Immigration Social Justice

We Carry Them With Us

CCAR members and clergy from other faiths were in El Paso, Texas July 28-29th for two days in support of Moral Mondays at the Borderlands. We have invited them to share their experiences in a short series on RavBlog.

I don’t know the little girl’s name, but she is still with me.

On the side of a long, lonely road, with nine somber adults as her only company, this three-year-old delighted. She flitted about, unencumbered  by the midsummer evening’s heavy, Texas heat. The billowing clouds of dust left in her wake provided a welcome relief from the eerie stillness of Clint’s Customs and Borders Facility, and the harsh geometry of the razor-wire fence surrounding it. This formerly little-known building became infamous for imprisoning children, stolen from their parents, penned in cages far beyond capacity, in conditions eye-witnesses described as squalid, degrading and torturous. The girl’s frolicking reminded me of how, beyond the basics of love, food, shelter and clothing, children need very little. They can amuse themselves with a patch of space, and the freedom to move about in it. 

“Ghost Child”

My colleagues and I had come to El Paso to join Reverend William Barber and Rabbi Rick Jacobs in Moral Monday at the Borderlands, an interfaith call to peaceful action, protesting our government’s intensifying assault on immigrants and refugees. A crowd of approximately 100 clergy stood at the gates of the El Paso detention center and, with about 500 people of faith accompanying us, requested to make a pastoral visit to the inmates inside. It was a national event, publicized and covered in every form of media. 
Several hours later, a carload of Reform Jewish women – one lay leader, one cantor, three rabbis – drove 45 minutes to Clint for a far smaller, but no less meaningful, act of resistance. Every Monday night, people gather in front of this detention center for a candlelight vigil. It is energized by Peggy and Yvonne, who live in El Paso. They feel desperate, as do so many of us, to get as proximate as possible to the frightened children languishing inside. And so they come, and sometimes others join them. 

Ashamed Veteran

I connected with Peggy through #CitizenPresence. This grassroots twitter network enables enraged Americans to pool resources, ideas and talents to support a steady flow of ordinary citizens into the Borderlands, so we can directly witness, protest and document the atrocities at their epicenter. It was started by Georgetown Law Professor, Heidi Li Feldman, who models that one determined person who pursues a vision can make great things happen.

When we arrived, we first met Ray, a retiree from Florida, who calls himself an “ashamed veteran.” Agitated to act, he raised a couple of thousand dollars and drove to Clint, set up large, hand-made protest signs, and remained there all day, every day, for as many weeks as his shoestring budget allowed. Chatting with Ray was Amy Cantrell, a Presbyterian Pastor, who had traveled from North Carolina for Moral Monday and is also part of #CitizensPresence.

Lullaby Circle

Peggy and Yvonne pulled up. Peggy brought candles, and Yvonne brought her three-year-old granddaughter. Peggy invited us to join in their weekly ritual (my word, not hers). Dusk dissolved into dark, framing a full moon. We lit our candles and formed a circle. Each of us shared our reason for coming. We poured out rage and determination, helplessness and hope. Ray expressed his frustration at giving all that he could and still feeling like it wasn’t making a difference. I responded with the Pirkei Avot verse, “The task is not ours to complete, nor can we desist from it.” Pastor Amy gifted us with a simple and profound summary of Rabbi Tarfon’s teaching: “Love is never wasted.”

We stood, our silence punctuated by little girl giggles and the occasional whoosh of a car zooming by.

Then, perhaps most poignant, our friends led us in singing lullabies, English and Spanish, to the children struggling for sleep under harsh lights, on hard floors, under Mylar sheets. Even if our offering couldn’t reach their ears, surely it was carried by God. 

Yvonne invited us to share a Jewish song. Cantor Hollis Schachner introduced Hashkiveinu, describing it as a lullaby assuring that the darkness of night is not something to fear, but a blanket of divine protection. We sang, weaving Hebrew into these melodies of resistance. 

