The organizers of Friday night’s downtown vigil could not have predicted what the event would come to represent — outrage, hope and an unexpected farewell.
Members of Walla Walla Immigrant Rights Coalition, Walla Walla Progressives, Democratic Socialists of America, the YWCA and other groups came together earlier this summer to plan a public and reflective time for immigrants’ plights as part of a global movement known as “Lights for Liberty: A Vigil to End Human Concentration Camps,” intended to bring thousand of people to locations around the world to protest inhumane conditions faced by migrants.
Lights for Liberty is a coalition of multiple people dedicated to human rights and the principles behind democracy, according to its website. Friday’s vigils, which took place in cities large and small, were intended to unify people in support of stopping what they see as the atrocities happening in “concentration camps,” as they call them, along America’s southern borders and elsewhere.
“Across this country, we have witnessed acts against people fleeing persecution many of us thought we would never see in modern times,” Lights for Liberty founders say on the group’s mission statement.
In Washington state, 38 such vigils were planned, Heritage Park here among those.
Kyle Martz would have surely been one of the 200 or so in attendance, said Walla Walla vigil spokeswoman Emily Anderson.
Martz, 35, was murdered July 8 in his Fourth Avenue home, according to police. While everyone in Walla Walla appears to be reeling from the circumstances surrounding his death, those most involved with Martz’s life are struggling hard with the hole left by his absence, according to news stories and social media postings.
That is “absolutely true” for members of Walla Walla Immigrant Rights Coalition, or WWIRC, Anderson said Friday.
The group was birthed three years ago in a committment to build and protect a welcoming community for immigrants and their advocates. WWIRC works with law enforcement and other officials to make Walla Walla a safe pace for immigrants, operates a hotline for immigration questions and provides financial, legal and other help for immigrant families.
Martz, who graduated from and then worked at Whitman College, was on board with the coalition from the start, according to other members.
“He was a very involved member,” Anderson said, noting that night’s vigil was a fitting way to honor Martz.
“We starting planning this weeks ago and could have never foreseen this,” she said.
“We’ve been thinking about the dual feelings of the vigil, the passionate cause and then what happened to Kyle.”
As planned, Friday evening began with song, poetry and essays as Heritage Park on Main Street continued to fill. From those with mobility devices — walkers to strollers — to young adults and knots of family, people hugged as they met up, many wiping away tears after embracing.
Luminarias lined the space where park meets sidewalk, bearing names, ages and country of origin of some of the people who have died in detention custody of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Included were Mariee Juarez, 19 months old, from Guatemala, and Kamyar Samimi, age 69, from Iran.
Several attendees hoisted signs — “There is no them, JUST US,” “We Are a Nation of Immigrants” and “Babies Need Their Mommies,” were on a few; one simply said “Close The Camps.”
Here and there people leaned against the two walls of Heritage Park, illustrated with images of Walla Walla’s past. In those, Chinese American and African American children peer into long-ago cameras. An Asian American family participates in the city’s 1912 Fourth of July parade. Native Americans wore tribal vestments captured in sepia tones, and Latino and Anglo Americans toil in agricultural fields — representation of the diversity of cultures that built the town.
In English and Spanish, speakers encouraged unity and action in the quest to give today’s immigrants humane treatment and opportunities to contribute to the land they aspire to live in.
That is exactly what Kyle Martz wanted, too, speaker Rachel Elfenbein said.
“Most of the weeks of the year Kyle volunteered to be on call with the Walla Walla Immigrant rights Coalition to support immigrants and refugees in crisis. He did so eagerly and earnestly, without fanfare,” she told her somber-faced audience.
“He never asked for credit for his volunteer work, because he knew the work was not about him, it was about uplifting those who he served.”
Martz, Elfenbein said, should be a model going forward.
“I want to challenge all of us here to be like Kyle Martz — we need thousands of Kyles in this struggle to uphold the dignity of immigrants and refugees in the Americas.”
The sudden death of Martz has torn a hole in the fabric of the community, said The Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg of First Congregational Church.
“So this is a tremendous loss.”
As it is for the immigrants who benefitted from Martz’s work and from all Walla Walla immigrant advocates do, Elfenbein said.
His death, however, can knit the community closer together in its pain over Martz’s death and in his honor, she said.
After the vigil, Anderson said the night had provided her a chance to meet a lot of new people, all of whom she’d like to encourage to become involved in the cause.
“Kyle was in the rapid response team, he was boots on the ground. But people can get involved in many ways,” she said, ticking off social services, communications and finances as examples.
And while Walla Walla County has not yet experienced a surge in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement activity, the coalition is bracing for it, Anderson said.
For more information about Walla Walla Immigrant Rights Coalition, go to wwirc.org.