WASHINGTON – Hundreds of people gathered Friday night for Washington’s “Lights for Liberty” event and vigil, one of more than 700 that were planned across five continents to raise awareness of conditions in immigrant detention facilities in the southern United States.
A large group from the American Federation of Teachers marched to the event, chanting “classrooms, not cages.” They were welcomed by the executive director of CASA, Gustavo Torres. CASA is the nation's largest advocacy group for Latino immigrants.
“Si se puede,” Torres said. “Yes, we can!”
Organizers of “Lights for Liberty” said that D.C. was one of the first cities they planned a vigil in, specifically to “demand action from Congress to end concentration camps and impeach the President,” according to the group's website.
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At least 30,000 immigrants are detained on any given day in the United States, just in the five states with the highest numbers, according to an organization called Freedom for Immigrants.
Shyamali Hauth, 53, who served in the Air Force for 10 years, attended Friday's event with with a local chapter of the progressive Indivisible movement.
“The way we’re treating people seeking asylum here is absolutely atrocious,” Hauth said. She held a large, neon orange “A,” helping to form the word "immoral" alongside her peers.
“It’s not why I served in the military. It’s not the kind of America we should have.”
The vigils take place amid growing criticism of the conditions in detention facilities. United Nations’ human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said the family separation and inhumane conditions in the facilities “should never happen anywhere.”
The New York Times reported massive Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids of undocumented communities could begin as soon as Sunday. Officials said the Trump administration may be executing the raids as a show of force to discourage families from crossing the border, according to the New York Times.
Before the vigil, a series of speakers took the stage, including Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., the only member of Congress born in Central America; Ruby Corado, the founder of LGBTQ+ immigrant support organization Casa Ruby; Hope Frye, an immigration attorney and Torres.
Torres called on law enforcement officers to stand up for what is right and urged protections for whistleblowers: “We need more of them to come forward and tell us what is really going on.”
Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services, shared her story of fleeing the Sri Lankan civil war with her family when she was an infant.
So many immigrants, she said, just want to live safe and normal lives in the U.S.
“We admit them not because they are American,” she said, “but because we are American.”
After faith leaders spoke to the crowd, they gathered on stage with photos of immigrant children who have died recently.
One by one, speakers read out the names of the children. They rang bells after each child.
Later, organizers led the crowd in singing “This Little Light of Mine,” while people waved their electric candles in the air.
Contributing: Joel Shannon, John Bacon
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lights for Liberty DC immigration vigil: Hundreds gather in protest