By this point, sleepy from the late hour and her play, Yvonne’s granddaughter had made her way to our circle, settling inside at her grandmother’s feet. Peggy asked if we would offer a prayer. As the Jewish clergy began chanting and speaking the priestly benediction, all nine of us instinctively huddled close, protectively encircling the little girl. Nine adults, with a small child bringing us to minyan. A child whose name I don’t know.  A child happy and well fed, heading home to a bath, a soft bed and a house full of family. A child only separated from the many children, whose names we don’t know, by concrete walls and barbed wire, the distance of a ball toss, and luck. 

We carry them with us.

Rabbi Sarah Reines serves Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City.

Immigration Social Justice

Sunday Night’s Mass Meeting

CCAR members and clergy from other faiths were in El Paso, Texas July 28-29th for two days in support of Moral Mondays at the Borderlands. We have invited them to share their experiences in a short series on RavBlog.

As a mother of a young daughter, I cannot imagine being separated from her. I look at her and cannot fathom a situation in which she’s left alone, without any supervision – not one to watch her, to help her, to keep her safe, to love her. And yet, thousands of children are in that very situation. Not in some far away land but here, on our soil. Seeking refuge from the horrors of evil, families have been driven away from their homes, churches and communities and have come to America for refuge. As Jews we are taught to welcome the stranger, and to remember that we were once the refugee looking for safety and a home.

When Reverend Barber II put out the call to clergy of all faiths to join Repairers of the Breech in El Paso for Moral Monday, in order to protest this administration’s “policy” of separating families, of parents from their children, I felt compelled to attend.

Upon arrival, I entered a modest, old church and was met with hundreds of activists, clergy from all faiths and even media. There was an energy emenating from the pews, as people joined in singing songs about justice and faith. Each of the representatives from the faith communities shared brief words, one more powerful than the next. Rabbi Rick Jacobs was our representative who gave words of Torah to us all.

Of course, Reverend Barber II gave his homily, in which he passionately described the wretched conditions the families seeking refuge are currently enduring within the walls of detention centers. Little food, no showers, no running water! People drinking from toilets! Living in cages! Young children separated from their mothers! Private companies that own the Centers are actually making money off the backs of children. Where is the humanity!? I was and remain outraged that the American government is dehumanizing people, much like what was done to our People just a few decades ago.

Together as one community, we stood united in reflective prayer and inspirational song. We listened to Fernando, the Executive Director of the Border Network for Human Rights as he spoke about their work advocating for migrants at the border. He introduced us to two young men who had spent time in a Detention Center – they shared their stories of starvation, of thirst, of not being able to take a shower for weeks, and of wearing the same clothing for the duration of their stay. We then listened to a family whose patriarch was taken from them; his granddaughter at age nine asked why he was being treated like a criminal. Even she knew that this was unjust. It was difficult to listen to the stories shared, but important to hear.

As rabbis, we know that in the Torah scroll we are able to distill the word Ayd or Witness from the Shema. Indeed, during my experience in El Paso, I and others heard the call to serve as moral witnesses. When I returned home to Connecticut, I held my three year old and watched her sleep. She looked so peaceful, and so cared for. My heart continues to ache for the children who have no bed to lie in, have no mommy to care for them and feel anything but peaceful.

Rabbi Joui Hessel serves as the Associate Director for the Eastern Region for Recruitment and Admissions at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Immigration Social Justice

Sunday Morning: The Shelter

CCAR members and clergy from other faiths were in El Paso, Texas July 28-29th for two days in support of Moral Mondays at the Borderlands. We have invited them to share their experiences in a short series on RavBlog.

Often, at the beginning of the summer, I am invited to bless the boats alongside a priest as families (some from my congregation) make their seasonal maiden voyage on their private boats from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, out to the Jamaica Bay or Atlantic Ocean. The priest makes his prayer as each boat passes in front of us. I offer the Priestly Blessing (sometimes in Hebrew for the Jewish boaters) and a Nisiyah tova or Tzetchem l’shalom as they go by.

