Following the path blazed by Rabbi Jonah Pesner of the RAC, and by Rabbi David Stern, President of the CCAR, I journeyed from Dallas to McAllen to see, to learn, and to protest the morally offensive and deeply destructive policy of separating immigrant children.
I traveled by bus in a League of United Latin American Citizens organized caravan. This proved to be important, because this is deeply personal for the leaders and members of the Hispanic-American community. Just as Jews take the injustices rained on Israelis very personally, because we have “skin in the game,” American Hispanics are taking this situation personally. Again and again, I heard the phrase, “These are our people, our families, our children,” and every time I thought of my family and friends in Israel. Yet, besides myself and another Jew, there were a half dozen Muslims, two Methodist Anglo ministers, people of every skin tone.
What we arrived at were streets of windowless warehouses, and the facility holding hundreds of children was no different. These prisons have been characterized many ways: Concentration camps (hyperbole), summer camps (ridiculous), detention centers (accurate but euphemistic). The most accurate phrase I can formulate is “warehouse internment building.” These children are being warehoused in a storage building designed for tires and floor tiles, now repurposed to store children.
Joined by people from San Antonio and Austin, several hundred Americans of all stripes and backgrounds gathered from a shared sense that this policy violates our religious morals, our American values, our innate sense of decency. We chanted, held our signs, and listened to moving, impassioned words from the organizers, while a few watchful Border Patrol agents observed us from the prison parking lot.
Then the reality of what brought us here pulled up in front of us. A bus rolled up to the facility. We saw bars on the windows, with a cage wall behind the driver. A dozen heads, hands, and faces of children and teens could be seen inside this rolling jail, built to hold felons and convicts.
It was too much. You could hear the collective gasp from the assembled. The here-to-orderly crowd surged, slowly, irresistibly, toward, in front of, all around, the bus. Pent up emotions poured forth; people cried, shouted, touched the bus, pushed against the door, and grabbed front grill to stop its progress. Others turned toward the up-to-now ignored border agents, shouting at them, pleading with them, berating them.
The bus was immobilized. It was dramatic and frightening, no doubt for the children inside, as well. Some of us intuited this immediately, and those of us alongside the windows started to wave at them. We smiled. Some walked up and touched the windows with their palms spread. The captives inside responded in kind, spreading their fingers against the glass windows of their confinement. Those of us who spoke English called out, “We support you,” or perhaps more helpful for a child, “We love you!” It was instantly translated into Spanish, “Hemos venido a ayudar,” “No tengas miedo,” and mostly, “Te amamos!” It was a study in contrasts; those of us on the sides, smiling, waving, shouting encouragement, others at the front and back, shouting, crying, angry, and frustrated.
More and more agents came out of the internment center. A few appeared in militarized, camouflage SWAT regalia. The local police also arrived, and a cordon moved toward us. Several of the organizers quickly started negotiating with them.
Rev. Mike, a hoary veteran of the Civil Rights movement, who reminisced with me about Rabbis Abraham Heschel and Levi Olan, said out-loud, “We didn’t prepare for this; people need to be trained for this.” At his behest, a number of us started to urge the crowd back out of the street. It was not easy, emotions were raw, righteous outrage held center-stage. Most gradually obeyed, and the police advanced. But impassioned individuals, weeping, angry, overcome with grief at actually seeing the children caged, kept returning to points of confrontation, to the bus, to the cordon. It took about 20 minutes to walk everybody back. Eventually everybody returned to the original point of protest. Last to leave were those touching the windows.
Unfortunately, not satisfied to have the situation defused, several officers waded into the crowd, intent on arresting or citing someone they felt had acted egregiously. Again, the protest leaders negotiated with police amidst the rising agitation, and they agreed to return to the other side of the street with only a driver’s license. Gradually, our energy, if not our anguish, defused. A few of us went back to the police and agents, shook their hands, and thanked them for their restraint.
On the long ride home I reflected on how all of us, protesters, law enforcement, all of America, it seems, but most profoundly, the innocent children, have been ensnared by this foul, cruel, misdirected policy. I’d like to think the tide is turning, that we are retreating from this unworthy idea, away from this age-old logic of abusers and perpetrators, that believes the best way to get compliance from adults is to torment their children.
Now the administration tells us, families will now be incarcerated together, indefinitely, as if this were the only answer, as if we have not already formulated better, more humane solutions. And so this battle for the future of these children will continue for the foreseeable future. But continue we must, as Hillel the Elder demanded, “In a place where there is no humanity, strive to be humane.”
Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis serves Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound Texas, where he is also an instructor at the University of North Texas, and a police chaplain.