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Why two political groups held opposing vigils in downtown Cumming
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Members of the Forsyth County Democratic Party and Forsyth County Tea Party held opposing vigils on Friday, July 12, 2019, at the Forsyth County Courthouse and Forsyth County Administration Building. - photo by Kelly Whitmire

On Friday evening, downtown Cumming was a microcosm of the divide between liberal and conservative voters as twin immigration vigils between the Forsyth County Democratic Party and the Forsyth County Tea Party were held just across Main Street at the Forsyth County Courthouse and Forsyth County Administration building, respectively.

The Democratic vigil was part of the nationwide Lights for Liberty protest, which was designated as “a vigil to end human concentration camps” in response to reports of conditions at migrant detention centers at the southern border.

In addition to hearing from speakers, supporters held a tea light vigil and carried signs with pro-immigration stances, such as “Racism is a National Emergency,” “Close the Camps” and “No More Kids in Cages.”

“I’m not here because I’m a Democrat. I’m not here out of my disapproval for the current president,” said Melissa Clink, chair of the local Democratic Party. “I am here because human beings are suffering, and the cruelty they are being subjected to is immoral and wrong. I believe that many of the problems we face as a country and a community are man-made problems, which means there are man-made solutions to these problems.”

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Melissa Clink, the chair of the Forsyth County Democratic Party, speaks to a crowd on Friday, July 12, 2019, at the Forsyth County Courthouse during a Lights for Liberty vigil. The vigil was part of a nationwide movement in response to reports of conditions at migrant detention centers at the southern border. - photo by Kelly Whitmire

Speaker Brenda Lopez Romero – a current Democratic state lawmaker, attorney and candidate for Georgia’s 7th Congressional District – said she came to Georgia at age 5 and her family had a pathway to rights under legislation signed by President Ronald Reagan but would be unable to do so today.

“If the policies that we have today had been in place when I came in when I was 5 years old – and that’s why this is so personal to me – I could also be one of those children we that have seen in pictures being detained behind barbed wire, those that are sleeping on concrete floors and, worse yet, those who have lost their lives,” she said.

Across the road, members of the Tea Party said their vigil was for “murder victims of illegal aliens and for the victims of abortion.” Members would often break out into “Trump” chants and held their own signs with pictures of the murder victims and others reading “America First,” Defend our Freedom” and “Build the Wall.”

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Members of the Forsyth County Tea Party hold up signs during the group's own vigil on Friday, July 12, 2019 at the Forsyth County Administration Building in opposition to a vigil held by the Forsyth County Democratic Party in response to reports of conditions at migrant detention centers at the southern border. - photo by Kelly Whitmire

“I’m really happy with this turnout given the late notice. I mean, I just sent out information about this yesterday,” said Bobby Donnelly, with the Tea Party. “We’re doing a vigil for the murder victims of illegal immigrants and we’ve got pictures you see we’ll hold up of some of the victims like Kate Steinle, Mollie Tibbetts and [Border Patrol agent] Brian Terry. We have a deck of cards that we will be holding up in their honor and hold a vigil for them to kind of counter and show what they stand for versus what we stand for.”

In a prepared statement, Donnelly said the Tea Party had sympathy for those seeking safety in the country but said there was no safety “when our border is not protected and millions of illegal immigrants live here with no accountability and no responsibilities.”

“These illegal immigrants destroy living wages for blue-collar workers who are American citizens. And the criminal element they harbor destroys safety in lower-income communities across America,” Donnelly said.

“Here in Forsyth County, there are unknown numbers of criminal illegal immigrants preying on us.  It is unjust that we don't know the size of the problem. It is unjust that we are supposed to look the other way when illegal immigrants rob, rape and kill innocent people in our communities.”

The immigration debate has grown so divisive in recent years, opposing sides don’t even use the same terminology.

While the debate over the terms illegal immigrant versus undocumented immigrant has been debated for years, recent calls from some Democratic officials calling the centers where the immigrants are held concentration camps has driven the wedge even further.

“We are separating mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, forcing people to live in crowded spaces way over maximum capacity, throwing children in cages [with] no regard for hygiene, necessities or nutrition requirements, forcing humans to sleep on the cold floor with metallic blankets, refusal of due process,” said District 7 candidate Nabilah Islam. “These are not detainment centers. Call them what they are: they are concentration camps.”

David Hancock, with the Tea Party, disagreed, saying that he had spoken with a German woman, who said was “caught up in the Nazi stuff,” who also opposed the use of the term.

“It offended her,” Hancock said. “She said it had a meaning to her that is pretty horrible, and what we’re doing to people who are trying to get in the country where we try to hold them while we process them is completely different.”

While both sides were holding vigils, that was more or less where the similarities ended.

The Democratic vigil, being part of a nationwide protest, was announced earlier in the week, had addresses from a number of speakers and had more than 100 attendees.

The Tea Party vigil was formed in response the night before and had no speakers, though Republican District 7 Congressional candidates Mark Gonsalves and Jacqueline Tseng stopped by. Organizers and attendees pointed out they had about 25 supporters despite the quick turnaround.

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People hold up signs during a Lights for Liberty vigil on Friday, July 12, 2019, at the Forsyth County Courthouse organized by the Forsyth County Democratic Party. The vigil was part of a nationwide movement in response to reports of conditions at migrant detention centers at the southern border. - photo by Kelly Whitmire

As downtown was covered with protestors and police and speakers, chants and honking cars sounded through town. Paul Heffler tagged along with a friend in the Tea Party but didn’t take part in either vigil. He instead talked with both sides.

“It’s interesting. I think there’s a lot of emotion on both sides, but [the Democrats] seem to be very concerned about the children and their welfare, and I think their heart’s in the right place, they don’t want to see children being injured and they don’t want to see children being separated from their parents, and I can understand all that completely,” Heffler said.

On the other hand, Heffler said he didn’t think a country could have both “open borders and a social welfare program.”

“I can see points on both sides, but if you want stability, organization, things to run normally, you can’t have just all sorts of people coming in who aren’t culturally going to acclimate right of way, who are going to need all sorts of needs, schooling and medical care,” he said. “It’s going to overwhelm the system and make things bad for everyone.

“I would like to see a happy compromise, but with the political situation such as it is, I don’t see people getting together because the election is around the corner, this is a hot-button issue and, boy, they’re probably going to milk this on both sides for all you can get.”

While unlikely that there were many minds changed by the opposing protest, there were discussions and jeers between members of the groups as each side voiced their opinions.

Though American flags and patriotic songs and chants were commonplace on both sides of Main Street, each side also put their patriotism on display.

The opposing sides ended their respective vigils with dueling chants of “U-S-A.”