Jews at the Border

Posted on Nov 15, 2019

I joined a group of about 20 Jewish clergy on a trip to El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico last week to see firsthand how current U.S. immigration policy is affecting the individuals seeking entry to America and changing the border communities through which they pass. When people asked me why I was making the journey, the answer I wanted to give was simple: “Because I am a Jew.” Asked to elaborate,  I explained that the trip was sponsored by HIAS and T’ruah—and that I had been in Pittsburgh the Sunday before to take part in the commemoration of the 2018 shooting at Tree of Life Congregation. The shooter confessed that he had targeted Jews that day because they publicly supported HIAS’s efforts to help migrants and asylum seekers. I wanted to represent the victims and survivors: to be present for them, and present for those whom they had sought to assist.

The Torah portion of the week was Lekh Lekha, “Go Forth,” which recounts Abraham’s epic migration at God’s command from “your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house.” That journey establishes a paradigm through which Jews have understood their wanderings—forced and voluntary, individual or collective—ever since. 

My personal ancestors certainly saw it that way; America’s many blessings are mine because all four of my grandparents left their parents’ homes in Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century, in some cases fleeing pogroms and persecution,  in others searching for a better life than was available under the Tsar. The Torah’s  oft-repeated command to care for the stranger, “because you were strangers,” speaks to me directly from across generations of Jewish history and tradition as well as the recent history of my own family. This mitzvah summons me in a voice I dare not ignore.

I should add, having said those words about mitzvah, that I did not make the journey to El Paso in the belief that biblical injunctions like the ones ordering care for widows, orphans, and strangers can be easily translated directly into contemporary policy. That is rarely the case, I think. The Bible does not command us to be a Democrat or a Republican on the immigration issue or any other; the Torah never tells us exactly how to feed the poor, “raise up those who are bowed down,” and protect the stranger—all commands that we must follow—which is why our sages have been debating the proper way to fulfill biblical injunctions like these for two millennia. 

Nevertheless: the Bible, as expounded by the sages, does offer clear guidelines that mandate some policies and rule out others. And it tells us in no uncertain terms that Jews are not permitted to stand by, silent or indifferent, in the face of suffering and injustice. We are, rather, called to comfort and to bear witness whenever and wherever we can.  Our task is to remember, and remind others, that every human being is created in the image of God and must be treated with dignity.   

That’s what I meant when I said, or wanted to say, that I was going to El Paso because I am a Jew. Someone from HIAS put it this way: Jews used to care about the plight of immigrants because the immigrants were Jews. Now we care about their plight because we are Jews. How could I not make this trip? I offer to you my account of the trip. Opinions may differ about the current state of immigration policy. I write to bear witness to the experience of the many “strangers” now in our midst.

Four encounters are seared indelibly in my memory.

At the Leona Vicario shelter in Juarez, hundreds of asylum seekers are being cared for by Mexican authorities and international aid agencies during an enforced stay caused by the federal government’s new “Migrant Protection Protocols,” known colloquially as “Remain in Mexico.” While they wait weeks and months for adjudication of their asylum requests, they are bereft of resources and facing violence at the hands of the gangs that had led many of them to flee their homes in Central America or other parts of Mexico in the first place. Some 650 people had slept in the shelter’s 250 beds the previous evening, kids sharing a bed with one another or a parent. Boys and girls of all ages wandered the concrete floors of the former warehouse, seemingly in good spirits, occasionally sitting in classes or taking part in organized play supervised by volunteers. No one seemed to lack for food or clothing. Music blared from a giant boom box in the center of the main hallway. Adults seemed sober and listless, with little to do all day beside worrying about the status of their asylum claims. The shelter’s director reported that morale had been good a couple months ago but was steadily sinking as word spread that the odds of a successful claim for asylum were slim. Some men had left the shelter that morning to work and would be back by evening.  Others fear the gangs roaming Juarez’s streets, and will not leave the building.  

