SALEM — Before the 300 people packed into the sweltering church, state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, bore witness to what she had seen at a migrant child detention camp two weeks ago in Homestead, Florida.
Activists holding vigil outside the camp had guided Ehrlich to a ladder so she could look over the wall at what she said was a privately owned tent prison on a military base, which means the land was publicly owned.
“What I saw was a line of young boys being paraded out, single file, with a guard at the beginning of the line and one at the end,” Ehrlich said. The activists said they had never seen girls taken outside, and she noted the boys were not out playing, but “were child prisoners marching.”
Ehrlich recounted the experience Friday at a local Lights for Liberty Salem vigil, one of 788 nationwide calling for an end to the use of migrant detention camps for children and families. The Salem vigil was organized by Hilary Grimes of Salem and her Raise Your Hands Up! organization.
The vigil, originally planned for Derby Square, was moved to to First Church, Salem, Unitarian Universalist on Essex Street due to the threat of inclement weather.
“Children are in cages, we shall not be moved, just like a tree that’s planted by the water,” sang Cherish Casey, a community organizer who led the vigil in song and chants at its start.
Ehrlich had been in Miami for the Democratic presidential debates, and following U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s lead, drove the hour south to see a detention camp for herself. The activists she met outside had been there 138 days — the number of days children at the camp had been separated from their families. Ehrlich said this particular camp housed about 2,300 children.
Activists noted the daily presence of a document shredding truck.
“What is Caliburn International, the company that runs the camps, shredding?” Ehrlich asked. “My guess is evidence of the truth.”
Ehrlich said there can only be one reason for the harsh treatment.
“It is all about the cruelty,” she said. “This facility and others like it across our land have no place in our country. They must be closed, shuttered, abandoned,” she said to loud applause. “But never, ever allowed to be forgotten, or swept under history’s rug. As a Jewish person myself, and as a student of history, I know and you know how this story can end, this is not simply ‘never again.’ I say our chorus should be: ‘Never let it begin.’”
Salem City Councilor Christine Madore said she she stood before the crowd as an example of what can happen when migration is treated as a human right.
Madore’s parents moved her family from their native Taiwan to Thailand “because they believed a better life for us was possible in a foreign country.” Madore was the beneficiary of those decisions when she was just 5.
“The migrants along our southern border are not as fortunate. They are putting their entire lives at risk, escaping poverty, persecution and even murder. After going through an ordeal that very few or almost none of us tonight could even fathom, they are detained in cages like criminals and animals,” Madore said. “We’ve seen the pictures and our hearts have been broken several times over.”
It made her think what might have happened to her if human dignity was taken away from her and her family “solely for the reason of wanting a better life,” Madore said. The United States had always stood for the the fight for human rights, freedom and prosperity, no matter where you were from, she added.
“Today, I am an angry American, but I remain a hopeful American. We as a country can still stand for what is right. We can still stand for the right ideals,” she said.
Salem Congressman Seth Moulton, whose remarks came after The Salem News deadline, said in an interview that he planned to talk about how what’s being done in the community on this issue relates to the work being done in Washington.
“It is a national fight,” he said. “My hope is that the example we are setting in the community here in Salem will be a beacon of hope for the entire nation and maybe an example even for the world.”
When asked what he can do in Washington, Moulton, who is running for president, said there is a lot Congress can do, “but one of the most important things I can do is beat Donald Trump and get more Democrats elected to Congress.”
Perla Peguero of the Latino Leadership Coalition read a statement from School Committee member Ana Nuncio, who is of Mexican heritage and a naturalized U.S. citizen.
“As such, I feel doubly implicated by the abuse of power the Trump administration has shown toward immigrants over the past two years. I feel profound grief and shame that my country of origin is helping the Trump administration to detain immigrants on the southern border.”
As a citizen, Nuncio said she felt outrage over the treatment of families and children in detention centers at the southern border.
“So what can I do with my overwhelming sense of shame, grief and outrage: I can act now that I am woke,” Nuncio said.
Other speakers included Joan Amaral of the Zen Center of the North Shore of Beverly; Mae Rose Cheresnowsky, a Salem Academy student and activist; Jeff Cohen, co-chairman of the Salem No Place for Hate Committee; poet Martin Espada, Sunny Robinson, a registered nurse and activist; Scot Sternberg, a social justice advocate; state Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem; and Elsabel Rincon, the founder of the Welcome Immigrant Network.
After Rincon spoke, the crowd stood and chanted, “The people united will never be defeated,” then chanted it again in Spanish.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.