That Sunday morning over a week ago in El Paso, families of a different sort “sailed” in front of me and my colleagues, as they passed by through the doors of a hidden shelter for asylum-seekers, following their release from a local detention center.

Thanks to Rabbi Sarah Reines’ preparation for our time in El Paso, we learned that we could volunteer at this temporary shelter for the “lucky” families, who possessed a phone number or a sponsor. They arrive at these “hidden” shelters for a few hours, perhaps even overnight, until they would get on a bus, or into a car, or on a plane, headed to somewhere in the US. A week later, a white supremacist gunned down 22 people in a nearby Walmart. Now I understand why the location of this shelter is secret.

I learned later, that the shelter is staffed entirely by volunteers and that the rent was $60K per month. The shelter had a large room of cots, a children’s playroom, a dining area, an office, rooms to interview families and to make the phone call, a Hygiene Room, and a clothing “store.”

My morning began in the Children’s Room where I stayed for a few minutes. The language barrier was a problem and well, I’m not a “natural” with small children. Since Cantor Jen Rueben had it down to an art, I moved to a room to sort used clothing into different sizes where I didn’t need to speak to anyone. The donated clothing was ratty, nonetheless, it was a change of clothes, something each family member needed. However, when a new busload of asylum-seekers arrived, I was transferred to the Hygiene Room, to disburse toiletries.

It wasn’t really a Hygiene Room, but rather, a Hygiene Closet, an un-air conditioned, two-doored closet. While there, in between families who passed through, my daughter happened to call me on my cell phone. I complained to her about the lack of air-conditioning in the “room.”  She asked me to repeat my complaint word for word back to her. Oh, right, I hadn’t left my town or homeland and walked 500 miles or exorbitantly paid someone to drive me to escape a dangerous situation. Rather, I was kvetching about the lack of air conditioning. Humility is one of the greatest gifts a child can bestow upon parents.

Three years of High School Spanish was for naught. A poster on the door with translations and our charade-game body movements helped Rabbi Kim Geringer and I manage the disbursement of toiletries. But like the story of Balaam and Balaak, every time I opened my mouth, Hebrew came out. Neither a curse, nor blessing, the brain cells dedicated to language had, sadly at that moment, been usurped by Hebrew. Again, another lesson in humility.

After an asylum-seeking family would complete a phone call with a Spanish translator to their sponsor or family member, to arrange for transportation to a home where they would await a hearing, they were sent to the Hygiene Room. Prior to entering the room, there was a box of stuffed animals. With delight, children picked out one stuffed animal and put it into a recyclable grocery bag, that contained the entirety of a family’s earthly possessions. Upon entering the Hygiene Room, where they would receive a large Ziplock worth of goods: diapers in all sizes (they were allotted four diapers), and if needed, a Ziplock bags of infant formula. They received one comb, toothbrushes, one razor, a tube of shaving cream, a bar of soap, one barrette, one hair tie and one headband. One small “travel-size” roll-on deodorant, one hair brush, a small tube of toothpaste, a few tampons or sanitary napkins, one lip balm, and one towel and one washcloth per family member. I invited the girls to select hair ties and barrettes. Alas, there was only one “Elsa” lip balm, which I gave to the first girl who entered the room with her mother. Who knows whether this young girl had even seen the film “Frozen.” Children I know have seen it multiple times.

But I was not there to learn about humility or gratitude. A secondary gain perhaps, but the point was to make this horrific, traumatic trek from Central America a little easier. I was there to volunteer. They did not arrive with suitcases. They arrived with a bag. We didn’t know their stories. We didn’t know their fears. Who knows whom they left behind, or what they left behind, or even where they were going? Which child who came through the “Hygiene Room” perhaps, had to drink water from a toilet? Were these reunited families or separated families? Were they wearing ankle “bracelets” that knew their every move? I do not know the answer to these questions.

