More than 80 people from Yates County joined a nationwide protest Friday, July 12 at Red Jacket Park as part of “Lights for Liberty: A Vigil to End Human Concentration Camps.” This world-wide protest of the current U.S. policies and practices of detaining and deporting refugee immigrants at the southern boarder brought out thousands of people to protest what they decry as the inhumane conditions faced by migrants. 

Lights for Liberty (LFL) describes themselves as a coalition of people of all races “dedicated to human rights and the fundamental principle behind democracy that all human beings have a right to life, liberty, and dignity.” LFL partnered with international, national, regional, and local communities and organizations in the public statement of their beliefs that “these fundamental rights are not negotiable and (we) are willing to protect them.”

Advocates and impacted persons were invited to speak on the issue of human detention camps in the United States. As night fell, around the country and around the world, participants lit candles in a silent vigil for all those held in U.S. detention camps “to bring light to the darkness of the horrific policies of the current administration.”

“The Trump administration’s immigration policies and detention camps meet the United Nations’ definition of genocide and crimes against humanity,” said Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin, lawyer, activist and organizer of the nationwide event. “Congress is refusing to stop the president and his policies. We cannot allow these atrocities to be perpetrated in our name.”

The assembled citizens in Penn Yan joined together in reading aloud the famous sonnet, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Lazarus wrote those words in 1883 to help raise funds for the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty when it was given to the United States by the people of France. Those words were cast in bronze and installed on the foundation where “Lady Liberty” continues to stand above New York Harbor as a beacon of freedom.

Local organizer Alex Andrasik shared his impression of what the protest means to the people involved. “Liberal and progressive activists have been fighting this fight for decades. Fighting for immigrants’ and refugees’ rights, no matter who is in the Oval Office. Maybe more of us are tuned in now.

“In the end, deflections to Obama or anyone else don’t matter. It is possible to support a leader and oppose some of his or her policies. It is almost inevitable. Grownups are able to understand this, and offer support where it is justified and criticism where it is warranted. The present administration has completely earned its criticism on this issue, and has justified no support from us. We don’t reward cruelty and xenophobia.”

The protest in Penn Yan included several speakers from the Democratic Committee, and the Yates Progressives were conspicuous in their attendance. Other speakers included Anne Meyer-Wilber who spoke of her time as a volunteer at a refugee shelter in El Paso, Texas, and candidate for Yates County Legislature and Jerusalem Town Board Dixon Zorovich. Local writer Bethany Snyder read “Bent to the Earth” by Blas Manuel De Luna, a poem about his childhood experience as a Mexican immigrant.

As dusk was falling and candles were lit in the growing darkness for the vigil, Andrasik added, “I want to also speak a little bit about language and the power it has, specifically the word ‘illegal.’  Human beings can’t be illegal. There is no one whose existence is a crime. In a democracy, our representatives can propose and pass laws against what we do — and we can debate the appropriateness of those laws. But they do not pass laws against who we are. That’s what they do in autocracies. That’s what they do in fascistic dictatorships. That’s not what we do here. So don’t let anyone get away with calling any of our brothers and sisters ‘an illegal.’ If they use it casually because it’s what they hear from their friends and neighbors and in the media, or because they just don’t know better, educate them. If they use it because they’re hardline anti-immigrant isolationists, stand up to them. If you use it as a slip of the tongue or in the heat of the moment, notice and reflect and do better next time. Weed that word from your vocabulary when speaking of human beings. Ripples spread from every word we choose and from every act of defiance we commit. Show what you stand for by the words you choose and the words you oppose.”

U.S. Sponsors of Lights for Liberty include: New York State Bar Association, American Federation of Teachers, New York State Council of Churches, United Farm Workers Foundation, Interfaith Justice Coalition, United Church of Christ, Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Service, Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee, and Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.