Hundreds gathered at the Plaza Fiesta shopping center on July 12 for a “Lights for Liberty” rally to raise awareness of the ‘inhumane treatment’ of immigrants at the Mexico border. (Dyana Bagby)

A vigil to protest the “inhumane treatment” of immigrants at the Mexico border attracted hundreds to the Plaza Fiesta shopping center July 12, just days before massive ICE raids are expected across the country and reportedly in metro Atlanta.

One of hundreds of “Lights for Liberty” vigils held in Georgia and across the country and globe, the gathering at Plaza Fiesta on Buford Highway in Chamblee on the Brookhaven border combined prayer, protest and plenty of politics as candidates denounced President Trump’s anti-immigration policies that have led to overcrowded detention facilities and young children being separated from their parents.

Protests signs including one that that read “Zero tolerance for children + families in cages” dotted the crowd standing outside the one of the main entrances into the shopping center.

One speaker led a chant of “Abolish ICE!” while several pastors and rabbis prayed in Spanish and English for mercy and compassion for the men, women and children detained at the border. A doll inside an animal cage was placed near the speakers’ lectern, symbolizing the conditions protesters were speaking out against.

State Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero (D-Norcross) became emotional when sharing her story of moving to the U.S. from Mexico as a child at the July 12 vigil at Plaza Fiesta. (Dyana Bagby)

The keynote speaker, state Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero (D-Norcross), a graduate of Cross Keys High School in Brookhaven and the first American Latina woman elected to the General Assembly, shared her story of moving to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 5.

“I’m speaking as an immigrant and as an American because this issue for me is personal,” she said.

Now running for the 7th Congressional District, Romero said the immigration policies enacted by former President Ronald Reagan afforded her the opportunity to get an education and become a U.S. citizen.

But if the policies in place now were in place when she was 5, she could have been one of the children’s faces seen behind fences at the detention camps and splashed across TV and in newspapers, Romero said, and she would not have gotten the chance to serve in the General Assembly.

“The opportunity we ask of them to open a pathway to legalization is precisely so more people can provide for this country as much as the country as provided for us,” she said, holding back tears.

Former Columbus, Ga., mayor Teresa Tomlinson, who grew up in Brookhaven, and Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry, Democrats vying to take on incumbent U.S. Senator David Perdue in 2020, also spoke at the rally.

“I’m running for senate because I’m sick of the crazy and the mean, that is not policy,” Tomlinson said as a heavy rain began to fall. A pastor held an umbrella over her, but wind caused it to flip inside out.

Pastor Patrick Faulhaber of North Decatur United Methodist Church stands next to a display of a doll in a cage representing the children being held in detention camps at the Mexico border. (Dyana Bagby)

“Asking for asylum is not a crime, being a child immigrant is not a crime,” she added. And with ICE raids on migrant families expected to begin on Sunday, July 14, Tomlinson asked people to pray for peace, justice and for mercy.

Terry said being the mayor of a city with one of the highest number of refugees in the country makes Clarkston a “stronger, safer and more compassionate” community.

“[The Trump] administration has made it their business to take on the weakest and most vulnerable among us,” he said, noting that Sen. Perdue is in step with Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. “Let us bring this fight to Washington, let us bring this fight to the White House.”

One of the final speakers was Rebekah Cohen Morris, a candidate for Doraville City Council and the equitable housing director for Los Vecinos de Buford Highway, an organization that advocates for immigrants living along Buford Highway in Brookhaven and neighboring cities.

Her message at the vigil was not as a teacher or mom or a candidate or a community activist, she said, but as an evangelical Christian. Today’s U.S. evangelical Christian leaders are “destroying our country” by not decrying the treatment of children and adult immigrants at the Mexico border, Morris said.

Liz Throop of Candler Park holds a cut-out of the Statue of Liberty wrapped in a thermal reflective blanket like the ones handed out to immigrants being held in detention facilities at the Mexico border. (Dyana Bagby)

“They have somehow equated Christianity with political ideology that is not in the least bit consistent with the Gospel,” she said.

Evangelical Christians are not spreading the message of Jesus because instead they “turn a blind eye” to the cries of children being kept in cages in detention camps, she said.

“What is happening should break all of our hearts. This is not a partisan issue,” Morris said.

Several speakers also raised how the threats of ICE raids expected to happen this weekend are creating a climate of fear for local immigrant communities. Los Vecinos de Buford Highway President Marco Palma said in an interview at the vigil his organization is on “high alert” this weekend and informing people of their rights, but also don’t want to stoke too much fear.

Brookhaven Police Chief Gary Yandura said in a Thursday email his department had not been contacted or made aware of any ICE raids this weekend.

ICE have agents have targeted immigrants living on Buford Highway in the past. On June 6, ICE agents went to arrest a non-violent suspect at a Brookhaven apartment complex and asked Brookhaven Police for assistance after the suspect did not voluntarily surrender by getting out of his van.

Brookhaven Police responded to the complex and told the suspect that the ICE agents were legitimate and had an warrant for his arrest for missing a deportation hearing. The suspect made a run for an apartment after he believed ICE agents had left the scene, but one agent was hidden and chased him through the complex. Brookhaven Police officers also pursued the suspect and assisted in the take down and arrest.

The collaboration between Brookhaven Police and ICE angered Palma and Los Vecinos de Buford Highway because they said it betrayed a trust local officers have built through community outreach to the local Latino and immigrant communities. Brookhaven Police policy is to not lead immigration crackdowns or arrest suspected undocumented immigrants. The department, however, always respond to requests for backup from law enforcement agencies, including ICE, according to police.

At the vigil at Plaza Fiesta, a closing ceremony included people lighting candles and hundreds joining in the singing of “We Shall Overcome” led by the Atlanta Resistance Revival Chorus.

Chamblee Councilmember Tom Hogan and Doraville City Councilmember Stephe Koontz were among the hundreds attending the vigil.

Liz Throop drove to Plaza Fiesta from Candler Park with a life-size cutout of the Statue of Liberty wrapped in a silver thermal reflective blanket like the ones handed out to young children being held in detention facilities.

“Our ideals are being degraded by the mistreatment of the children,” she said. “There is a wide range of opinions on immigration and reasonable minds can disagree on issues,” she said, “but this is clearly wrong.”

Joe Seconder of Dunwoody said he attended the vigil to stand in solidarity with those being held in the detention facilities after fleeing their countries trying to find a safer place to live.

“When I see the atrocities, the living conditions they are in … they don’t have to be in these cages,” he said. “Children should never be separated from their parents. Let them have due process.”

Faith and immigrant rights groups co-hosting the Plaza Fiesta event included the Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing, New Sanctuary Movement of Atlanta, Faith in Public Life, El Refugio at Stewart Detention Center, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Congregation Bet Haverim, Compassionate Atlanta, We Are March On Georgia, IndivisibleGa04, Georgia Women, New American Pathways and DeKalb Democratic Women.

Teresa Tomlinson, a candidate challenging incumbent U.S. Senator David Perdue, gives a speech during a downpour at the “Lights for Liberty” vigil held at Plaza Fiesta on July 12. (Dyana Bagby)
A heavy downpour forced hundred of people to crowd under the eaves at the Plaza Fiesta vigil on July 12. The vigil was one of hundreds across the country held to raise awareness of immigrants being held in overcrowded detention facilities at the Mexico border. (Dyana Bagby)

This story has been updated.