We only saw the “lucky ones” who had been released from detention centers.

Nisia Tova and Tzetchem l’shalom, I wanted to say. It was on the tip of my tongue.

Rabbi Marjorie Slome serves the West End Temple in Neponsit, New York.

Immigration Social Justice

Is Seeing Believing or Believing Seeing?

Recently, I read a report from the Rand Corporation entitled, “Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing role of Facts and analysis in American Public Life” written by Jennifer Kavanaugh and Michael D. Rich in which the researchers rediscovered that, “…national political and civil discourse in the United States has been characterized by “Truth Decay,” defined as a set of four interrelated trends: an increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data; a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; an increase in the relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion and personal experience over fact; and lowered trust in formerly respected sources of factual information. The most damaging consequences of Truth Decay include the erosion of civil discourse, political paralysis, alienation and disengagement of individuals from political and civic institutions, and uncertainty over national policy.”  While this should surprise no one, it lead to wonder how much decay was really going on with me as it relates to the most pressing issues of our day.  How much do I “know” and how much do I “believe” or want to believe about what is happening all around me.

This concern has surfaced most acutely as it relates to the immigration and asylum seeker policies unfolding in our country and prominently felt in my current home state of Texas. I saw the reports of families separated; I watched in pain and horror of overcrowded detention centers, children sleeping on floors, frantic parents, crying children.  I listened to analyses trying to explain away what I saw, and trying to emphasize what I saw, sometimes in the same news program.  I absorbed the politician’s spin ono both sides of the aisle.  I talked to immigration attorneys and asylum seeker support service providers.  I spoke with a close friend who works for the Department of Homeland Security who works on the border who told me flat out, “don’t believe what you see or hear because it’s all wrong.”  Apart from the irony of insisting I believe him over everything else, part of me knew what he was really saying was, “you gotta see this yourself.”

So when the invitation came from Repairers of the Breach, the Rev. Dr. William Barber’s organization, to join with Rabbi Rick Jacobs,  my friend and colleague Imam Omar Suleiman and others to bear witness to this issue in El Paso last Sunday and Monday, I knew I had no choice but to go and see for myself and this was the time to be a part of the testimony of this great stain on the soul of our country; that there is, in the words of Kohelet, “…a time for tearing and a time for sewing; a time for silence and a time for speaking…” and that time is now.

Upon arriving in El Paso and connecting with URJ and RAC staff, clergy, and congregants from our movement from as far away as New York and Boston, it became clear that this was not just a press conference and an opportunity to march in the Texas heat, but to add a moral voice to a policy problem that will become a defining moment in American history.  We gathered to learn about non-violent direct action – a euphemism for civil disobedience that might result in arrest.  This dominated the conversation for the next couple of hours; will you get arrested?  What does your arrest mean in light of this issue?  Does it matter?  Is being arrested more about you or about the moment and movement?  After the training were honored to hear from a number of powerful and important people.  Dr. Barber Spoke.  Imam Suleiman spoke.  Rabbi Jacobs spoke, as did a few other of our leaders.  But the most powerful witnessing that first night came from people directly affected by the immigration and asylum problems.  There were asylum seekers from Guatemala sharing their ridiculously dangerous and lengthy journey; asylum seekers sent back to Mexico to wait; people who were separated from their parents and children.  It was heartbreaking to hear their firsthand accounts.  It was liberating to hear their words without commentary, derision or spin.  It was maddening to know this is happening in our country, in my state, right in front of me.

The next day was the day we would make our way through the heat to the detention center.  We learned that non-violent direct action and getting arrested would make the work of the local support systems for immigrants and seekers more difficult.  Instead the hundreds assembled would march to the entrance of the detention center and as clergy gathered toward the front, make numerous demands; to pastor to those detained, the end of inhumane conditions at the detention centers, end of family separations, end to the wait in Mexico asylum process.  Of course we were not let in, but as Dr. Barber said, “We condemn and call evil and unjust the caging of people, the making people drink from toilets, the refusal to even give them a toothbrush. You’re holding angels in this place. But you will not hold them forever. We join them now, and not only do we bring condemnation, but we bring hope. It doesn’t have to be this way. America, turn around. America, repent. America, stop. America, change your ways.”

