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A group of six men and one womansome in camouflage ponchos gathered Thursday night outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing center on Varick Street. Despite the freezing rain, they smiled as they carried several American flags and got their whistles ready for action. They are among the city's few but vocal anti-immigration activists, and they were giddy at the opportunity to disrupt a pro-immigrant candlelight vigil that was about to begin.
Just a few feet down the sidewalk, priests, rabbis, and sheikhs passed out candles to their flock of about 50 immigrants, advocates, and faithful. Then, when all the candles were lit, the show began.
"This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine," the crowd of about 50 candle-holders sang.
"Illegals go home! Get the fuck out of my country!" the camo-wearers responded. "They should take their light back to their home countries," quipped Joanna Marzullo, the president and founder of New Yorkers for Immigration Control Enforcement (NY ICE). She says there are 200 New York City residents in her group, which is "against illegal aliens, not legal immigrants."
The candlelight-vigil-turned-sidewalk-theatrics were hosted by the New York City New Sanctuary Movement, a coalition of 19 churches that have banded together to protect and assist several families facing deportation. The movement, which has several branches nationally, harkens back to the original sanctuary movement that challenged U.S. policy in Central America in the 1980s. But on this night, organizers said they were simply trying to put a face on the immigration debate, reminding the public that the Varick Street processing center is often the first stop for New Yorkers who are ultimately deported and separated from their American-born children and spouses.
"People do get deported straight from Varick Street, or held here for 48 hours before being sent upstate or to New Jersey," said Angad Bhalla, a New Sanctuary organizer. "We just wanted to highlight what is happening right downtown in a building we all pass by all the time."
Several undocumented immigrants were part of the crowd, including recently suspended workers from FreshDirect, the grocery-delivery service. The company suspended dozens of immigrant workers last week because it said they had provided false employment documents, though labor leaders believe it was part of a union-busting effort.
A cameraman from Al Jazeera English snaked through the crowd, filming a special on one of the families being assisted by the New Sanctuary Movement. Among the attendees who were facing deportation was a Jamaican man who has been in New York for 30 years, is married to a U.S. citizen, and has fathered four American-born children. He came to the U.S. as a teenager and had previously believed his mother had taken care of his immigration documents. It was not until recently that Immigration and Customs Enforcement caught up with him and is now challenging his status. "I would not be anywhere else tonight," he said as he put his arm around his 11-year-old son.
The praying and singing continued for an hour as the counterdemonstrators screamed and blared their whistles, doing their best to disrupt the event.
"It's a way for me to vent and express my anger in a positive way," explained NY ICE member Jeff Cohan, an entertainment-industry worker who says he's angry because illegal immigrants steal jobs. Moments later, he screamed, "Get the fuck out of my country! Get the fuck out of my country!" into the mass of praying people.
Though Marzullo, who is of Nicaraguan descent, insists her group is not racist, members of a white-nationalist message board called Stormfront have participated in previous rallies.
Immigrant advocates said they were used to all manner of opposition, so one more had little effect. "The notice about the event is public, so anyone can come," said Bhalla, of the New Sanctuary Movement. "But the consensus is that they are spreading hate, and we are not going to respond in that way. I did not want to let them dominate the agenda."
There was only one moment when the event organizers actually acknowledged their rivals: The vigil ended with a prayer for the counterprotesters. But the flag-bearing, camo-wearing group was so busy shouting they did not notice that they had just been blessed.