By Amy Bowlin
“Families belong together!” chanted a diverse crowd of 175-200 people gathered in front of the Immigration Service Building in Greer, SC, on Friday night. They ranged from infant to elderly, with a variety of genders, races and religions represented.
Many wore “Lights for Liberty” shirts, others displayed their preference for the next Democratic Presidential candidate and some touted their personal messages like the woman whose shirt, emblazoned with a yellow WWII star of David read, “We’ve seen this before.”
Multiple participants carried posters with biblical references and cries to end family separation. The rally was a call to action to bring real change in US immigration policies. Activists, citizens, and organizers gathered under the common cause of opposing current family separation practices. The Upstate rally part of a nationwide effort – more than 700 events were held in cities and towns across the country on Friday.
When asked why they attended, many said they believed what was happening at the border was un-American and inhumane. Several expressed, that as people of faith, they could not stay silent, and that they wanted to support children and families experiencing trauma.
Nine-year-old Fatemah Qazi held a poster she made that stated, “Children need their moms, dads, playgrounds and schools.” She expressed her sadness about the images she sees on the news that show children in “cages.” Another event attendee said, “How can we forget our history?”
A full range of speakers, pulled together by organizer Wendy Conte, shared their stories.
Meghan Smith, a candidate for Spartanburg City Council, explained that we are all witnesses and testify to the effects of family separation. Her experience at the southern border was compelling, and she ended with a call to “re-light the lamp of Lady Liberty.”
Keith Ray, a teacher at Greenville Early College and a board member for The Colibri Center charged the crowd to pay attention when we read and hear the word “deterrence” used by officials and the media, as this often leads to “human suffering and death.” The need to “practice generosity” and the idea that “walls don’t fix problems” were well-received statements.
Clemson University professor Todd May reported on the efforts of Clayton Memorial Universalist Unitarian Church and how they offer support as South Carolina’s first sanctuary church. He said that while government officials may change, we must stay and prevail in the support of immigrants.
Stories from her own personal family history ignited the crowd as Dr. Melinda Mezner shared how quota systems and displaced persons camps are part of the narrative of our country’s past during WWII. A key point she delivered was that the U.S. is currently admitting historically low numbers of refugees compared to earlier statistics when the refugee programs began. She remarked, “All suffering counts because all people count. There is no master race!”
Dr. Araceli Hernández-Laroche is part of the leadership of Alianza Hispana of Spartanburg and an advocate for the Latino community. She spoke on the importance of words, how they are used and what messages they project. Connection with others for the accountability of the “horrendous acts” being committed in our country was her clear directive. In addition, she said that “We must follow the money,” noting that over $750 per day per child is being spent on asylum seekers held in detention.
Middle school social studies teacher, Fareeha Qazi rallied by saying, “I teach history, but I want to make history.” She recounted her experience of bringing her students with her to the Immigration Office when she became an American citizen. Her comment that “we can’t live in peace until there is justice,” brought cheers.
Kim Nelson, who just announced her campaign for the Democratic nomination to contest for SC-4 congressional district in November, said we must “take our values to the booth.” Kim reiterated the theme that we are more alike than different and it was time to “put the government on notice” that this was “not our legacy.”
Finally, the founding director of No More Victims, Cole Miller stated that we have to “reverse the lens” as the “scale is beyond our comprehension.” He expressed that we are “more alike than not” and we have to protect and prevent further harm to children.
One young lady dressed as The Statue of Liberty read Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus” while Conte held the megaphone for her to rousing applause. The culmination of the evening was a candlelit moment of silent prayer for the children and families in trauma. Participants were dispatched with a message of hope and the call to share light about immigration reform.