Barb Lemmon isn’t comfortable being the center of attention, but when it comes to protests, she has no problem standing on the corner and letting people know what she thinks.
Lemmon is the organizer behind a series of recent protests in Green Valley over the treatment of immigrants at government detention centers. The latest was on the Fourth of July, drawing about 60 people to Esperanza Boulevard and La Canada Drive.
The effort started about two weeks ago, and early on was fueled by members of Borderlands Unitarian Universalist Church in Amado, where she attends. The congregation recently changed its name from UU Congregation of Green Valley to reflect what it calls an “emerging identity.”
“We had to start doing something,” Lemmon said of the protests. “We talked about it in church and 10 people came up to me after church and said, ‘I want to stand out there.’”
“It was not that you have to convince people to do this, everybody wants to be out there and speak up and be visible.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement operates eight detention facilities and contracts private companies for seven more. The nearest to Green Valley is in Florence, southeast of Phoenix. Immigrants are also housed at dozens of juvenile facilities and state and local jails.
In fiscal year 2018, ICE housed a daily average of 42,000 immigrants. Most were seeking asylum, and many were among waves of immigrants coming out of unstable Central American nations rife with violence driven by drug cartels. The numbers overwhelmed ICE, which has been left to defend itself against reports of unsanitary, crowded conditions, poor medical aid and limited access to water and food, among other charges.
President Trump on Friday defended the conditions in the detention centers, saying, “I’ve seen some of those places, and they are run beautifully. They’re clean. They’re good. They do a great job.”
In the same White House interview he said Border Patrol agents “did not train to be doctors and nurses and janitors. That’s not what they trained to be. They trained to be Border Patrol. And that’s what they’re doing, and they’re doing a phenomenal job.”
The comments came days after a report by the Department of Homeland Security described conditions in Rio Grande Valley detention centers as “urgent” and needing “immediate attention and action” because of “serious overcrowding and prolonged detention.” According to the report, a manager at one of the facilities called it “a ticking time bomb.”
While member of Congress and private groups argue over what’s going on in the centers, Lemmon sticks to what she’s hearing from those who’ve been inside. She’s among several Green Valley volunteers working at a Tucson monastery helping immigrants recently released from centers. Those immigrants have been put on the long path to asylum, and the monastery is a way station between the detention centers and family or sponsors across the country.
“The reports that are coming out of these detention facilities – that’s a nice word – are horrendous,” Lemmon said. “These people did not commit a crime – a 2 month old – and don’t deserve to be cruelly torn from their parents and treated like an animal, not being washed and not being fed. If we don’t stand up and try to get it stopped now, there’s no later to it.”
Lemmon says perspective is key to dealing with the issue.
“This is a global crisis,” she said. “We need to face it, we need to face that it’s not a law enforcement problem. It’s a problem of desperate people leaving their country. The leadership should have called a screeching halt and said this is a whole different world we’re in on the border and dealt with it. But they’re still looking at it as a simple law enforcement issue and it isn’t.”
Lemmon says much of what is playing out today could have been avoided by calling on agencies such as FEMA, the Red Cross or UNHCR, the United Nations relief agency.
“They haven’t called for any help,” she said.
Lemmon, an intensive care nurse, worked four years in Mexico and speaks Spanish. She has heard first-hand of the conditions from those coming through the monastery in Tucson. Many won’t talk about what they saw for various reasons, she said.
The protest in Green Valley will continue indefinitely, she said.
“I just told people to show up on any corner at any time on any day, we just have to be visible.”
She said feedback from people driving by has been overwhelmingly positive, with a few negative comments and gestures. Some people shout words of encouragement, others sit stone-faced in their cars looking straight-ahead until the light changes.
None of that deters her or the others who will continue to stand on the corner with their signs throughout the summer.
“The purpose is to keep people conscious of the fact that we are doing an unnecessary cruelty to children who have committed no crime,” she said, “because seeking asylum is protected by the law.”