OLEAN — A vigil was held to advocate for more humane conditions for children separated from their families near the US-Mexico border Friday at Lincoln Park.
Roughly 80 people stood with posters and held candles and flashlights from 8 to 9 p.m. at the corner of South Union and East State streets. They also encouraged drivers to honk in support of their cause and listened to a poetry reading by Ann Marie Sitter-Tompkins of the Ezra Lazarus poem “The New Colossus.”
The event was sponsored by Task Force for Immigrants, which is a part of Citizens Action Network.
“There are vigils happening at this same time across the United States in various cities,” said Linda Mathews, chairperson of the Task Force for Immigrants and Refugees. ”There is one in Jamestown, Buffalo, Batavia and lots of other cities across the country and at the southern border at the camps.”
More than 700 protests were held Friday across the U.S. in a protest called “Lights for Liberty: A Vigil to End Human Concentration Camps.”
The backdrop for the protests are mounting reports of brutal conditions in which thousands of immigrant children are being held under the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol at detention centers. They include reports of standing-room-only cells, disease outbreaks and children without access to bedding.
Additionally, the New York Times reported Thursday that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are scheduled to begin nationwide raids to arrest thousands of undocumented immigrants beginning Sunday, according to homeland security officials.
“The point of this is not that we’re advocating for open borders,” Matthews said. “We’re not advocating for that at all. What we’re advocating for is humane treatment for the people who are in the camps, particularly the families and children and that they should not be separated.”
Last year, the task force for Immigrants and refugees had a vigil at Lincoln Park that called attention to the separation of children from families.
This year, people stood to protest cruel conditions in camps at the southern border. Throughout the vigil, organizers and attendees shared their concerns and advocated change.
Athena Godet-Calogeras, program director of Veggie Wheels, said she was “Witnessing to justice. Witnessing for all the children” by attending the vigil.
“If I can’t go to Washington and I can’t take the president’s hand I can at least stand. And sometimes that’s all you can do is stand up,” she said.
Brent Anderson, an Olean High School graduate and current resident in Sacramento, Calif., said he only had 24 hours in Olean to catch up with friends and family, but was elated to discover so many locals standing up for the cause.
“When they told me there’s a whole community movement to shine the light for liberty and to be a beacon of hope for those kids I said ‘You sign me up. That’s where I need to be,’” he said.