Vigil brings immigration issues home
by Mark McDermott
Elvis Martinez traveled an unfathomable distance to stand, a little scared but plenty strong, before a crowd of a few hundred people on the Manhattan Beach pier last Friday night.
Two years ago, Martinez walked roughly 1,400 miles from his home in the gang-infested city of San Salvador, El Salvador, to Brownsville, Texas. He was 13 years old, and the gangs were increasingly insistent that he join their ranks, following him to and from school every day and threatening not only his life but his grandmother’s should he continue to resist.
“I was very scared to die, so my grandmother decided to send me to this country as an emergency,” said Martinez. “I left on January 5, 2017. It was really hard to say goodbye to my grandmother, knowing it was probably the last time I was going to see her in my whole life.”
He left in hopes of reuniting with his mother, who’d been forced to flee a decade earlier. He survived an arduous journey through Guatemala and Mexico and applied for asylum on the Texas border, where he was brought to a detention center near Brownsville.
“I saw many families being separated,” he said. “The parents were put in one room and the kids in another, some kids as young as six and eight. They cried for their parents the whole night and day. We were put in a large, cold building, with only one toilet in the middle of the room, with no doors, next to a sink. We slept on the cement floor…We couldn’t go outside and didn’t get much food. I wasn’t able to call my mother and she didn’t know if I was dead or alive.”
“But I was one of the luckiest ones, because after a month passed they found my mother. I arrived in LA on Valentine’s Day and I hugged my mother for the first time in ten years. It was the best day of my life.”
Today, Martinez is 15 and has recently graduated from middle school in Lennox, where he is an honors student and keeps his grandmother’s words always close to his heart. “Work hard, study hard, be a good person, make my mother proud,” Martinez recalled her telling him. “And be a good American.”
Martinez, soft-spoken but with a clear, steady voice and a tuft of hair reaching towards the sky like his namesake, Elvis Presley, brought many of the 300 people who’d gathered at the pier Friday night to tears. They had assembled for the Lights for Liberty vigil, an event locally organized by Councilperson Hildy Stern (not in an official capacity) and a committee of residents that was one of hundreds of such vigils that took place at sunset across the nation to bring attention to the conditions immigrants face.
One of those brought to tears was Nina Tarnay, who spoke before Martinez and recalled her own family’s perilous journey from war-torn Vietnam in the 1970s.
“I have a 15-year-old son who just graduated from middle school,” said Tarnay. “I can’t imagine the thought of having him separated from me. Just think about how you feel about your children or grandchildren. We should look at these people the way we look at ourselves and our kids. How we treat the most vulnerable is a huge reflection on us, and what we are teaching our children. So it’s important to hear stories like Elvis’, and be reminded these are human beings. They are just like you, they are just like me, and their children are just like yours, and just like mine.”
Tarnay, in her remarks, contrasted her own experience as an asylum seeker four decades ago with the plight of the thousands of people held in detention centers at the southern border for weeks and months in conditions that have been documented — by civil rights groups, Congressional delegations, and in a recent report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General — as severely overcrowded. Malnutrition, sleep deprivation, and lack of basic hygiene are endemic at the facilities. Since 2017, 24 asylum seekers have died in detention centers, including seven children in the last year.
“I spent four months in a refugee camp prior to coming to the U.S.,” Tarnay said. “We faced many difficulties in our journey, but those in charge of processing our asylum petitions treated us humanely, and with dignity. The memories I have from our plight to find a better life stayed with me, and they compelled me to stand today for the immigrants going through the asylum-seeking process.”
Tarnay, a Manhattan Beach resident, quoted Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, writer, and Nobel Laurete. “I swore never to be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation,” Wiesel wrote. “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
“Once asylum seekers are in our custody, they should be treated humanely and with dignity, just as my family and I were treated when we went through the immigration process,” Tarnay said. “I am a testament to what a good immigrant looks like, and the result of it. It creates good Americans like me. As a proud American, I believe it is our civic duty to uphold the values upon which our country was founded …If we don’t stand up for those who can’t speak for themselves, who will? This isn’t a political issue. It’s a humanitarian issue. What’s happening in U.S. detention centers is real, it’s inhumane, and we cannot look away.”
