Over 1,000 men in detention. Fifty men sharing a dormitory room, sleeping on bunk beds seemingly made out of plywood and nails, topped with thin plastic “mattresses.” Men under constant surveillance, wearing prison uniforms, fed unappetizing-looking meals, and working as barbers, cooks, or custodians for $1 a day. Days spent mostly lying on their beds, with occasional outings to a cement yard topped with barbed wire. For most of them, they have committed no crime, only exercised their human right to seek asylum.
These are the conditions inside the New Mexico Otero Detention Center for migrants awaiting a hearing. It is run by the for-profit company Management and Training Corporation(MTC) which collects $100,000 of our tax dollars daily to house these men. There is one part-time physician and one chaplain for all of them. The Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General’s office made a surprise visit to Otero in 2017 and “found evidence of the unjustified use of solitary confinement, unsanitary conditions and non-working telephones.”
The Torah tells us 36 times that we are to care for the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Our freedom from slavery is celebrated every year at Passover, which begins the night of April 19. So when I see hundreds and thousands of people from Central America fleeing from violence and desperate poverty, coming to our borders seeking asylum, only to be locked up in detention centers or detained in the elements under a bridge, my heart aches and I am called to action.
This is why I joined HIAS and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights on a recent trip to El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico to learn what is going on at our border. I was not unfamiliar with the plight of migrants from Central America. Near where I live in Riverside, CA is the town of Adelanto, a desolate location in the high desert and home to another private detention center, this one run by the private company GEO Group. With the help of organizations such as the New Sanctuary Movement and Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, I had visited detainees there but was never allowed beyond the visiting room. The conditions at Otero were more upsetting than I had expected.
Under international and federal law, people have the right to request asylum. Asylum seekers are not criminals; many are people with legitimate fears of being killed in their countries of origin. Why are we treating them like this? Judaism certainly insists that we are all made b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. How do we as a country justify making a profit off those seeking safety by locking them up in private prisons?
As a rabbi, I take seriously our mandate to free the captive — those who are unjustly imprisoned. The people in these detention centers made dangerous journeys to arrive on our soil. As they await their trial, their detention can last months in these conditions. In El Paso, the rate of deportation following this ordeal is close to 97 percent.
On this trip, we also visited shelters in El Paso and on the other side of the border, in Ciudad Juárez. We met true tzaddikim, righteous people doing everything they can to provide a respite for those on these arduous journeys. At the nonprofit Annunciation House, for example, Ruben Garcia tirelessly places migrants released by ICE in a variety of shelters throughout the area. In fact, ICE would have to release over 600 people a day if Garcia did not provide them with these locations.
At this point, the shelters are being overwhelmed beyond capacity. The day we left El Paso, Customs and Border Protection had begun to detain migrants under the bridge connecting the U.S. to Mexico. We were horrified to witness crowds of women and children behind barbed wire, forced to sleep on the rocky ground outside.
What can you and I do to address this problem? You can support any of the wonderful organizations mentioned above. You can volunteer your time at one of the shelters, whether you live in El Paso or not. And you can bring these stories to your seder table, drawing the parallels between the journeys made by our own ancestors and those of today’s refugees. Let us adhere to Rabbi Hillel’s dictum: If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?
Rabbi Suzanne Singer serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, California.