The scene at Leona Vicario that has stuck with me is this: A woman is sharing her story with us just outside the shelter’s front door, within sight of the fortified gate beyond which, she said, she had spotted members of the gang that had threatened her and her teenage daughter in Honduras. She dares not walk through that gate. Our group presses close to hear her above the street noise—and as we do,  several dozen residents of the shelter, adults and children, form a ring around us. They too are listening intently, and occasionally interject a comment or question. We do what we have done throughout our visit: pay careful attention, give thumbs-up signs, shake a lot of hands, hug the kids, offer encouragement. Those who speak Spanish converse with the migrants; all of us  try to let them know that we care about their fate, that someone from America knows they are there. The ring around us soon parts and we walk slowly to our bus—a journey on which the residents of Leona Vicario cannot accompany us. After lunch at a nearby restaurant, we will walk back across to the American side of the border, US passports in hand.

Our second stop of the day was Annunciation House, one of several shelters established by the same group on the American side to care for undocumented immigrants with varying needs. The Jewish staff member who shows us around the Catholic-sponsored center—his proud parents from D.C. in tow, having chosen to celebrate their wedding anniversary by seeing their son’s good work in El Paso—explained that the city could be a dangerous place for undocumented people (an ICE detention facility was located next door!). Statistics had confirmed that it is also one of the very worst places in America at which to make a successful case for asylum. 

I am struck by the fact that the doors to the shelter are kept locked at all times, lest anyone threaten or harm the guests. ICE’s agents have never knocked at the gate with a warrant, our host reports, but they do pick up people walking on the street outside. Occasionally those same agents drop off migrants who for some reason are not eligible, or selected, for detention. Annunciation House has seen its population of guests rise and fall over the years with changes in US policy. The crisis is not new, and there is no solution in sight for the many thousands of migrants fleeing north or for those trying to care for them.

The next morning we rode out about half an hour into the New Mexico desert to visit the Otero County Processing Center, an ICE facility that is owned by the county and run by a for-profit company called MTC. The warden led us on a tour around the complex, accompanied by a public relations aide, the resident chaplain, an ICE official, and guards who walked before, behind, and alongside us as we made our way from one building or corridor to another. We had no opportunity to talk to the detainees, who stared at us from behind locked doors or soundproof glass, or silently made way for us when we walked by them in a hallway they were cleaning or glanced our way from the dormitory beds on which they lay. The information sheet given to us when we entered Otero contains testimonials that the facility is modern, functional, orderly, and clean, which it is. What was not said on that sheet—what I would not have grasped, had I not seen it for myself and felt it viscerally—was the disparity between the words used to describe Otero by its managers and the depressing reality of the place.

It is called a “processing facility” but in fact it is a prison. Detainees are classified, color-coded, and treated differently according to the level of offense that brought them there. These consist in many cases of the misdemeanor offense of illegally crossing the border for the first time, or the felony of crossing twice. Eighty-seven percent of those detained at Otero had no criminal history—not even a DUI conviction—aside from immigration-related prosecutions, but there they languish, for an average of 50 – 65 days. The information sheet announces that MTC, the company running the facility, “prepares detainees to successfully return to their communities.” We encountered signs on the wall bearing the words, “MTC BIONIC”—an acronym for “Believe It or Not, I Care.” The warden tells us that she is judged not only by how well the detainees in her care are treated (there is strict oversight by multiple agencies, she reports) but how efficiently she can house and feed them. 

Two numbers bear witness to that efficiency. Three dollars  is the amount spent per prisoner per day on food. (Much of Otero’s budget is apparently devoted to the salaries and benefits of the 300 employees who work at the facility, which houses about 1,000 detainees.) One dollar per day is the amount detainees earn when they elect to work in order to make money that can be spent on snacks or telephone calls to families and attorneys. Local calls, we are informed, cost 7 cents per minute. International calls—to family in Honduras, say, who a detained migrant might ask to send documentation necessary for his asylum case —cost 35 cents per minute. The math speaks to the cruelty of the system that places and keeps these people there, inflicting suffering in the name of deterrence, extinguishing hope, protecting Americans from alleged invasion.