Seeing is believing and indeed I do believe I saw.

Rabbi Andrew Marc Paley serves Temple Shalom in Dallas, Texas.

Immigration Social Justice

Silence is Not an Option

“Somebody’s hurting our people and it’s gone on far too long, and we won’t be silent anymore…”

Songs of protest such as this permeated the two days in El Paso this week when faith leaders and people of conscience, including several rabbinic colleagues and cantors, came together in support of Moral Mondays at the Borderlands. Hundreds from across the country answered the call from Reverend William Barber II, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Imam Omar Suleiman and other leading clergy to come witness and peacefully protest the inhumane, immoral, and unjust detention and caging of individuals seeking asylum and refuge in our country, adults and children, countless of whom are still separated from parents (the practice tragically persists according to news outlets on 7/31).

A spirited assembly Sunday evening illustrated the incredible diversity of the group who made the journey; participants reflected every religious tradition, race, ethnicity, sexual identity, and gender orientation. The powerful evening was marked by song, impassioned charges from leading clergy and organizers, the testimonies of former refugees now working with the Border Network for Human Rights to support individuals presently detained, among other memorable moments.

When we came together again Monday morning, Reverend Barber delivered a stirring message in which he tenderly described the love and care with which he attends to the needs of his German Shepherd puppies – providing them special food and treats, bathing them, giving them constant affection and attention. Then with a dramatic shift in tone, Barber thundered the painful and tragic reality that in our country at present, we treat our dogs better than we do fellow human beings, individuals seeking refuge in the hopes of a new home and life.  Minutes after departing the church, we reassembled in a large lot in view of the El Paso DHS detention center.  Protest signs in hand, we marched alongside the street en route to the center, the repeated honking of passersby indicating their support, until we reached the closed gates of the detention center.  There, Rick Jacobs and others prayerfully requested that clergy be allowed to enter the grounds to offer spiritual and pastoral support to the detainees. Unsurprisingly, the pleas went unheard by the Border Patrol agents, but with numerous media outlets covering and recording our presence, we still departed the grounds feeling confident about the impact of our collective voices and presence.  We departed the formal protest appreciating fully that for justice to be realized, our ongoing efforts to bring national attention to the crisis of inhumanity at our border must continue.

Since returning home to Atlanta, a few questions and observations about the time in El Paso have persisted. Among them is one glaring recognition – likely evident in video footage and photos of the gathering – that some of our justice efforts will result in a dais shared with individuals and/or organizations whose virulent views about Israel, for example, are antithetical to everything we believe and hold dear. Though not a new challenge or realization, the situation at the border reminds us yet again that there are times when our abiding need to confront serious and unconscionable injustice necessitates the capacity to set aside deep-seated conflicts regarding one matter in order to marshal energy and efforts for the sake of another cause.

For several participants, the trip to El Paso also raised questions about how to measure the efficacy of such actions. Acknowledging the not-insignificant investment of time and financial resources needed to participate, it begs the question as to whether there might be better or more impactful uses of both. For example, would directing the same dollars to the campaign of a candidate who could potentially help to legislate change be a better use of limited resources? No doubt this question invites debate, but I think it is honestly a bit of a conundrum, with an answers that will likely vary, even for the same individual.  Each of us must determine whether investing financial resources in potential, systemic change or utilizing those same dollars to enable one’s physical and emotional presence in a place of brokenness and pain holds sway. Obviously both can make a profound and lasting difference in people’s lives, bringing into sharp focus yet again why the efforts of the RAC and other agencies that facilitate both expressions of support simultaneously are so critical.

