Many Americans refer to the foreign faces that pass each week through Knoxville as “illegal immigrants.”
Sonia Uriarte sees the hunger, exhaustion and fear in their faces, and has a different word for it.
“They are asylum seekers,” Uriarte said. “They are looking for political asylum because of problems in their own countries. They are coming here because their lives are in danger and their families are in danger in their countries.”
Uriarte and other regional immigration volunteers shared their stories — and two minutes of silent reflection — Friday night with about 75 participants at a Lights for Liberty gathering at The Bird & The Book in Maryville.
The event coincided with similar gatherings to protest Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids slated to begin Sunday in sanctuary cities across the United States.
Various immigrant assistance organizations have swung into action, including the National Immigration Law Center, which began distributing “know your rights” literature earlier to assist those who are confronted without legal arrest warrants.
The American Civil Liberties Union also assisted a number of smaller agencies in filing a request to block deportations of individuals and families who have missed court dates to remain in the country until their cases can be resolved legally.
All agreed that more needs to be done because conditions in U.S. detention camps reportedly have descended to levels once thought unimaginable in North America.
Susan Sneed, who ran for a seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives in 2018, said she was embarrassed when United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet recently condemned the “outrageous conditions” of camps.
Reports have surfaced in recent weeks of gross crowding, lack of access to food, water, health care and bedding.
Some who attended were angered at reports of families having clothing and shoes taken, only to sleep on cold, barren floors.
Increased reports of sexual assaults and other violence in the camps have motivated many to protest.
Sneed had no trouble finding a word for it.
“I feel like we are in a dystopia and it’s the worst of all possible worlds happening,” Sneed said. “I don’t know if we can claim any longer to be a light of the world if this is how we treat people.”
Kari Keeling began volunteering with relief efforts and was angered at how migrants have been treated in and out of the camps.
“We really wanted to point out that we are providing a really unfriendly environment for these people and we need to treat them with kindness,” Keeling said.
“When you come here, they treat you like you are nothing,” Uriarte said. “We need to help them heal.”
Each week she and other volunteers greet busloads of migrants who pass through East Tennessee.
The soup, snacks and toys they bring don’t sound like much to the average American, but they mean a lot to someone who has lost everything, she said.
Their agencies have assisted more than 5,000 asylum seekers in the past two months.
Some depart for other cities. Others remain in Knoxville while they apply for asylum, which is granted under limited legal conditions.
Greeting the buses also helps them to identify those who need health care, a common problem in migrant communities.
Migrants who remain in U.S. cities also are vulnerable to wage theft.
Clinton Cossyleon volunteers his time to assist those who are called to job sites and are not called back to collect pay.
“Not only are we pointing people in the right direction, we are walking them through the steps,” Cossyleon said
Asher Park is only 10, but he handled his lighter with pride as he helped the crowd to light their candles.
Park, who described himself as “very into politics,” was proud to have represented a younger demographic.
“It felt pretty good to support all the helpless people that are being tortured at the border in the concentration camps,” Park said.
Foothills Unitarian Church member Ash McDaniel described the existence of the camps and their reported conditions as heinous.
Michael Hatcher is disappointed that several bleak points in 20th-century history appear to be repeating themselves.
“It just shows that we haven’t learned from our past,” Hatcher said.
Democratic Party First Vice Chairperson Nathan Higdon was pleased by the turnout.
“It was great,” Higdon said. “This coming together is nonpartisan and it’s about basic human rights.”
Sneed issued a challenge to the crowd as attendees held their lights aloft.
“I challenge you to take this light from this place and challenge the darkness,” Sneed said.
For Uriarte, the challenge was more basic.
“Keep supporting your rights, because what you have is what you are,” Uriarte said. “It’s what makes America a great nation.”