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.