The desperate plight of fellow human beings, adults and children currently held in deplorable detention centers in the name of our country, is urgently calling us to action. The ICE raids evoking terror in cities throughout the south, adding to the trauma of separating parents from children, calls us to action. The current policy mandating that all who are seeking asylum remain in Mexico, in violent communities where their lives are endangered, calls us to action. And the fact that we are part of a faith tradition and sacred spiritual heritage which commands us – more often than any other mitzvah — to care for the stranger…the migrant, the refugee, the asylum seeker, and the immigrant in our midst, calls us to action.  The need for action and justice is undeniable, because “Somebody’s hurting our people and it’s gone on far too long, and we won’t – we simply can’t – be silent anymore!”

Rabbi Ron Segal serves Temple Sinai in Atlanta, Georgia. He is also the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Immigration Social Justice

For You Were Strangers…

How fitting. My last official public statement as the CCAR Chief Executive was about protection for the immigrant and the refugee.

I say “How fitting” because my own family’s history is one of flight and immigration.

My sister Karen and I are children of immigrants–our mom fled from Dortmund and our dad immigrated to the States from Vienna. One of our uncles would have been, by today’s standards, an “illegal” immigrant. Our great-grandmother was forced to return from the safety of America to Germany and died in a Concentration Camp.

Our parents saw great opportunities in this country for themselves and for their children—both of whom, to their great surprise, became rabbis!

There is no ambiguity in my world. I am alive because somebody stood up for my parents.

For many of us, such stories are part of our family’s histories. We retell them, and we will never forget them. Today, again, people are arriving in our country, seeking to fulfill for themselves the American dream that we were so blessed to be able to realize for ourselves.

As we grew up in our parents’ home, we were aware that voting was a privilege.  We had come to this country as immigrants. We became Americans. And we were proud to participate in American democracy.   

Sadly enough, on Thursday, we saw the Supreme Court betray its responsibility to protect the right of all people to participate in American democracy. The Supreme Court’s recent ruling allowed for the continued practice of gerrymandering, which means that some people’s voices in our country go unheard. As Justice Kagan said “Part of the court’s role in that system [of government] is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections.”

For decades, the Reform Rabbinate–in partnership with courageous lay leadership, our cantorial colleagues, other Jewish professionals, and our interfaith clergy partners–has led the Jewish community in our shared efforts to protect the immigrant, and the right of all citizens to participate in our government.

Today, we–as Reform Jews, and, often, as children of immigrants and refugees–stand for immigrants and refugees of this generation. We raise our voices for all those who suffer from hate and discrimination, whether it’s because of their country of origin, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, or any other aspect of their identity. Today we look to the next generation of leadership in Reform Jewish life. As Rabbi Hara Person begins her work as the new CCAR Chief Executive, and a new generation of rabbis enters their rabbinates, I am confident that we, as Reform Jews and as children of immigrants, will remain at the forefront of the battle for our values as Jews and as Americans – without any ambiguity.

Rabbi Steve Fox is the Chief Executive Emeritus of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.


Don’t Let the Light Go Out

Rony, a former bus driver, escaped from his native Honduras when his life was threatened. The “mafia” had already killed his father and his brother for failing to pay the required extortion. He was next. Seeking asylum in the US, Rony was arrested and detained at a private prison owned and run by The GEO Group in the California high desert town of Adelanto. I met him this past year, my second visit to the facility. My first attempt was aborted when, along with a busload of people of faith and clergy, I tried to visit detainees there. When GEO learned of our plan, they put the facility on lock-down, not only refusing to let us in, but also ejecting family members waiting to see their loved ones. It was 110 degrees outside.

A recent report by Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General flagged serious health and safety standards violations in Adelanto. There have been suicide attempts: nooses fashioned with bed sheets were hanging in 15 of the 20 examined cells. There are no recreational facilities or skills-building classes, and detainees are allowed a one hour visit per day — given the distance from their families, many get few to no visitors. Is this how we want our country to behave?

