The plight of migrants on the southern border has left many in left-leaning Massachusetts struggling to find ways to alleviate the suffering more than 2,300 miles away from home.
Residents have responded viscerally to reports of squalid and inhumane conditions in camps detaining migrants, turning out in droves to two major protests and scrambling to plan more ways to voice their outrage and help migrants in need, from massive vigils to civil disobedience to “solidarity” scooter rides for children.
“Everybody feels compelled to do what’s within their grasp,” said Sarah Kianovsky, a volunteer with Beyond Bond & Legal Defense Fund, a Boston-based organization that raises bond money and provides support for people in US Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody locally. She said she has seen an uptick in people signing up to help in recent weeks; the group’s volunteers range in age from 20 to 92.
The recent protests may presage another crescendo of activist energy in response to the Trump administration, an echo, perhaps, of the thousands that turned out for the Women’s Marches in January 2017 and to protest President Trump’s travel bans in airports across the country later that month, the mass demonstrations to denounce racism and white supremacy after violence in Charlottesville in August 2017, and the widespread rallies against family separations in June of last year.
The crisis on the border, building for months, has drawn the attention of a shocked nation amid photos of migrants huddled under space blankets in crowded camps, reports of children jailed without access to soap, and a chilling image of a father and young daughter lying facedown in the Rio Grande.
A number of the activists said even as the onslaught of news has made people want to speak out, it has also led to a sense of paralysis: What, exactly, can an individual — in Massachusetts, no less — do?
“As we read, as we see pictures, as we go and see what’s happening, we can feel very powerless. I think it’s exactly that which is spurring so much action now,” said Rabbi Victor Reinstein, the leader of Nehar Shalom, a synagogue that is part of the New Sanctuary Movement to help provide housing and support to undocumented immigrants in the area.
Activists said they did not expect to find a solution to the conditions at the border, but they could not simply stand by and do nothing.
“We think of this in terms of incremental change,” Kianovsky said. “If we can bond somebody out so that they can fight their case outside instead of inside,” she said, “that’s enough of a difference for me.”
In recent days the city has seen a walkout by hundreds of Wayfair employees to protest the company selling furniture to operators of camps that detain migrant children, and a demonstration by roughly 1,000 Jewish activists and others to protest border camps. That protest blocked traffic and resulted in 18 arrests outside of the Suffolk County House of Correction, where people in ICE custody are detained.
And there is more to come. Next week a vigil to end detention camps, called “Boston Lights for Liberty,” will take place on the State House steps. Wee the People, an organization that teaches kids and educators about social justice, is hosting a “Solidarity Scoot” for kids to “ride in solidarity with children who are being abused and caged indefinitely in immigration detention camps.” The ride was inspired by the Wayfair walkout, where a few children arrived on scooters with protest signs.
“I think, like a lot of people, we’re caught between ‘We’ve got to respond, respond, respond’ and exhaustion and paralysis,” said Francie Latour, a co-director of Wee the People, who helped to organize the upcoming event.
Even so, she said, “it’s really important for every single person to use their voice to speak out against what is happening right now to migrant children and to immigrants in general.”
Other Bostonians are bringing their various skills to the issue of border detention.
Jessica Keener, a Boston-based author, put out a Facebook call for authors to donate consultation time in exchange for clients contributing to organizations fighting immigrant detention at the border. A list of more than 40 authors agreed to volunteer their time under the hashtag “Authors Against Border Abuse.”
On a Facebook group for Immigrant Families Together, a network of volunteers who provide “rapid responses” to family separations, including paying bonds and providing transportation between cities, Bostonians offered to meet immigrant families at the local bus station.
One member of the group wrote: “I’m a resident of NH. TELL ME HOW TO HELP.”
Some organizations are hoping to channel people’s outrage and energy into long-term campaigns for immigrants’ rights. Next week, the ACLU, Families Belong Together, La Communidad, and other groups will host a daylong training for people to learn about the campaign to secure driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants in the state, and to connect with local immigrants’ rights leaders.
“Being part of a march, and being part of a large action, is really powerful,” said Lily Huang, the co-director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, which is helping to organize the training. “But right now, we need to do strategic, targeted advocacy to keep families together and to highlight the crisis.
“A march is a step, but it’s not the whole fight.”