Local Lights for Liberty event part of global protest of Mexican border detention camps

WEST BURLINGTON — It was all about the immigrant children Friday night at the Lights for Liberty vigil.

It was not about politics. It was not about President Donald Trump.

"The immigrants issue goes beyond Trump's time," event organizer Sam Hellberg said. "This is kids dying."

Hellberg said she heard of the Lights for Liberty vigil and reached out on Facebook; Burlingtonians Phoebe McNeece, Blake Bell and Tobin and Mollie Krell helped Hellberg organize Friday's event.

Lights for Liberty is a national coalition of people dedicated to human rights; Friday's nationwide vigil to end human detention camps on the Mexican border had events on five continents. The local event was held at Homestead 1839 on Agency Street in West Burlington.

The impetus behind Lights for Liberty is the conditions that humans in detainee camps, including children, are being forced to endure. At 9 p.m. around the U.S. and around the world, participants lit candles in a silent vigil for all those held in U.S. detention camps.

The local event included a march to the Gear Avenue overpass, two short documentary films and a discussion about immigration. Homestead 1839 is a nonprofit organization dedicated to growing community capacity through service learning and food security for sustainable, equitable outcomes.

The 30-acre farm is the Leffler family homestead since 1839.

The local event drew more than four dozen Americans concerned about the incarceration of children whose parents, after bringing them across the U.S.-Mexico border, were released, forcing them to leave their children behind in detainment facilities.

Findings released earlier this month by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General described standing-room-only cells, children without showers and hot meals, and detainees clamoring desperately for release, according to the New York Times.

"What's happening right now is not sustainable or equitable," Tobin Krell said.

Californian Clair Goldberg moved to Burlington last Monday to work for for Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris as a field organizer for southeast Iowa.

But she wasn't at the vigil to campaign.

"Seeing children in detention camps is one of the worst things in the country right now," Goldberg said. "I'd be wearing my Kamala shirt if I were campaigning."

Goldberg was echoed by candidate Pete Buttigieg's southeast Iowa organizer, Ronen Schatsky of Chicago; both said they were looking forward to their coming year in southeast Iowa.

Hellberg posted on Facebook to get things going locally when she heard about Lights for Liberty and the others responded.

"This is awesome," she said. "There's more people here than I thought."

She said there were over 800 events held worldwide Friday night. Most started at 7 p.m. local times with the candle lighting at 9.

Two documentary films about the incarceration of children at the border were screened; both appeared earlier this year at the Snake Alley Festival of Film. Hellberg learned of them from SNAFF director Tadd Good. Both are available on Vimeo.

As the second film, "The Separated" ran, about a dozen little kids played near the video screen, unaware of the stunned, angry faces on the adults watching the separation and subsequent reunion at the Texas border.

In 2018, Honduran asylum-seeker Anita and her 5-year-old son, Jenri, were forcibly separated at the U.S.-Mexico border and reunited after a month apart.

"I want to go to the jail," Jenri wails shortly after their reunion. "I don't want to be your son anymore."

Someone handed Hellberg's 18-month-old daughter Hayden to her as she spoke after the film.

"I've been separated from her just minutes," Hellberg said, then looked back at the now-blank screen. "I can't imagine."

When McNeece was asked why she became involved in the event, she said, "I have a child. I can't imagine him being alone, and scared, and not speaking the language of the people who were locking him up."

Blake spoke afterwards, saying, "This is a pro-humanity rally, not a political rally. This is beyond politics. This is about the kind of world we want to live in."

He said he got involved because, "I'm tired of watching people suffer and wanted to do something about it. I felt the call."

The group took up placards and walked up Agency Road to Gear Avenue, then onto the U.S. 34 overpass. Their signs were all about the incarcerated kids, a few with a Christian flavor, and there was nothing about the current administration.

"I think we'll get some honks," Hellberg said.

They did.

Cars passing underneath the bridge tooted horns in support, and one local police cruiser whooped his siren and raised a fist and a smile in support for the entourage.

Elizabeth Bell, pastor for the West Burlington United Methodist Church and Asbury UMC, carried a placard with a verse from the Bible depicting Jesus Christ as a refugee.

"He was always an outcast and a refugee," Bell said.

As the group hiked back to Homestead 1839, someone ran out of the Westland Fast Break and shouted, "Free drinks for all of you!"

Fast Break cashier Brody Burns had hoped to take the night off to participate.

"It's all on me," he told the thirsty peace marchers. "I'm completely for what you're doing."

Burns paid for the sodas out of his own pocket.

Max Sarvello, local representative of the Beto O'Rourke campaign, summed things up after the candlelight vigil back at the farm.

"I was just happy to be there," he said.

Meanwhile, some 2,000 undocumented immigrants are expected to be swept up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in raids beginning today.

Donations will be accepted on behalf of the Mount Pleasant-based nonprofit Iowa WINS (Iowa Welcomes Its Immigrant Neighbors), which provides practical and legal resources to assist local immigrants. The group formed in response to a 2018 Mount Pleasant immigration raid by ICE authorities. Email firstpresbymtp@gmail.com or call (319) 986-5851 for more information.