Titi Baccarat stood in the middle of the crowd in Monument Square, his face solemn as he clutched a toothbrush and toothpaste in his raised fist. Shocked and hurt by news reports that migrant children are being held in detention centers – sometimes without basic necessities – he felt he had to stand up and speak out.

“We can’t stay without doing something for those kids who are detained,” said Baccarat, who came to Portland as an asylum seeker from Gabon.

Baccarat was among more than 300 people who turned out Friday evening in Portland for the “Lights for Liberty: A Vigil to End Human Concentration Camps.” It was one of more than 700 vigils held across the country Friday to protest the detention of migrants at the U.S. border.

The vigil took place on the eve of a weekend that could see a potential U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement sweep targeting migrant families in at least 10 major cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles. Portland has not been mentioned on that list, and the raids would in particular focus on people with final deportation orders.

Advocates say these operations are another tactic by the Trump administration to increase fear in immigrants, even those people who have legal status and would not be targets for removal.

“The administration has targeted immigrant families in a myriad of ways: from forced family separation at the southern border to the attempted citizenship census question to the travel ban to this most recent threat of ICE enforcement,” said Julia Brown, an advocacy and outreach attorney at the Portland-based Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project. “Families belong together, and these cruel and inhumane attacks on immigrant families must end.”

Brown said the nonprofit has not heard specifically from clients who are worried about enforcement action this weekend. The staff attorneys are not aware of an increase in ICE enforcement in Maine or any cases here involving the detention of undocumented children, Brown said. But service providers who work with immigrants have been reaching out for information and advice.

She said the staff points those groups to “Know Your Rights” materials from the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Immigration Law Center. Those materials tell people they have the right to remain silent, to not open the door without a warrant signed by a judge and to call an attorney upon detention.

“The best action is to be aware of your rights and to know what rights you have,” Brown said.

In recent weeks, Portland has taken in nearly 300 asylum seekers who have traveled by bus from the southern U.S. border. Most are feeling political, military and economic problems in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Seventy or so families are still staying at the Portland Expo that was converted into an emergency shelter last month.

Brown also said those families are not at risk of immediate deportation because they have not yet had hearings in immigration court.

“The government can’t deport anyone without a hearing,” she said. “People who have never been to immigration court, the people at the Expo and the newly arrived asylum seekers are not in danger of ICE.”

But people who have final deportation orders have always been vulnerable, even if those orders have been postponed for years. Sister Patricia Pora, the director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, knows of people who have been recently returned to El Salvador and other countries. She said many of them escaped violence to come to the United States, and their lives are in danger when they are deported. Often they leave children and other family members behind in the United States, she said.

“We say we’re a country behind families, but we’re separating them,” Pora said. “What families are we supporting?”

She described the anxiety in the Hispanic community as constant and traumatic, not just for undocumented people. Some people are confused because the government programs that allowed them to live and work legally in the United States for years – like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or Temporary Protected Status – are now in jeopardy. Others have legal status but are worried for their relatives who could be deported.

Michael Cutting of Portland wears a sign while joining the protest Friday in Monument Square. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“They’re here because of fear,” Pora said. “But they are finding fear once they come.”

At the Portland vigil, Pora and other Sisters of Mercy stood among people holding signs and chanting “close the camps.” Demonstrators of all ages listened as organizers demanded an end to detentions at the border and called on government officials to treat migrants with dignity and respect.

“We’re here to demand a stop to the concentration camps,” vigil organizer Tristin Carney said of the detention centers. “I don’t understand the cruelty.”

Heather Heath brought her 3-year-old twin daughters to the vigil, the second time in a week they have attended an event to protest the detention centers and threat of ICE raids. Last week, they went with other parents and children to the office of Sen. Susan Collins to ask her to vote to close the centers.

Heath held a sign over her daughters’ stroller that read “An act of true love can thaw a frozen heart. Don’t use your ICE powers for harm.”

Naomi Mayer of Portland, a member of the March Fourth resistance group, said she wants to send the message that what is happening to migrants to the United States is “not OK.” She also is concerned about ICE raids and will rally Sunday at the Expo with others to show support for asylum seekers and immigrants.

A crowd gathers in Monument Square on Friday evening to protest immigration raids expected to happen this weekend around the country. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“The last thing we want them to do on Sunday is be afraid because ICE is on the prowl,” she said.

Marpheen Chann of Portland, the son of refugees and an educator at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, encouraged those at the vigil to stand together and continue to speak out against the “squalid, inhumane” conditions reported at the detention centers.

“Our humanity trumps inhumanity. Our humanity trumps hate. Our humanity breaks down walls,” he said. “Our humanity and our hope in each other and the goodness of each of us is what will save humanity. No matter how dark it may get, don’t ever stop being human.”

As darkness fell over Monument Square, people held candles and began to sing “America the Beautiful.” In the middle of the crowd, Baccarat, still holding the toothbrush and toothpaste, said he was surprised by the number of people who came together in support of immigrants.

“This is the America I dreamed of four years ago when I left my country,” he said.

Staff Writer Randy Billings contributed to this report.

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