As Ryan Brown stood outside the West Virginia Capitol Buidling on a breezy Friday evening, her husband Ali was in Guinea, the neighboring country to Sierra Leone where Ali’s originally from.
Brown and Ali were married for seven years when he was deported to Sierra Leone in 2017. He fled the country years before when he first arrived to the United States in 1999, seeking asylum from civil war.
Ali spent a decade appealing the U.S. government’s decision to deny his request for asylum, a process that Brown said cost the couple thousands of dollars. He then spent a year in an immigration detention center, where Brown said he was denied some meals, access to a clean mattress and time outside.
Two years later and still apart, Brown shared her and Ali’s story at a candlelight vigil, protesting human detention camps and abuse in the U.S. immigration system.
“With everything that’s been going on in our country, I felt very helpless right now, because I felt there was nothing I could do for him,” Brown said of Ali. “The only thing I felt like I could do was to share this story, so that other people know (these) issues with immigration are tearing families apart right within their own communities.”
The event in Charleston was one of at least 700 planned events across the globe Friday night, according to Lights for Liberty, the organization responsible for the demonstrations. The Charleston event was held in partnership with the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, an environmental justice group based in West Virginia. Four other events were slated for the state in Morgantown, Huntington, Charles Town and Beckley.
The vigils occurred before a series of raids by U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement are expected to begin Sunday. President Trump confirmed reports of the plan on Friday to detain and deport thousands of people accused of remaining in the U.S. illegally. Most of those deportations are expected in major cities.
According to Joseph Cohen, the executive director of ACLU West Virginia, the state already has an unusually high number of ICE arrests for one of the smallest immigrant populations in the country.
“Immigrants here in West Virginia feel as if they are under attack,” Cohen told vigil attendees. “And make no mistake, they are under attack — even though we have one of the smallest immigrant populations in the country, West Virginia's immigrant communities are terrorized by ICE, and in some ways like nowhere else in this country.”
Recent data Cohen said his office had received on ICE arrests shows some immigrants are 7.7 times more likely to be arrested in West Virginia than anywhere else in the country.
Cohen urged the crowd to address misperceptions of immigrants in their communities.
“We can talk to our friends. We can talk to our neighbors, who are ignorant, and we can educate them,” Cohen said. “When you hear a false, negative stereotype about immigrants, challenge it and correct the misinformation.”
Jackie Lozano spoke on Friday about her process applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals after its creation under the Obama administration in 2012. The program allowed children who entered the country with their families at a young age to apply for permits allowing them to legally live and work in the U.S.
“We were kids that were brought to the United States as young children and have been here our whole lives,” Lozano said. “We have the American heart.”
Lozano was born in Mexico and entered the U.S. with her mother at a very young age, she said — so young that she couldn’t recall the journey, and she didn’t realize she was from Mexico until she was in high school.
“Being a mother, I understand that I would do anything to make sure that my child is safe, and that he is protected and that he’s healthy,” Lozano said. “I would cross any border, I would cross any desert, to make sure my child could live.”
In addition to highlighting issues faced by immigrants in West Virginia, the Charleston vigil on Friday highlighted Charleston’s diversity, which event organizers said was thanks to its immigrants.
This was emphasized by a recital of Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” in six languages. That poem is included on the Statue of Liberty.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.