Updated 11:25 a.m., July 15
Immigrant rights activists descended on Michigan’s Capitol lawn Friday evening as part of a national movement to protest conditions at migrant camps on the southern border, as some of the state’s Democratic lawmakers seek to improve those camps’ conditions — or shut them down altogether.
Speaking to a crowd of about 300, Lansing immigrant rights organizer Lorenzo Lopez vowed demonstrators would close what he called the President Trump administration’s “concentration camps” and led the crowd in chants of “Si se puede,” or “Yes, we can.”
“Those who have not been given due process under the law [at the border] have been traumatized, separated from their families, and are living in fear under an administration that’s using human beings as a political ploy for reelection,” Lopez said.
The “Lights for Liberty” events that took place across the nation Friday were organized by an international coalition of 20 groups advocating for immigrant rights, according to the movement’s website. That site lists 25 events in Michigan alone, taking place in a diverse group of communities from Detroit and Grand Rapids to Sault Ste. Marie and Greenville.
Oscar Castaneda is a community organizer for Action of Greater Lansing, one of the local activist groups who partnered to mount the Capitol rally. To Castaneda, the relentless pace of immigration news coming from the Trump administration in recent months has made actions like Friday’s necessary.
“If you listen to the news … it’s this chaotic slew of constantly changing events, with the citizenship [census] question, raids in different cities, and at some point someone has to say this immigration system is broken,” Castaneda said.
Karalyn Grimes, another organizer for Action of Greater Lansing, said that “Groups across the state were saying there needs to be an outcry against detention at our borders and at the camps,” and that they began planning the rally roughly three weeks ago.
Ethan Schmitt of Planned Parenthood of Michigan, which helped organize Friday’s rally, said that although his group and others like it were well prepared to mount the event, they regretted the circumstances under which they had to do so.
“We’re unfortunately very used to having to organize like this,” Schmitt said, adding that “in the best[-case scenario] we wouldn’t be doing this at all.”
Laura Wagoner, an East Lansing resident who attended the rally to protest specifically the detention of children at the border, said she sees the government’s operation of migrant camps as fundamentally immoral.
“If we did this in any other avenue in this country, we would go to jail,” Wagoner said. “It’s beyond my understanding that we have the capacity as individuals to just say ‘These people have broken the law, and so their children get to be put in cages.’ We don’t do that in this country… it’s really hard for me to understand, as a country and as a society, that we allow this and that more people aren’t just outraged.”
Friday’s events followed a protest of about 250 last week in Detroit that sought to draw attention to the conditions faced by families at the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
Protesters also picketed the offices of U.S. Reps. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) and Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), urging them to take action to shut the camps down.
Lawrence and a group of fellow House Democrats visited the Homestead facility near Miami in Florida last week, the day after U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit)’s high-profile visit to a camp in Texas.
Since then, U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) has announced a bipartisan trip to the southern border, and on Friday U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.) announced that he along with almost 20 other Democrats are planning a Texas visit, as well.
During the recent battle over an emergency spending bill meant to aid conditions at the border, Levin accused the Trump administration of “treating immigrants as criminals, housing people in inhumane conditions that violate basic human rights, denying children and adults swift passage to relatives, and other punishing measures that fly in the face of basic human decency.”
Levin, Lawrence, Tlaib, Dingell and then-Republican U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (I-Cascade Twp.) all voted against that bill, the Democrats in the group citing their mistrust that the Trump administration would use it to ease conditions for migrant families.
In addition to the ramped-up detention of immigrants at the southern border, President Donald Trump recently announced that 10 cities would be subject to planned deportation raids this weekend by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). None of those cities are in Michigan, but the state’s large immigrant community has nevertheless been on alert.
“These immigrants live worried,” said Action of Greater Lansing’s Castaneda. “They spend every single day of their lives worried. They have friends and relatives here, and every day they’re all walking on eggshells.”
A locus for the ire of immigrants’ rights activists in Michigan has been the recent news that the private prison company GEO Group plans to re-open a shuttered facility in northern Michigan, where it will house “non-U.S. citizen criminal aliens.”
“Do you know how much money they’ve made?” Castaneda asked. “Billions, with a ‘b.’ They’re in the business of incarcerating immigrants, and it’s very profitable.”
In its 2018 annual report, the Florida-based GEO Group claimed to have made $2.3 billion in total revenue in that year. It will earn $37 million per year from the federal government through its contract for the re-opened facility in Baldwin, Mich.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the GEO Group said they are “concerned about the unprecedented humanitarian crisis at our Southern border” and that it’s the organization’s “mission to provide the safest, most humane care possible.”*
*This story was updated with comment from GEO Group.