CHICAGO — It’s not about the photograph.
The horrifying image of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez intertwined with his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria — both dead after drowning while trying to cross the brackish Rio Grande to seek asylum in this country — has spurred global outrage.
Politicians took to Twitter to express alarm and shock. Pope Francis weighed in, as did the heads of humanitarian nonprofit organizations.
The mainstream consciousness seemed to have been pricked ... just like in 2015 when Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian Kurdish boy, was photographed dead, washed up on a beach in Turkey.
But, ultimately, nothing major happened to help the European refugee crisis; many more refugees died, more borders closed.
That doesn’t have to be the case with the humanitarian crisis at our own southern border.
It’s been a year since images of children in cages — and an audio recording of one child being ripped from her caregiver — generated enough public outcry that the Trump administration agreed to suspend its “zero-tolerance” forced separations of families who crossed the border illegally.
Now, let’s be clear: Yes, the policy was put on hold, but hundreds of children continue to be torn from their families through loopholes big enough to drive a truck through. Nevertheless, some of the pain and terror was alleviated, and that was something.
We need to mobilize again.
It’s simply unacceptable to witness the carnage, degradation, abuse and inhumanity of what’s going on at our southern border and imagine that we’re on the right side of history in dealing with people — like Oscar and Valeria — who were seeking refuge from life-or-death situations back in a homeland they didn’t wantto flee, but felt they had to.
The first step is to send a unified and unequivocal message of protest that will, again, spur policy changes, political action and, hopefully, relief for the migrants at the border. Not just for this week, or this month, though, but well into the future, especially as the 2020 presidential election heats up.
This loud, united message of protest is what organizers of the “Lights for Liberty: A Vigil to End Human Detention Camps” candlelight protest on July 12 are hoping to catalyze.
“It has become very clear to me, to people across this country and to people around the world that we’re running concentration camps in the U.S. and many of us felt compelled to do something,” said Kristin Mink, a mother of a 3-year-old and newborn from Silver Spring, Maryland, who is helping organize the event.
Even as her toddler begged for his favorite baseball book to be read to him, Mink explained to me that the vigil is designed to be inclusive of everyone and anyone who wants to participate. She described it as a simple holding of a candle and moment of silence at 9 p.m. that will serve as a demand to end the detention camps at the border.
Though there are large events planned for the big cities, Mink emphasized to me that anyone can light a candle anywhere, take a picture and share it via Facebook live, @Lights4Liberty; Twitter, @lights4liberty; or Instagram, at lights4liberty, with the hashtags #lights4liberty, #dontlookaway and #endus concentrationcamps.
“So far, at least 200 events around the country and around the world have been organized and registered on our website by regular people who are looking for a way to say that this needs to stop,” Mink said.
I don’t usually go for these sorts of mass mobilizations, because they are situational and don’t seek to address long-term concerns. However, Mink told me that one goal of this action is to shed light on the many nonprofit organizations across the country that are — and have been, for many years — working on helping migrants and immigrants who face these terrible conditions.
Such organizations include the Border Angels, who provide water for migrants crossing the desert; Project Lifeline, which seeks just treatment for children crossing the border; and Lawyers for Good Government, which seeks to defend human rights.
“This is not about one day of activism, it’s not about filling the streets for a day and then going about your lives,” Mink said. “We want to give people the motivation and the know-how to continue acting. We want to create an opportunity for people who want to do something to get in touch with the right organizations so they can fight for immigrant rights moving forward.”
It’s the perfect moment, as Mink noted, to inject this very pressing issue into the presidential debates and, hopefully, conversations about the 2020 election.
Please light a candle with me. Go to www.lightsforliberty.org to learn more.
Cepeda is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.