Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Central Nassau hosts candlelight vigil to end immigrant detention camps
On the evening of July 12, Garden City stood in solidarity with more than 700 other vigils across the country to denounce inhumane conditions in detention camps at the U.S. southern border. Instead of spending their Friday night at the Seventh Street Promenade or seeing Toy Story 4, several hundred residents gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Central Nassau to listen to local leaders speak and to hold a candlelight vigil at the busy intersection of Stewart Avenue and Nassau Boulevard.
Elizabeth Gonzalez, worship arts chair of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Central Nassau, began the event called Lights for Liberty: A Vigil to End Human Concentration Camps by thanking attendees “for being here for Lights for Liberty, to take a stand against the horrific atrocities and human rights violations that are being carried out in our name right now.”
She continued, “The flaming chalice represents many things to Unitarian Universalists. It represents the light of truth and the light within each of us. And so…we will be lighting up the corner of Stewart Avenue and Nassau Boulevard tonight to shine a light on the atrocities being committed against asylum seekers and refugees and to bring light…to the darkness of our world.”
Gonzalez said that she invited representatives of the neighborhood, including Town Councilman Thomas Muscarella, Mayor of Garden City Theresa Trouvé, Town of Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen, County Legislator Laura Schaefer, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, State Assemblyman Ed Ra, State Senator Kevin Thomas and Congresswoman Kathleen Rice, and that she was told they had prior engagements. Mayor Trouvé did not have a comment about the vigil.
Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages accepted the invitation. Gonzalez said that Solages is “a strong advocate and dominant force within her community. From her close ties to immigrant communities, she has used her voice to champion issues facing new Americans.” Solages was recently appointed chair of the Task Force on New Americans and serves as first vice-chair to the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus.
Solages said that she could not stand silent while children are abused at the border.
“For all the elected officials who are staying silent, who think that…this is too politically dangerous for me to say something, shame on you,” she said. “I could be home with my 9-month child…but I cannot be silent. And so I call on the federal legislators, especially here on Long Island…to stop funding this agency that is raiding our community—ICE—to stop giving these terrorists, as I call them, funding.”
Richard Koral, leader of the Ethical Society of Long Island, began by asking the crowd to imagine if compassion ruled U.S. policy.
“The practice of hospitality is one of the most ancient features of a civilized life,” he said. “This is breaking one of the most basic rules of civilization, to shun people in their hour of need. These are refugees. These are asylum seekers…These are people who are suffering and who are escaping situations that we helped create.”
Koral also specified that the MS-13 gang originated in Los Angeles and was exported to Central America.
Town Clerk Sylvia Cabana called the crisis at the border a humanitarian issue, not a partisan issue. She recounted a story of a time she was traveling with her daughter and an airport worker took her aside for inspection at security.
“[My daughter] was hysterical, hysterical, and that was for the two minutes that her mom was out of her sight,” Cabana said. “How are we making these children feel? This is not right. We are scarring these children for life.”
Cabana also spoke about being the child of immigrants. Her mother came from Cuba and her father came from Argentina in 1961.
“I was taught to be very proud of my background like I’m sure many of you were taught to be proud,” she said. “What the Trump administration is doing to demonize these people is wrong….They are coming here seeking asylum. They are coming here to make a better life for themselves, just the way our families came to make a better life for themselves.”
A frequent speaker at immigrants’ rights events, Patrick Young is the downstate advocacy director of the New York Immigration Coalition and former program director at CARECEN (Central American Refugee Center), which provides legal assistance to immigrant communities on Long Island.
“I have worked in this field for 35 years, through five different presidents, and I’ve been asked, ‘Isn’t this how things have happened in the past? How is this different from Bush, or Obama, or Reagan?’” he said. “Let me tell you something. The children who struggled to our door at CARECEN over the last six months are in the worst shape of any refugees that CARECEN has ever seen. They are worse than the escapees from the death squads in the 1980s, from the massacres in El Salvador and Guatemala. These are our children who are not just traumatized by what they suffered in their home country, but by what they suffered here.”
Young continued with a story about a mother and child, named Samir, that his wife became the caretaker of.
“My wife sat with them for the first day that she met them, and then at the end of the day, as they were preparing for bed, she said, ‘now let me take Samir to the bathroom so he can take a shower.’ Samir began to cry and his mother became upset,” Young explained. “When [my wife] was able to calm them and ask them why they were upset, they said because the last time someone from the border patrol had told them he was going to go for a shower, they didn’t see each other again for 52 days.”
Young went on to say that this should not happen in the United States.
“These are cowardly abuses,” he said. “As we know, these children were returned to their parents traumatized, and as we know, a few of these children never returned to their parents. We as American citizens have to pray. We have to stand up. We have to speak to our neighbors. We have to be on the streets. And we have to be at the voting booths.”
Sociologist and cofounder of Young Progressives of Nassau County Nikhil Goyal spoke for several minutes to provide context for the border crisis. Goyal referenced the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Guatemala in 1954 by the CIA, the genocide of indigenous people in Guatemala which ensued under a dictator, the United States funding of Contras in Nicaragua which resulted in the murders of hundreds of thousands of civilians, a 2009 military coup of democratically elected Manuel Zelaya and subsequent recognition and financial support of a right-wing government that has killed thousands, including activists, trade unionists, journalists and judges.
