By Randy Villegas for The California Endowment

“Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal?” These are words spoken byElie Wiesel, Nobel Prize winner, and Holocaust survivor. Although he just passed away, his words shall forever live on. Last week, activists and community members from all over Kern County gathered in the spirit of Mr. Wiesel’s words outside of an immigrant detention center in Bakersfield.

As one of the leading youth that helped organize the event, I must say that I’ve never seen something this beautiful happen here in Kern County. As we began planning this event months ago, we were inspired by musicians Juanes and John Legend performing outside of an immigration detention center in Arizona. The event brought awareness of a private prison industry that profits off of people’s suffering, and illustrated a broken system, while at the same time reminding detainees that people outside their walls care about them.

Juanes and John Legend used music to bring people together for the cause of justice. I wanted to do the same thing in Kern County and last Thursday we did.

Youth gathered outside the detention facility.
Youth gathered outside the detention facility.

A week earlier, I had visited the Mesa Verde Immigrant Detention Facility to meet with a 26-year-old woman from Guatemala who was fleeing murder in her home country and sought asylum here in the U.S. She shared with me the story of her family, her dreams, and her hope and strength to keep fighting for a better life. She only had one year left of school to graduate from her university. Just like me, I thought to myself, this woman had only one year left to finish school, and now she’s locked up because of her lack of documentation. I thought to myself, what makes the difference between her and me? Why does a piece of paper deem someone more or less human? It doesn’t.

She has been incarcerated for over six months still waiting for a court date. She has family here in the U.S. who wish for nothing more than her safety. She told me that if there’s one thing she could tell everyone, it’s that, “We don’t come here to steal jobs, or cause violence, or even depend on anyone. We come here because it’s the land of opportunity for a better life, a life with liberty. We leave our families, our entire life behind just for a chance at freedom and a better life.”

I was inspired by her words, her emotions, her genuine kindness and strength to keep persevering. This is a prime example of why we need reform in a broken system and why we should advocate for comprehensive immigration reform.

When I told her that we would be outside the detention center next Thursday morning to play music for all the detainees and rally for the cause, her eyes watered with emotion as did mine. She thanked me from the bottom of her heart and hugged me before I left to work.

A week later we arrived early at the detention center, only to see that we had been blocked off by “caution tape” around the whole building, except the sidewalk. When I asked an employee if I could park in the “visitor parking” he told me that there were no visitors today, and nobody was to be allowed inside. I knew that there were visitor hours today but I simply parked on the street.  While it scared me a bit at first, I smiled and remembered the words of a fellow journalist “When you are pissing people off in the community, you know they are listening, you know your voice is being heard, you know you’re doing something right.”

Youth sharing their action over their social media channels.
Youth sharing their action over their social media channels.

Nonetheless we began our press conference on the sidewalk as youth leaders gave speeches on why we need to reform our prison and immigration systems, and invest in our youth instead. As the scorching heat blazed in the morning, Professor and activist Gonzalo Santos suggested we heed to the words of the “caution tape” and proceed with caution. So we crossed the tape into the shade of a tree right in front of the building. Without fear, we continued rallying for the cause of justice. Speakers spoke about their personal experiences, shocking statistics about Kern County’s investment in mass incarceration instead of education. After powerful words from youth leaders, the band began to play right in front of the building, and then we proceeded to march around the building nearest where the detainees would be let outside for a recreational break. We marched, we chanted, and most of all we stood together in unity for justice. As we reached the park, people gathered around taking photos, making signs, and enjoying music from the bands, and later on Latin Grammy Nominee Ceci Bastida. It brought me absolute joy to see youth from all across Kern making signs that read #LoveNotPrisons, #EducationNotPrisons, and even a young toddler with a drawing that she said meant “happiness” not prisons.

Some of the younger kids joining in on the action.
Some of the younger kids joining in on the action.

As I look back upon that day, I’m still left in awe. I’m filled with joy knowing that so many people came out to rally for a cause to bring humanity to an issue that is so important this political season. I’m inspired by the youth that I saw actively participating and I’m filled with hope for a better future, knowing that someday they will be our leaders. I hope someday the millions of people living in the shadows can one day see their families, live out their dreams without constant fear, and instead live in liberty, justice, and the pursuit of happiness. Until then, we will keep fighting, rallying, and advocating for a true democracy with liberty and justice for all.

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