a way to actually make a change.”
Rachell Tucker, a member of the Party of Socialism and Liberation, said she wanted to make sure people knew the historical context for the waves of asylum-seekers entering the U.S. Instability and violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala can be traced back to American intervention in those countries, she said. And people who come to the United States do so to give their children a better future. Her parents immigrated for that very reason.
“For San Antonio, this is amazing turnout,” she said. “It’s really encouraging to see so many people out and children out and families – to show them that they really care about this and engage their children in politics at an early age.”
Toward the end of the night, as dusk settled, people raised flameless candles and cellphone flashlights in the air. They sang “This Land is Your Land,” directing their voices at Travis Park Church across the street, where migrants were walking to get settled for the night:
“This land was made for you and me.”