Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Protesting Concentration Camps

Protest demonstration in Elizabeth, NJ
(photo/Jan Barry)

Americans don’t usually think of ourselves as cruel. But there’s no other word to describe our nation’s gulag-like prison system that now includes concentration camps for increasing numbers of people whose crime was trying to come to America.

Years ago, I met a woman in New York City whose family fled from a civil war by walking out of Russia in the winter of 1919 and made their way to America. Her worst experience on arrival was spending a few days in a dormitory on an island in New York harbor, which she fondly recalled for an exhibit at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration.

That is not the story of today’s emigres herded into barbed wire enclosed detention warehouses, tent camps like what Japanese-Americans were kept in as prisoners of war, private prisons run by incarceration corporations and overcrowded county jails.

“Holding them in cages where they die in custody is unacceptable,” Essex County Freeholder President Brendan Gill said yesterday at a protest demonstration at the Elizabeth immigration detention center near Newark Liberty International Airport. Gill joined hundreds of protesters, including families with small children, calling for closing what many signs and speakers called “concentration camps.”

"I can't imagine, now that we have a child, being separated, and knowing what is going on with the kids,'' Tina Jensen of Guttenberg told a reporter for Jensen and her husband Joel Garcia stood with their 2-year-old son, Ethan, amid an upset crowd of 200-300 people who filled much of the street in front of the immigration detention building. Elizabeth police officers patrolled crowd control barriers to provide a narrow passageway for trucks and cars entering and exiting a Fed-Ex and other truck distribution facilities.

The privately owned prison is set in a busy trucking warehouse area near one end of the main airport runway. Huge commercial airliners roared just overhead every 90 seconds or so, the sound so loud no one could hear the speakers.  

"I just don't think what we are doing reflects the values of this country,'' Naz Pakizegi of Montclair told the reporter. "Just thinking of the children, the parents, and the desperation that brings people out." 

When I lived in Montclair years ago, Brendan Gill was a neighbor. His younger brother and my youngest son played together. The town, like all of New Jersey, all of the United States, was full of people whose families came from Ireland, Scotland, Russia and other nations during troubled times. Why is it that people trying to flee hard times in Central America are treated as enemies?

Why aren’t we sending the Peace Corps to El Salvador and neighboring nations instead of perpetuating a history of military missions that created the chaos in Central America?

These are some of the thoughts I had as I stood with the protesters in Elizabeth.