A crowd assembles on the steps of the U.S. Courthouse in Anniston Friday evening to show their support for humane treatment of asylum seekers along the U.S. border with Mexico. A candlelight vigil was held after the sun went down a little more.

Activists met Friday at 7:30 p.m. in front of the U.S. Courthouse on Noble Street for a candlelit vigil to bring attention to the conditions immigrants in detention facilities face on the U.S. southern border. 

We need to recognize the rights of asylum seekers under both our own and international law and deal with the problem accordingly.  Seeking asylum is legal. Turning away asylum seekers is not,” organizer Beverly Williams wrote in an email to The Star prior to the event.

“Never again is now,” read a banner held by children and adults at the steps of the federal building. An image of barbed wire on the banner accentuated the message opposing detention of asylum seekers.  

Williams said she is concerned about the way border officials have handled the influx of immigrants on the border with Mexico. One of the things that worried her most was how federal agents are detaining people seeking asylum, which she called a human rights issue.

There have been reports of poor conditions in the detention camps, including rooms being kept uncomfortably cold, a lack of beds for people to sleep in, and lights being kept on for 24 hours a day. 

The purpose of the event, Lights for Liberty, is “to protest the inhumane conditions faced by refugees.” Protesters participated in a candlelit vigil along with others across the country. 

Speakers and observers gathered at the county Democratic Party headquarters down the block prior to walking to the federal building, but one of the participant, Jim Williams, pointed out it was not a Democrats-only event.

Several protesters said they were concerned border policy is being purposefully harsh to keep others from coming to the U.S. The idea is if people know they will be treated poorly at the border they will be less likely to leave their homes.

“What we’re doing now is being used as a deterrent,” said Cliff Andrews, a local activist. He stressed that it is legal to seek asylum in the U.S. and that people crossing the border should be treated with dignity.

Grant Whittle, a resident of Oxford, echoed Andrews in that regard, saying people on the border were having their human rights violated.

“I have no idea how and why anybody could allow this to continue,” Whittle said. 

Kalyn Laster, a student from the University of Alabama, said she wanted to reunite the children with their families and treat them like humans. She also urged younger people to educate themselves on the situation and vote in order to change the system.

“I wish my generation would register and vote, because it starts right there,” Laster said.

The names of six children who have died in federal custody were read aloud at the vigil, ranging in age from two-and-a-half to 16. 

Local speakers at the event included Jesus Perez, a motivational speaker and life coach who lives in Anniston.

Perez spoke about the importance of speaking up for people who need advocates, invoking the words of Martin Niemoller, a Lutheran minister who wrote a famous poem “First they came” in regards to the Jews in the Holocaust. 

“If we don’t speak for them, who? And if not now, when?” Perez said. 

Protesters opposed treating people who crossed the border for asylum protection like criminals. 

The American Immigration Council, a non-profit immigrant advocacy organization, defines asylum as a protection granted to foreign nationals in the U.S. who meet the criteria for a refugee. The United Nations 1951 Convention defines a refugee as “a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country, and cannot obtain protection in that country because of a well-founded fear of persecution due to race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion, or national origin.” 

Current U.S. law is to accept people fleeing from persecution or unsafe conditions in their home country.