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Our Exodus Story Lives at our Southern Border

Rabbi Mike

A few weeks ago Carol and I participated in a Jewish clergy mission to El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico to witness first hand what is happening on that part of the U.S.-Mexico border. The trip was sponsored by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. There were over 20 of us, rabbis (and one cantor) from around the country.

The trip was a great learning experience, but a difficult and discouraging one. The degree of human suffering that we encountered was and is palpable. While we’re inundated every day with news of what is happening on the border, there is nothing like being there, seeing what is going on with our own eyes and coming face-to-face with those who are at the receiving end of our broken immigration system. On the other hand, we were inspired when we encountered some of the people doing truly heroic work under very trying circumstances to provide aid and relief for the tens of thousands of asylum seekers who are trying to enter the U.S. to escape the violence and danger in their home countries.

We visited a men’s detention center which, while operated by a private company, is under the supervision of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (I.C.E.). The formal name of the center, the Otero County Processing Center, speaks volumes. Human beings are indeed being “processed” in the facility. Conditions are not great, to say the least. Medical needs are abundant, and treatment is wholly inadequate. These people broke no laws in seeking asylum in the U.S., yet they are treated like criminals in a facility that very much feels like a prison.

In contrast, we visited several incredible relief and advocacy organizations:

• Annunciation House, a Catholic-based organization that “accompanies the migrant, refugee, and economically vulnerable peoples of the border region through hospitality, advocacy, and education” (from their mission statement). We met with their Executive Director, Ruben Garcia, whom I count among the 36 righteous people who, according to Jewish legend, sustain our world. While the organization is a physical house, it has expanded to include a wide network of churches, motels and other facilities that provide short-term shelter to asylum seekers as it facilitates their traveling to places where they have relatives who can take them in.
• The Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, a non-profit dedicated to serving the legal needs of low-income immigrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, victims of crime, and families seeking reunification.
• Lastly, we visited the HOPE Border Institute, which engages in research, leadership development, advocacy and action in an effort to bring justice to migrants. Diego Adame, a staff member at HOPE, served as our guide on our trip to Juarez and then to the border wall. HOPE advocates for comprehensive immigration reform, which our politicians have failed to address, and which is so desperately needed at this time of increasing crisis in El Paso and elsewhere on the border.

The situation is very fluid and changes every day—it is hard to keep up. When we were there I.C.E. was releasing from custody some 500-600 asylum seekers daily, as their facilities were at capacity. They would send the number of anticipated releases to Ruben Garcia at the Annunciation House each day, and he had to assign numbers to each of the facilities in his network, based on the openings they had. The day we were with him, the Border Patrol had announced that in addition to the people being released by I.C.E., they were planning on releasing an additional 400 or so detainees, which put a significant added stress on organizations that were trying to find temporary housing for the refugees.

In Juarez, Mexico, we visited a shelter that houses migrants and asylum seekers who have either been deported from the U.S. or who have not yet been able to gain entry. They are in a state of waiting, unsure of what comes next. We took a bus into Mexico, but we walked back across the border bridge. Looking down from the bridge we saw some of the hundreds of asylum seekers who were detained by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers.

We learned that the practice of family separation has not ended, despite what our government officials have claimed. Rabbi Ben Zeidman of Temple Mount Sinai in El Paso described how his congregation was affected by this policy. When he first came to town he and the congregation tried to stay neutral because of the wide range of political views among their membership. But when then Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the policy of “zero tolerance,” which resulted in separating thousands of children from their parents, that crossed a line for the congregation, and they became very involved in refugee support. Their members continue to provide over 1,000 sandwiches daily for migrants living in Assumption House facilities.

We heard frequently about the Guatemalan children Jakelin Caal and Felipe Gomez Alonzo, a seven- and eight-year-old, respectively, who died in December while in the custody of the CBP. They were mentioned at virtually every relief organization we visited. Their pictures were pasted at the border wall where we visited. Jakelin and Felipe have become tragic symbols of the cruelty of our government’s family separation policy, which is a shanda beyond words, and which will remain a stain on our country’s moral record.

One of the statements we heard that has haunted me since the trip came from Camilo, the Director of Advocacy at HOPE, who described the border as “a laboratory for injustice.” The unnecessary deaths of Jakelin and Felipe are among the starkest examples among many others that we witnessed that seem to support this alarming assertion.

It is easy to feel powerless in the face of such overwhelming suffering and dysfunction. It is easy to feel hopeless. But I agree with Bryan Stevenson, the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, who asserts that “hopelessness is the enemy of justice.” I have learned from both Bryan Stevenson and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks about the politics of fear and anger, which permeate so much of our national discourse these days, often particularly around the issues of immigration and immigrants. Stevenson is absolutely correct when he asserts that “the combination of those two elements—fear and anger--can create oppression and abuse.” Both he and Rabbi Sacks assert that we must change our narrative from the politics of fear and anger to the politics of hope. And hope is a quintessential Jewish impulse, which can and should lead to action.

And we can act; we can help:

• You can contribute Tzedakah to any of the organizations mentioned: T’ruah, HIAS, Las Americas, Annunciation House, or the HOPE Border Institute. They are easily found online.
• Pro bono legal support is needed in places like El Paso and San Diego to help the growing number of asylum seekers. Lawyers with immigration and/or asylum expertise who speak Spanish are particularly in demand, and they can contact HIAS if interested.
• On a local level, MIRA (Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition) is the largest coalition in New England promoting the rights and integration of immigrants and refugees. There are several Jewish organizations among the 130+ that comprise the coalition. They need volunteers.

Both HIAS and T’ruah have Haggadot available on their websites that have wonderful resources to enhance your Seder and inform and sensitize your guests. The focus of T’ruah’s Haggadah is fighting modern slavery, while HIAS’ is, naturally mainly about immigration and immigrants, and contains some heart wrenching and heartwarming stories about their struggles and their journeys. I will provide links to these resources in our next newsletter.

I close with words from HIAS, who reminds us that “My people were refugees too.” Pesach, Passover, is but a week away, and at our Seders we will tell and relive the story of our ancestors fleeing slavery and persecution and going on a desert journey on their way to a better and safer life. We have been refugees many times over since then. For the people in El Paso and Juarez, in San Diego and Tijuana and elsewhere along our southern border that story is now their stark reality. They are strangers to us and to our country, and the Torah implores us time and time again to love and show compassion to the stranger, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Let us do what we can to translate our love and compassion into action on behalf of these strangers who come to the U.S. seeking haven and a better life, as most of our ancestors did as well.

May our concern lead to hope, and may our hope lead to action. And may our actions contribute to a more whole and just world.


Thu, June 13 2024 7 Sivan 5784