Our tradition teaches us to welcome the stranger, to love our neighbors as ourselves. Our Statue of Liberty proclaims: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free…” So are we OK with a private prison incarcerating 2,000 human beings for the crime of trying to find refuge and safety, to escape from persecution, violence and extreme poverty?

To shed light on the conditions in Adelanto, Bend the Arc, the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, and I, organized an interfaith vigil there on the 8th night of Chanukah. At the darkest time of the year, we wanted to shine the candles’ brightness on the reality of our government’s policies towards immigrants and refugees. But we also wanted to offer the expansive light as a symbol of the possibility of hope to those locked behind bars.

Part of our effort was to rally support for Rony. His bond (a form of bail) was set at $10,000, a staggering amount for someone with no ties in the US. We had hoped to get him out by Chanukah, but had not raised sufficient funding. However, just this week, we reached our goal: Rony was bonded out this week, though he still faces a court decision about his asylum application.

A class action lawsuit has been filed against GEO on behalf of thousands of detainees, and we will continue to be vigilant on their behalf.

Rabbi Suzanne Singer serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, California. 

Immigration Social Justice

Searching for Possibility and Hope

A smile can make a huge difference. That is what two of my congregants and I discovered when we came to McAllen, Texas to volunteer for a week with the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center for immigrants newly released from detention. McAllen is the largest processing center for immigrants seeking to enter the United States. After arriving at the border, they are detained by immigration authorities. If and when they are released, they are taken to the Central Bus Station. That is where staff and volunteers from the Respite Center pick them up and bring them to the center for a hot meal, a shower, a change of clothes, before being accompanied back to the bus station where they are sent off across the country to meet their sponsor — usually a family member. Once there, they will face a court date and the decision of a judge as to whether they can stay here or be deported back home.

These are the lucky ones. They are not placed in detention beyond a few days, and they are not being permanently separated from their children. It is not entirely clear why they are being released while so many others are kept in detention for many months. It may be because they have a sponsor and a credible case for asylum, but no one we spoke to was entirely sure as the system seems to be somewhat arbitrary. However, their situation is far from fortunate. They come primarily from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, countries torn apart by violence and plagued by extreme poverty. These immigrants are fleeing the violence, often fearful for their own lives and that of their children. Their dangerous journeys average 3-4 weeks during which they travel by foot, by bus, and/or on La Bestia, the freight trains which they ride on the roof. Some of the women are pregnant, some of the adults are carrying newborns.

Once they turn themselves in or are arrested at the border, they are put into detention for 3-4 days in what the immigrants call “La Hielera” — the Ice Box — because of how cold it is in there. One woman, Maria Luisa, told us that she was separated from her two sons, forbidden from hugging them, forced to sleep on the floor with only an aluminum blanket, barely fed a frozen burrito, allowed to shower once for three minutes, and kicked awake at 3 o’clock in the morning. She along with all the others who are released, was forced to wear an ankle monitor to ensure that she would appear for her court date. Her ankle bracelet, as was the case with the others we saw, was tight and uncomfortable, and made her leg swell.

This inhumane treatment is in marked contrast to how these immigrants are welcomed at the Respite Center, which was established four years ago by Sister Norma Pimentel. In that time, something like 100,000 immigrants have come through their doors. The motto over the front door, “Restoring Human Dignity,” is what drives the staff and the revolving groups of volunteers from around the country. The immigrants here are met with kindness, concern and care. When they first arrive, they are rather stone-faced and wary, but soon they relax and respond to the warmth being shown to them. We tried as much as possible to look them each in the face and to smile, acknowledging their humanity. We served them a bowl of chicken soup, helped them find a fresh set of clothes and shoes, and guided them to the showers where we kept two washing machines and two dryers going constantly to keep up with the volume of towels. Because the clothes on their backs have been worn for close to a month, we threw them away. We also put together snack bags and sandwiches to take with them when they returned to the bus station for the next step of their journey.

