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Activists turn to Anne Frank’s legacy to pressure Gov. Baker to release immigrant detainees

A projection of Anne Frank on a wall near the JFK Federal Building along Congress Street on Sunday.
A projection of Anne Frank on a wall near the JFK Federal Building along Congress Street on Sunday.Courtesy Amanda Zimmerman

The visage of a young girl appeared on a wall adjacent to the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in downtown Boston Sunday night.

The 12 by 15-foot projection of Anne Frank, perhaps the world’s most famous diarist, lit up the side of the building facing Congress Street at about 8:15 p.m.

The image of the German-born Holocaust victim, who died of typhus in a Nazi concentration camp, was accompanied by a message for Governor Charlie Baker.

“Anne Frank died of an infectious disease in a crowded detention center,” read the message on the black-and-white image. “Governor Baker, release everyone in ICE detention before it’s too late.”

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A Jewish-led immigration group wants Baker to use his emergency powers to free immigrants being held in detention centers at county jails to protect them from the COVID-19 virus.

Attempts to reach a Baker spokesman Sunday night were not immediately successful. The state has contracts with US Customers and Immigration Enforcement to house detainees in some county jails.

A spokeswoman for Never Again Action, the group that organized the demonstration, said Frank’s experience in a death camp is applicable to the threat detained immigrants face today.

“Anne Frank didn’t die in a gas chamber,” Elizabeth Weinbloom, said in an interview “She died of a communicable disease in a crowded detention facility. It’s very clear that that’s going to happen to immigrants being held in Massachusetts.”

The JFK building was chosen as the site of protest both because it holds the state’s federal immigration court and for its proximity to the New England Holocaust Memorial, organizers said in a statement.

Social distancing orders made a traditional protest impossible, so a “skeleton crew” of four people assembled the projector and generator on Sunday night, keeping at least 6 feet apart, according to Weinbloom.

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The projection closely resembled a message illuminated on a New York City immigration courthouse on Saturday, and followed other “COVID-safe” protests organized by sister Never Again Action chapters in New Jersey and California.

Weinbloom described the state’s continued holding of immigrants inside centers as “unconscionable,” saying that outbreaks will inevitably lead to high death rates inside centers.

“Murderous intent is not required for a facility to become a death camp,” she said. “Inaction alone will kill hundreds"

The group organized Sunday night’s demonstration after 51 immigrant detainees at the Bristol County House of Correction and Jail released a letter on Friday calling for the facility to institute new measures to prevent an outbreak.

“We are trapped inside a storage and in fear for our life,” detainees said in the letter, which was published online.

According to the authors, a note from the county sheriff posted inside the unit stated that conditions inside the facility made those working and living at the center “extremely vulnerable” to becoming infected. Medical personnel later said they believed the entire immigrant detention population would become infected within 30 days.

The fear of impending infection led to mass panic among the inmates, according to the letter. They asked that those among them who did not commit aggravated felonies, as well as detainees with serious medical conditions and postponed bond hearings, be released immediately.

Marco Battistotti, an immigrant from Italy who spoke through a third party, said nearly half of the detainees in his unit are experiencing unusual coughing and sneezing, and fear they’ve been exposed.

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“There was the C.O. [correctional officer] with symptoms and he never came back, and we don’t know if he tested positive or just had the flu, but we are kept in the dark,” he said.

Battistotti, who is awaiting a bond hearing, said he and others are beginning to feel like hostages.

“[P]anic and anxiety in a group of people locked up in one storage room is not what you want to do, [and] can have tremendous repercussions,” Battistotti said. “There are many people coming in and out, poor hygiene, and products that are totally ineffective.”

A spokesman for the Bristol sheriff’s office refuted that characterization.

Jonathan Darling said it was a “[c]omplete lie” that any staff member claimed an outbreak was imminent. While two officers were sent home with symptoms of the virus, both were cleared to return to work by a doctor, and there are currently no detainees or staff members with symptoms, he said in an e-mail.

Meanwhile, staff is disinfecting all areas of the facility, educating detainees about the importance of washing ones hands, and everyone inside the center to practice social distancing, officials said. Visits from friends and volunteers have been suspended in the meantime.

“We encourage everyone to follow their local media and government officials for updates and important information on this crisis instead of relying on rumors, exaggerations and misinformation floating around on social media or being pushed by political groups who are trying to use the crisis to advance their political agendas,” Darling said.

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