I was privileged to join a bold and visionary group of midwestern Reform rabbis — led by Rabbis Bruce Elder, Miriam Terlinchamp, Joshua Whinston, Jonah Zinn, and Todd Zinn — on a November pilgrimage to the U.S.-Mexican border in and near El Paso, Texas. The centerpiece of that visit was at Tornillo, a tent-city detention facility for immigrant teenagers. A rally outside the Tornillo camp prominently featured the chant, “Shut It Down!”
I participated in the pilgrimage as the CCAR Board’s representative. I am not at all new to immigration activism — In June, for example, I was arrested, in a civil disobedience action related to immigration at the Arkansas Capitol as part of the Arkansas Poor People’s Campaign. However, in mid-November, I didn’t yet feel fully comfortable as I joined the chants, “Shut It Down.”
Today, after further research, I am.
First, some words about my reluctance. Several years ago, URJ Greene Family Camp, one of my two cherished camp homes, had served as a facility where unaccompanied minor immigrants were housed. The nonprofit provider inside the Tornillo facility, BCFS, was also the provider at our camp. Moreover, our colleague, Rabbi Ben Zeidman, who is deeply committed to immigration justice, had visited inside the Tornillo camp with an interfaith clergy delegation which had found conditions to be acceptable. For a moving piece about the important work of Greene Family Camp in those days, please read these words by my friend and fellow Greene alum, Mandy Karp Golman.
The more I learned, though, the more I became convinced that the situation has changed. The facility at Tornillo must be promptly closed, the children detained there must be united with U.S. sponsors without delay, and we must strongly advocate against the establishment of similar facilities.
During the summer, massive public outcry forced the Trump Administration to back down on its policy of separating undocumented immigrant parents from the children who accompanied them. What most Americans still do not know is that teenage immigrants continue to be separated from responsible non-parental adults with whom they arrive at the border — most often older siblings, aunts and uncles, or grandparents. We must protest all family separations, absent evidence of abuse or significant felony charges. These separations have massively increased the numbers of supposedly “unaccompanied” minors now in U.S. detention.
Back in the days when URJ Greene Family Camp was partnering with BCFS, that nonprofit provider actively sought U.S. sponsors for the truly unaccompanied minors who were in federal custody. Today, government policy has dramatically curtailed BCFS efforts in this regard, putting teens and potential sponsors at great risk. Potential sponsors reasonably fear coming forward in the current environment, exposing them to potential deportation. In fact, the process of seeking sponsors often serves as “bait” to lure family members into processes that may result in their deportation.
The result is a massive multiplication in the numbers of incarcerated teens — and the length, perhaps indefinite, or until they turn eighteen and are eligible for deportation — whose only crime is arriving at our border, seeking freedom in the Land of the Free.
Torah is clear: “You must not oppress strangers, nor harm them” (Exodus 22:21). Our government is perpetrating grave, even permanent, damage, upon a massive and increasing number of young people at our border. For that reason, I am delighted that our Reform Movement has officially joined the Close Tornillo Coalition.
Now, you have the commentary. Let us all raise our voices to demand that our government “Shut It Down!”
Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.