Residents of Grand Forks and neighboring towns on Friday held a Lights for Liberty vigil to protest the deaths and alleged mistreatment of migrants in Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.
The Lights for Liberty event is an international vigil, with more than 800 local events in all 50 states and more than 15 countries. The Grand Forks vigil is one of four in North Dakota alongside the Fargo, Bismarck and Minot Lights for Liberty events, while 13 were held in Minnesota.
A crowd began the night at approximately 8 p.m. by holding signs at the Washington Street and Gateway Drive intersection, where they received a chorus of supportive honks and the occasional chant of “build the wall.”
The protesters moved to the front lawn of the Grand Forks County Correctional Center, which is the only facility in North Dakota that holds ICE detainees. They listened to several speakers, including an immigration attorney, faith leaders and a former refugee until the crowd dispersed at 9:30 p.m.
Pastor Kirk Meseck of Calvary Lutheran Church called the situation at the southern border an "injustice."
“Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not a patriot because you say no,” said Brittney Christy, one of the event’s organizers. “You are holding this beautiful country to the highest standard because we all love it.”
The correctional center receives funds from federal agencies, including ICE, to detain people that are awaiting trial, transfer or release.
Bret Burkholder, an administrator at the correctional center, said the center holds an average of six ICE detainees a day, which amounts to approximately 940 bed days as of May. Each night an ICE detainee is in held in the center is a single bed day, and each detainee accumulates bed days separately.
Burkholder could not provide information on how many detainees were transferred to another facility or released from ICE custody through bond or deportation. He also did not know how many individual detainees had passed through the facility.
Sue Swanson, an immigration lawyer with Swanson Law Office, said that while the Grand Forks center treats her and her clients with respect, she is often the only legal counsel her clients in Grand Forks will receive — even after they are transferred to ICE detention facilities in Minnesota.
“Immigration law is the second most complicated area of law. It’s impossible for untrained individuals to represent themselves effectively,” Swanson said.
Since crossing the border illegally is a civil rather than criminal charge, defendants have the right to attorney but the government will not provide them with one; defendants have to find their own attorneys and pay for them, regardless of their means. Additionally, Swanson said civil defendants can be held indefinitely without bond, unlike most defendants in criminal cases.
Ranju Dhungana is a former refugee who arrived in the United States from Nepal in 2009. Dhungana spoke at the event about her family’s experience. According to Dhungana, her father was separated from his parents and siblings when he had to flee to Nepal after nearly being arrested in Bhutan for “looking Nepalese.” Dhungana lived in Nepal for almost 11 years before coming to the U.S. with her family.
“Luckily, I was able to follow a system that allowed me to come to the United States safely and gain citizenship, but not everyone is lucky enough to have this,” Dhungana said. “Now, families who are fleeing a multitude of problems in their home countries are being viciously separated and dehumanized.”
While President Trump signed an executive order ending the “zero tolerance” policy that led to thousands of migrant and asylum-seeking children being separated from their families, the Houston Chronicle reported that some families were being split as recently as June.
Nationally, six children have died shortly after being released or while still in CBP custody since December, 2018. Prior to the September 28 death of Darlyn Cristabel Cordova-Valle, 10, no children had died in CBP custody since 2010.
The organizers of the Grand Forks vigil compiled a list of 48 adult immigrants who have died in CBP or ICE custody since 2014.