OGDEN — Sandra Nieto was 13 years old when she fled her home country of El Salvador and crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in 1983. She and her 15-year-old sister came to the country to escape the violence from their country’s civil war and to reunite with their mother.
Nieto recalled being stopped by agents of the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service at the border. The Layton resident said she and her sister were detained for three months until their mom could afford their bail.
“I also was put in a cage,” the 50-year-old said, comparing her experience years ago with that of migrant children and families being detained at the border today. “We knew we were risking our lives but if you are willing to do that, it’s not that you want to leave your country, it’s that you have to.”
Nieto was one of about 50 people who gathered Friday evening in front of Ogden’s Municipal Building for the nationwide Lights for Liberty vigils calling for an end to immigrant detention centers. Similar vigils took place in Ephraim, Logan, Salt Lake City and St. George, among the nearly 800 held across the United States and internationally.
The Ogden attendees held up lights, pointing them toward the southern border. In Salt Lake City, those in attendance chanted, “Close the camps” and “Fight ignorance, not immigrants.”
Nieto held up a sign that read, “You have to understand no one puts their child on a boat unless the water is safer than the land,” a quote from a poem by British Somali writer Warsan Shire.
“They have sold us the American dream and now they don’t even let us inside to apply for asylum,” Nieto said. “I think people have that right, at least, you know to apply and see if they can stay here legally or not.”
The vigils were spurred by reports of abuse toward migrant families coming from the southern border. A July 2 federal report found dangerous overcrowding conditions at four Border Patrol facilities in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. On Wednesday, migrant mother Yazmin Juárez told the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee that she and her 19-month-old daughter Mariee came from Guatemala to the U.S. seeking asylum. Juárez said they were held in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility for nearly three weeks where her daughter became increasingly ill. Mariee died six weeks after they were released.
Ogden community organizer Angela Urrea sees similarities between these detention centers and concentration camps.
“Concentration camps by definition is a camp that is overcrowded with lack of facilities, lack of food and lack of human decency, so we are calling them what they are,” Urrea said.
The vigil were set up not only community organizers, but also by concerned citizens like Nathaly Lambert who planned the Logan event. A stay-at-home mom who said she’s never been an activist, Lambert said compelled to join the movement because of her experience as a mother and Peruvian immigrant.
“I feel like there comes a time when you have to take a stand for things that you believe in and I feel like that the situation at the southern border is sad and completely against what America believes,” Lambert said.
More than 100 people attended a vigil in St. George, according to organizers of the St. George vigil. As someone who grew up as a member of an Evangelical church and in a Republican family, Michael Johnstone said he hoped people from all different cultural and political backgrounds can come together on this issue.
“I didn’t know about 90 percent of the people out here tonight so I was happy to see so many new faces,” said Johnstone, who helped organize the St. George vigil.
Between 200-300 people attended Salt Lake City’s vigil held at Washington Square Park, including Tannaz Hoffmann of the Iranian American Society of Utah. She said they came to the vigil stand up for their fellow immigrants.
“I don’t think that children or families should suffer from a decision that their families make to take a step forward in their lives and to protect their family,” Hoffmann said. “I think what’s being done is completely against any sort of human rights and it’s something that in today’s world should not be happening in any circumstances.”