“It is no coincidence that those individuals are fleeing violence and instability and trying to come here,” Goyal said. “It is a little bit rich for us as a country to deny refuge to the very people who are fleeing the violence that we created in the first place.”
Goyal continued, “I tell the people who don’t want undocumented people in this country, let’s stop supporting right-wing death squads and stop overthrowing democratically elected governments in Central America. Then they won’t be coming here to this country for stability.”
Goyal went on to describe the border funding bill that passed in late June. Two versions of the bill were introduced, one in the House which would provide humanitarian aid and stringent oversight of immigrant detention centers, and one in the Senate which had far fewer provisions. The Senate version passed.
“The U.S. House voted the Mitch McConnell Republican Senate bill, including Democrats like Kathleen Rice and Tom Suozzi,” Goyal said, taking aim at local legislators. “They both voted to reauthorize ICE in the Department of Homeland Security Act in 2017….The Congressional Hispanic Caucus opposed that bill because they viewed it as racist and xenophobic and un-American.”
Like other speakers, Goyal called on residents to call their representatives.
“Our demands must be very clear and simple. Close the immigration detention centers. Reunite the families. And end all ICE deportation raids,” Goyal said. “It is our job to tell our representatives to say clearly not one more dollar for kids in cages. Not one more dollar for ICE deportation raids. Not one more dollar for family separation. Not one more dollar for human rights abuses. Our tax dollars should not be funding these violations of basic American norms and rights.”
In closing, Goyal said, “At this unprecedented time in American history, we are being tested as Americans, tested as human beings, tested as people who believe in humanity and justice. We are being tested the same way Americans were tested and confronted with the horrors of slavery, with Jim Crow white supremacist terror, with Japanese internment camps, with the Nazi genocide of Jewish people, with violence against civil rights protesters, and more recently the Muslim ban and neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville. The question I ask myself and the question I believe many of you ask yourselves is when my children and grandchildren ask me what I did when immigrant children were being ripped out of the arms of mothers and fathers, when children were being put in cages, when families were being destroyed by ICE, will I say that I engaged in business as usual or did I raise my voice and fight against this injustice? Did I put my body on the line to defend human rights and decency? So what will your answer be?”
Nassau Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) Susan Gottehrer took the stage next to share her sense of outrage and disgust, and connect the national issue to local issues.
“When we say family separation, everybody thinks of the southern border, but there are children in Nassau County going to bed every night not knowing if their family will be separated the next day,” Gottehrer said. “Our county executive has not only refused to distance herself from ICE, but is cooperating with ICE. The police commissioner has his officers accompanying ICE to people’s homes.”
In January, a disagreement between County Executive Curran, Commissioner Patrick Ryder and ICE agents in Nassau County resulted in the ICE trailer being moved from the front entrance of the Nassau County correctional center to a building on the adjacent Nassau University Medical Center campus. Gottehrer called Curran’s silence “complicity” and her guilt “crocodile tears.”
Curran condemned the targeting of immigrant families in Nassau County in a statement she released with Congressman Suozzi on July 12:
“We strongly condemn the President’s plan to target thousands of immigrant families across the United States this weekend. On Long Island, immigrants are a valued and essential part of our communities. They are students, veterans, small businesses owners and taxpayers. This needless operation is not only cruel and inhumane, but it also represents a massive misallocation of important federal resources…This policy will only further drive immigrant communities underground, it will lead to more family separations, and it will make us all less safe.”
Angel Martinez, representing the Teamsters Local 812 and the Teamsters Hispanic Caucus New York Chapter, said, “What’s happening now is a tragedy and I know the Statue of Liberty is crying every day because this is not what she stands for.”
As co-administrator of Together We Will Long Island, Sharon Golden seeks to educate and empower Long Islanders to take definition action to safeguard human rights, preserve democracy and demand that the government uphold these principles. The resistance group has organized other demonstrations opposing family separation and cruelty at the border.
“Those children that are being held…feel them for a moment, feel the trauma that they’re feeling,” Golden said while encouraging attendees to use their voices and call their representatives. “Don’t forget them—tomorrow, the next day, the day after. You have voices…Please, we beg you, use them.”
Following the prepared speeches, Long Island resident Karin Barnaby asked to say a few words. She told the audience that she emigrated from Germany when she was 3 or 4 years old in the 1940s.
“I was put in an orphanage, just for a month or so. I did not speak for a whole year. I don’t have a memory of it, but this is the kind of trauma that even under unexpected benign care will do,” she said. “These children are not experiencing anything benign. And a trauma that we can’t even imagine.”
She added, “I have always been proud of choosing America as my country. I am now becoming more than ashamed of America, and I am fighting like hell to change.”
Lights for Liberty vigils also took place the same evening in Huntington Station, Patchogue, Riverhead, Sag Harbor and Little Neck with hundreds in attendance, as well as larger gatherings in New York City and Washington D.C.
Editor’s note: A version of this article will appear in Garden City Life on July 24.