PETERBOROUGH — A rally Friday night protesting the detention of migrants was followed with a visit by Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, who has made immigration a focus of his campaign.
O’Rourke, a former congressman from El Paso, Texas, told the crowd gathered in Putnam Park about meeting a family of asylum seekers in Juarez, Mexico. The family had fled El Salvador after being threatened by a gang.
“So doing what any human being would do in the same set of conditions,” O’Rourke said, “what Amy, my wife, and I would do if it were the only way to save our kids, that family made that journey, by foot, sometimes in a bus, sometimes atop — not inside — of a train.”
After crossing the desert in blistering heat for six hours and crossing the Rio Grande, according to O’Rourke, the family turned themselves in to U.S. immigration authorities, seeking asylum. He said they were taken to a border patrol station, put in a freezing cell and then returned to Mexico after three days, where they are to remain pending the outcome of their asylum claim, under a Trump administration policy.
Other migrants, including children, are detained indefinitely, O’Rourke said, referencing recent news reports of inadequate care and poor conditions in detention facilities.
He urged his listeners to stand up to injustices, mentioning the U.S.’s World War II-era internment of Japanese-Americans and its rejection of a ship of Jewish refugees from Germany in 1939.
“And though that was the decision of one man, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, at the time,” O’Rourke said, “in a democracy — in a government of, by and for the people — those decisions and what is happening right now rests on the shoulders of every single one of us until we do all that we can to make it right.”
That echoed the message of the rally outside the Peterborough Town House, which drew at least 200 people.
In between chants and protest songs, speakers decried the detention and deportation of immigrants. They stressed the need to raise awareness about conditions on the border, to keep the issue in the public eye, to organize, to pressure elected representatives and to support and volunteer for organizations that work on behalf of migrants.
Hundreds of similar events around the country and abroad were scheduled for Friday, a collective effort known as Lights for Liberty, according to organizers. Friday night vigils were also scheduled in Keene and Brattleboro.
Marie Cassady of Peterborough, one of the organizers, told The Sentinel she hopes events like this can help keep the treatment of migrants in the public conversation.
“We get distracted, and we move on to other things,” she said.
Karen Hatcher, another of the organizers, said they are part of a group of eight women from the Peterborough area. Outraged over news about conditions in detention facilities, Hatcher said, they connected with one another and put together Friday’s rally.
“We’re all mothers and grandmothers,” she said. “… We couldn’t stand by.”
Hatcher said the group plans to stay active on the issue, though members aren’t yet sure what form that will take.
She encouraged people to take steps of their own, even in this northern part of the country, including educating others and “supporting organizations that are at the border.”
Gabby Oja of Dublin, a student at ConVal Regional High School, and Anna McGuiness of Hancock, a recent graduate, spoke together at the rally, reflecting on patriotism at a time when actions they consider immoral are carried out in the country’s name.
Later, waiting for O’Rourke’s arrival, McGuiness said she hopes people do more than turn out for rallies.
“It’s nice to get together and sing, but we need to do more,” she said.