One of my congregants was asked by some of her friends whether the children we saw actually belonged to the adults they were with. There is no question that these adults were their parents! They demonstrated a great deal of love and affection for their children, and the children were clearly very attached to them. They are people like you and I, seeking a better life for themselves and their family. “There but for the grace of God go I…” They are looking for a new start, one with possibilities, one with hope. As we enter the month of Elul on the road to the High Holy Days, we too are in search of a new beginning. Let us be thankful for our good fortune. Let us also resolve to remember those whose lives have been disrupted by war, civil unrest, gangs, and poverty. At the very least, we can offer them a smile, a reminder that they too are created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image.

Rabbi Suzanne Singer serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, California. 

Immigration Social Justice

Strive to Be Humane

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. 

Immigration Social Justice

Witness to Cruelty: Bringing Compassion to McAllen

The mother from Nicaragua stood before our multi-faith group of forty religious leaders this morning in the simple and dignified space of the Catholic Charities Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, cradling her sleeping infant in her arms. “We are here because my country is no longer safe for my child.” By this writing, she is already on a bus to San Francisco, her ticket purchased by relatives there, her safe passage arranged by Sister Norma and the remarkable staff and volunteers of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

She, like the other families we met in the Respite Center, is among the lucky ones – who can still cradle their babies, who can still play with their children on the colorful mats in the corner, who were able to take their first shower in weeks, to wash off the mud and cold of passage.

It was some combination of chance, powerful love, and spiritual commitment that landed mother and child on that westbound bus. The love and commitment of volunteers and faith communities who share time, supplies, food and medical services; and the luck of a given moment on a given day. I asked one of the staff at the Respite Center how that mother and that child could still be together in the face of the Administration’s cruel and draconian requirement that children be taken from their parents at the border, and she shrugged: maybe a compassionate border guard, maybe because the child was just a baby, maybe our prayers worked.

We have witnessed traumatic cruelty in our nation in these recent weeks, and if witnessing it has been traumatic, we can only begin to imagine the pain of those who suffered it directly: the parents and children whose wails tear at our hearts. The name of this policy, “Zero Tolerance,” is Orwellian at best. The practice of ripping children from their parents at the border is not Zero Tolerance. It is Zero Compassion. It is Zero Wisdom, because it deprives security professionals of discretion. It is Zero Coherence because it expends security resources indiscriminately, instead of focusing them on the populations who might put us at risk. It has been a violation of core Jewish values, and an affront to the American values of which Dreamers dream.

The President’s recent Executive Order, while a seeming reversal in the face of public outcry, will not address core injustices. It makes no provision for reuniting the 2300 already separated children with their families. It offers no change in the fundamental flaws, and smokescreen, of so-called Zero Tolerance. A narrow Executive Order cannot restore heart to what is heartless.

Our visit today was supposed to conclude with a visit to the Border Detention Center – I had hoped to report to you first-hand about the cages of separation and the conditions there. For reasons not totally clear – some combination of serious flash floods and government bureaucratic confusion – we were not permitted to visit.

So the work of calling for transparency must continue – not only by the forty leaders on our bus, but by everyone of us who cares about the conscience, heart and destiny of America.

In this week’s parshah, the ruler of Edom earns a reputation for callousness and injustice by uttering two simple words to Moses and the Israelites seeking to pass through his territory: lo ta’avor. Those words have become an emblem in our tradition for blind and simplistic enmity. When our nation speaks an unconditional lo ta’avor to refugees seeking safety from violence and pursuing a life of dignity and freedom, when our president uses the word “infest” to describe their presence in a land of freedom, the echoes are more than troubling.

But today in McAllen, we outshouted those echoes with the laughter of children, with songs of hope from Jews, Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants, whites and people of color, locking arms and joining forces to bring a sense of solidarity to a border town, a sense of compassion, and justice to our nation. We leave McAllen pledging vigilance for the safety of all children and families, and for the protection of the values precious to us all.

Rabbi David Stern serves Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas and is President of The Central Conference of American Rabbis.