Sonia Nazario, a journalist and author who won a Pulitzer Prize for “Enrique’s Journey,” the story of a Honduran boy’s struggle to find his mother in the U.S., recalled both her family’s journey to the United States and her own journey into the world as experienced by the thousands of asylum seekers south of the U.S. border. Her family fled Nazi Germany and later Argentina’s “Dirty War,” where Nazario said some of her closest friends were tortured to death. But it wasn’t until 1997 in Manhattan Beach, where she had a jolting conversation with her housekeeper, Carmen, that Nazario turned her reporter’s gaze upon the plight of immigrants.
“I remember her telling me, here in my kitchen in Manhattan Beach, how she would gently coax her child to roll over in bed at night, and she would tell them to sleep face down so your stomach doesn’t growl so much,” Nazario said. “She had left these four children in Guatemala and had come north to work here, and she hadn’t seen her children in 12 years.”
Carmen’s son, Minor, showed up at her doorstep the following year, after hiking the 1,600 miles from Guatemala to California. Nazario’s focus ever since has been on kids like Minor, like Elvis, those who undertake the journey north alone: Who are they, and why do they do it?
In reporting Enrique’s journey, Nazario retraced his steps, by foot, all the way from Honduras, across Guatemala. It took her three months. She rode atop seven freight trains across Mexico, was nearly beaten, raped, and robbed, and at one point saw a boy knocked off by a tree branch fall beneath the wheels of the train. What she discovered was that none of the perils outweighed the yearning for a better life that sparked such a journey.
“I have never seen determination like I saw with these migrant kids who are crossing Mexico,” Nazario said.
This is in part because of what such kids are fleeing. In Honduras, Nazario walked down a street where a 14 year old girl had been beaten, raped, and skinned alive.
“The truth is we can’t be nasty enough to deter people who are facing the things I have seen in Honduras,” she said. “Yet we are still separating families.”
Of late, Nazario has been investigating the detention centers. A visit to the one nearest Los Angeles, in Adelento, revealed food with maggots and cells in which nooses hung from the ceiling. “These are the private prisons where we are sending people,” she said.
Nazario said the United States is violating its own laws. After the U.S. turned away a ship with 900 Jews aboard during WWII, many who subsequently ended up dying in concentration camps, laws were changed to ensure those seeking the safety of American shores would have a fair and humane process to find shelter, Nazario said. That process has been thoroughly undermined, Nazario said, from immigration judges hearing 700 cases a year to six-year-old children no longer being provided legal representation and thus representing themselves in court.
“Why can’t we get kids who are detained food? Why? They are hungry,” Nazario said. “Why are children living in filth for weeks without a blanket? They don’t have enough diapers for these kids?… Cruelty to children has unfortunately become a policy in our country. Let’s tell the truth. I believe it is a moral stain on us, and all of us should oppose this. No country should put children in cages.”
Another Manhattan Beach resident provided another perspective on borders. Like Elvis, Danny Olivas has traveled unfathomable distances. He was an astronaut who spent nearly 30 days in space on two NASA Space Shuttle missions. What he told those at the vigil is that the distance that needs to be bridged is simply across the human heart. He likened the challenge of immigration to the task of putting a man on the moon.
“This one is not bound by the laws of physics, but rather the love and empathy that exists within the heart of each and every American,” Olivas said. “This is the same America that put humans on the moon and gave this Mexican American the opportunity to fly twice in space for my country, the United States of America. It is a country that always has been and will be, the benefactor of immigration. America is a land of immigrants. We are all the product of immigration.”
“I have had the privilege of looking back at our home from 250 miles above the planet,” Olivas said. “I can say, with no doubt in my mind, that the differences we see between and among ourselves, are not seen by my Maker. Borders, other than those between land and sea, are constructs of the human mind, nothing else…At the end of my last flight, I looked, not to the earth below, but the universe beyond. Tonight we stand at this land and sea border. There are more stars in the heavens than grains of sand on this beach. Against the backdrop of the cosmos, our planet does not even amount to a single grain of sand. This should put into perspective just how big or how small any one individual on this tiny rock really is. This is our only home and we are all brothers and sisters. As I looked back at earth, I reflected with the knowledge, that the bipeds which inhabit my home, can choose to inflict violence and terror on one another, or we can all choose to love one another, recognizing that in the eyes of our Creator, we are all related. I ask each and every person here today, as well as every American, to do what they can to work hard and never give up to make this country the loving, compassionate and welcoming place that so many of our immigrant kin found to make their home, and who gave us all the opportunities we enjoy today.”