When attorney Toby Gialluca visited a U.S. Border Patrol facility in early June in McAllen, Texas, she saw children locked in "cages" who were unclothed, denied access to restrooms, and lacked soap and running water. She saw people with the flu, pneumonia, and conjunctivitis being held in overcrowded cells. She wanted to share what she saw with as many people as possible, so she called her friend Elizabeth McLaughlin, who shared Gialluca’s account on Twitter with her more than 84,000 followers. It went viral, and in the three weeks since, McLaughlin, Gialluca, and grassroots activists organized almost 800 coordinated "Lights for Liberty" vigils across the U.S. on July 12 to protest conditions faced by migrants.
"What I saw there was horrifying," Gialluca tells Bustle. "Everyone was incredibly ill."
Gialluca was part of a group of volunteers made up of lawyers, doctors, and interpreters who toured border facilities to evaluate whether they were up to the standards of the Clinton-era Flores settlement, which mandates conditions for detention facilities for migrant children and families. The squalid conditions were first reported by the Associated Press in late June, and a team of attorneys has since sued the federal government on behalf of the children.
Among the migrants Gialluca saw at the McAllen facility was a teenage mother who’d given birth in Mexico to a premature baby via emergency C-section. Gialluca says the teen was being kept in "a very overcrowded cage with other people who had the flu and pneumonia and conjunctivitis and a slew of other significant illnesses."
Bustle has reached out to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for comment on Gialluca’s observations.
In addition to spreading the word about what was happening at the border, Gialluca and McLaughlin decided to organize vigils that would uplift local nonprofits and other groups helping immigrants. Just three weeks after getting the effort off the ground, Gialluca says there are 751 Lights for Liberty events planned worldwide, and that number continues to grow.
"What we envisioned was a peaceful gathering, designed in a nonpartisan fashion, that would allow people to open their hearts and maybe receive information that causes them discomfort and then process it, and possibly then be willing to take actions that maybe normally they wouldn’t be open to," Gialluca says.
The main events will take place in El Paso, Texas, and Homestead, Florida, near a migrant holding facility and a children’s detention center, respectively, as well as in San Diego, New York City, and Washington, D.C. But there are hundreds more planned in the U.S. and abroad.
Meryl Ranzer, one of the national Lights for Liberty organizers who works for the New Sanctuary Coalition, which provides in-person support to non-citizens when they have to go to court or meet with U.S. immigration officials, said each event also centers a local group that helps immigrants and asylum seekers.
"Local organizations know what’s needed in their communities," she says.
The New York City event being held Friday in Foley Square, for example, is co-organized by New Sanctuary.
Many of the events will feature speeches from local activists, faith leaders, and members of impacted communities, and Ranzer says the goal is really to spur people to some kind of action.
"Because we are centering the communities who do this work every day, it’s really also important for those of us who have privilege … it could be easy to kind of come to this vigil, and say, ‘Oh, I went to a vigil.’ And then you go home and then you go back to your life and there are still people in cages, and there are still people in concentration camps," she says. "There’s still people being sent back to Mexico and there are still people who are taken from their families and detained and they’ve been here for 20 years."
Contrary to what many people might think, Gialluca says donations aren’t actually very helpful to border facilities or communities, because the crisis at the border isn’t a budgetary one. There are for-profit facilities that are supposed to be housing asylum seekers and migrants in between their processing time and when they are released.
"It’s not a budgetary issue to allow someone to use the restroom," she says. "It’s not a budgetary issue when you take the clothing off of a baby’s back and send them outside to sleep for four days."
So rather than donate money, Gialluca says she and the other Lights for Liberty organizers hope that after the vigils people will be motivated to step outside of their comfort zones and donate their time.
"What’s actually needed is regular pressure on elected representatives including regular calls or letters to them," she says.
Another reason the Lights for Liberty events center local immigrant rights organizations is to get people involved with those groups after the vigils. "There are organizations that are working day in and day out and have been doing great work for decades, and they need support," Gialluca says. "They need resources, they need volunteers. These are people that you can connect with and help remotely or if you care to travel and do it that way."
Ravi Ragbir, director of New Sanctuary Coalition in New York City, says that people who want to help should remember that the problem is also bigger than the crisis at the border. There are non-citizen immigrants in communities across the U.S., and many of them fled their home countries because they or their children could be killed there.
Ragbir points out that some asylum seekers and migrants will say that part of their reason for coming to the U.S. is that they want to find work, "but when you dig deep and you continue talking to them, [they say] ‘oh, my cousin was killed,’ or ‘Oh, my father was killed."
"They don’t even mention that as a source of violence that they have felt and they are living with because it has become so normalized and so mainstream that they don’t see that as a reason that they can share of why they have to leave," he says.
Regardless of why people decide to attend a vigil or maybe even start one themselves, Ranzer urges people not to resume their usual routines afterward without taking some action. "It’s unacceptable as a human being right now on this planet to go back to life and not continue being part of this movement," she says.
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