Marie Schwab Miller, by her own admission, had never attended a protest before the summer of 2018. Then she saw the videos, the images, the stories from the border. Families being separated by government officials. Children taken from their parents for indefinite amounts of time, sometimes lost in the bureaucratic shuffle, sleeping in cages. She had to do something.
But in low-population, deep-red rural South Dakota, it turned out “doing something” would have to start with her.
“I was looking for a protest to go to and I couldn’t find one,” she said. “I said, ‘someone should organize an event,’ and it turns out that someone was me.”
The event she helped put together was the Aberdeen arm of the June 30, 2018 “Families Belong Together” protest, which also took place in Sioux Falls and Vermillion. As its name implies, the protest objected to — among other things — the separation of undocumented minors from their parents at the border. Now, a year later, she’s organizing another event. Again, she’s spearheading a local part of something much bigger. The nation-wide “Lights for Liberty” protest.
Organized by a loose confederation of grassroots activist groups like the Center for Popular Democracy and the Immigration Defense Project, along with bigger groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “Lights for Liberty” is a day of demonstration and protest planned for July 12 in cities and towns across the country. The event seeks to protest what it calls “the inhumane conditions faced by refugees” in detention camps along the U.S. — Mexican border. The largest demonstrations will thus take place along the border, as well as in cities with high immigrant populations such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. The South Dakota arm of the protest, organized by Miller, will be held in Aberdeen at 6 p.m. in the town’s Anderson Park.
Detaining immigrants — documented and otherwise — and asylum seekers in detention facilities along the Mexican border is an American practice stretching back decades. Even during the latter half of the Obama administration, reports from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) estimate that approximately 25,000 to 35,000 people were held in border facilities on any given day. Since Donald Trump was elected to the presidency in 2016, that number has increased significantly: The latest ICE reports estimate that more than 51,000 people were kept in border detention camps on a daily basis during the 2018 fiscal year. According to data compiled by the immigrants’ advocacy group “Freedom for Immigrants,” almost 60 percent of those detained are kept in for-profit private detention camps that contract with ICE.
These increased detention numbers have also been accompanied by frequent reports of facility conditions and border patrol agent actions that, if true, violate International Human Rights law. These include the indefinite separation of children from their parents, the indiscriminate confiscation of detainees’ belongings, and the denial of medical care to detainees.
Most recently, allegations have been levied against U.S Customs and Border Protection (CPB) that basic sleep comforts and hygienic goods are not being adequately provided to detained children. As multiple news outlets have now reported, a Justice Department lawyer for the Trump administration named Sarah Fabian argued last week in front of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, that CPB may not be obligated to provide children detained in their facilities with soap, toothpaste or toothbrushes.
While not directly calling for CPB to withhold these items from detained children, Fabian’s comments nonetheless served to confirm what many had already assumed regarding the border detention facilities: That they were little better than concentration camps, and that children were not immune to their horrors.
It’s this aspect of what even some Republican leaders are now calling a humanitarian crisis that Miller most strongly latched on to with “Lights for Liberty.”
On the Aberdeen event’s Facebook page, Miller said: “We will gather to shine a light and raise our voices against the horrific human rights abuses committed against migrants in US human detention camps. We welcome the attendance of all who share our commitment to seeing these people treated with basic dignity and concern for their physical and psychological well-being.”
Read ‘Lights for Liberty’ Part II in Monday’s Capital Journal