One final image: Later that afternoon, we sit in a federal courtroom as four defendants are sentenced for illegally crossing the border. The men on the docket are treated respectfully by the judge and are represented by counsel, a federally appointed public defender. All are convicted for a misdemeanor offense and are given minimal sentences—in most cases “time served” while awaiting trial. Afterwards the prosecutor, an Assistant U.S. Attorney, approaches us and explains that the judge in this courtroom cannot deport anyone or admit them to America. He can only try them on the criminal charge of crossing the border illegally and then turn them over to ICE, which would hold them during the civil process. During the civil immigration process, which will decide whether they can remain in the United States or be expelled, these men will not be guaranteed legal representation. While they have the right to an attorney, it will not be at government expense. The same prosecutor then surprises us by sharing the news that they are going to see some of us that evening at the Conservative synagogue that we are due to visit.

I had not understood before visiting that the border separating the city from Juarez had until recently been crossed easily and regularly by residents on both sides. Texans crossed over for lunch or dinner and then returned; Mexicans came to El Paso to shop or sightsee. Even today, with tightened border controls that sometimes lengthen the journey from a matter of minutes to an hour or more, tens of thousands of people walk back and forth every day. A third of the students at the University of Texas El Paso commute from Mexico. Stores lining the El Paso side of the border are full of shoppers from Juarez. (The gunmen who shot 22 dead in an El Paso Walmart this summer knew this.)  Eighty percent of El Paso residents are Latino. Many US citizens choose to live in Juarez, drawn there by family, business, or culture.

Councilman Peter Svarzbein, another member of the local Conservative synagogue and a longtime activist on immigration issues, drove home the point that recent policy changes had done serious damage to this unique civic pattern, of which El Paso’s residents, Republican and Democrat, have long been proud. “Do not demonize anyone you meet,” he said to our group. The matter is complex, has been long in the making, and will not easily be solved. At the same time, he said, administration policy had brought a solution no closer and was causing much needless suffering.

My trip home went via Denver—which meant that I got to stare for over an hour out the window of a plane at a magnificent landscape of desert and mountains that gave way, just before landing, to a plain that seemed to stretch on forever. America the Beautiful: I do love this country, and not only because of its natural glory. Though far from perfect, and guilty of profound sins that continue to haunt our society and our politics, America has often tried to do the right thing, and often succeeded. I remember how close we came during the George W. Bush administration to bipartisan agreement on an immigration policy that might have prevented the crisis in which we now find ourselves. I am not without hope—even as the Supreme Court  considers whether to end the DACA program—that we will yet find our way to a just and compassionate solution, freeing many of those trapped at the Mexican border, and  providing hundreds of thousands already in America with a path to remain here, in their adopted home. In the meantime, those of us who care about their predicament can help by assisting in the provision of food, clothing, shelter, and legal counsel.

I write these words, the memories of my trip to the border still vivid,  with a document on the desk before me that I discovered this week when cleaning out a closet. “United States of America” is written at the top, with an eagle just below it that is flanked by the words, “Eastern District of Pennsylvania.” The paper attests that on June 25, 1900, the Court had admitted my paternal grandfather, Morris Eisenstein, “to become a citizen of the United States, and ordered all the proceedings aforesaid to be recorded by the Clerk of the said Court, which was done accordingly.” I shiver, knowing how my life has been determined—indeed, was made possible—by this document. A still bright-red seal is affixed at the bottom of the page. Another border crossed, by another Jew, obeying the lekh-lekha command to choose life, choose blessing,  and be a blessing to others.

Our country can do a lot better with migrants and asylum seekers—and we are therefore morally obligated to try.