“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev.19:34).
“You shall have one law for the stranger and the citizen alike” (Lev. 24:22)
As a Jew and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, these verses resonate particularly strongly with me, as does the request for asylum from so many fleeing the violence in Central America. My personal history and that of my people compel me to respond, now. Aside from writing letters, donating money, speaking at rallies, I feel the need to do something practical, on the ground. As a friend, Chani Beeman, posted: “If you’ve ever wondered what you’d do during slavery, the Holocaust, or the Civil Rights Movement, you’re doing it now.”
So, last week, I visited a detainee in Adelanto, California, home of a private detention center owned and operated by GEO, one of the largest private prison companies in the country. This facility currently houses two thousand immigrants. Since it opened in 2011, Adelanto has faced accusations of insufficient medical care and poor conditions, and a number of detainees have died in custody.
Luis (a pseudonym) is 24 years old. He fled Honduras several months ago because his life was in danger. He had worked for ten years as a driver of a 25 passenger minibus. What he refers to as the “mafia” extorted money from his family. Luis’ mother sold her house in order to meet this gang’s demands. Eventually, unable to pay up, the family was at its mercy: Luis’ father, two uncles, and brother were all murdered, and Luis was next. So he fled, leaving behind his beloved mother and his three young children.
He traveled by bus from Honduras to Mexico where he worked for a few months. He says the Mexicans were very kind and generous, but he was only able to make enough money to feed himself. His goal is to pull his mother out of poverty and to buy her another house. Not to mention the fact that Mexico is no more welcoming to Central American migrants than we are. Luis traveled on the roof of La Bestia, or The Beast, a network of freight trains from Mexico to the US border, on which migrants travel at the risk of their lives. It took him a month because he was apprehended numerous times along the way by Mexican authorities, and repeatedly sent back. When he finally crossed the US border, he was arrested and has been in detention for three months.
Luis has appeared before a judge three times, and has one more chance to prove his asylum claim. Unfortunately, he has no actual proof that his life is in danger. And he does not have an attorney. According to the Los Angeles Times, 95% of asylum seekers from Honduras without attorneys lose their claim. His final court date is on August 8th.
This was my fourth visit to Adelanto. The first was in 2014 to attend a City Council meeting to protest the building of a private jail to house the overflow of inmates from Los Angeles County. The second was in the summer of 2017 when a group of clergy and people of faith joined CIVIC, now Freedom for Immigrants, to visit detainees. When the GEO facility heard we were coming, they went on lockdown, not only denying entrance to us, but also ejecting waiting family, friends and young children in 110 degree heat. The third visit was recently, to stand during a court appearance with another detainee seeking asylum.
Later in July, I plan to volunteer with Catholic Charities in McAllen, Texas to provide comfort to immigrants seeking to enter the US. I also plan to attend Luis’ court hearing in August. It is the very least I can do.
Rabbi Suzanne Singer serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, California.