Bearing witness in El Paso

Looking at the faces of these desperate families, anxious about their futures, I kept asking myself, “Are these the people who our government is so scared of?”

PROTESTERS DEMONSTRATE outside the ICE immigration detention center in Adelanto, California, last month (photo credit: REUTERS/LUCY NICHOLSON)
PROTESTERS DEMONSTRATE outside the ICE immigration detention center in Adelanto, California, last month
Two weeks ago, I traveled to El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, with a delegation led by HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) to learn first-hand about the refugee crisis occurring at our nation’s southern border. It was a searing experience.
In El Paso, we met with immigration lawyers from DHIA (Derechos Humanos Integrales en Acción), Las Americas, and with HIAS, who briefed us on the situation. Since taking office, President Donald Trump has made the dismantling of our refugee settlement program a primary goal. DHIA and HIAS have been there to provide legal assistance to those still seeking asylum here.
These lawyers spoke to us candidly about the challenges refugees there face and their own secondary trauma from dealing with the relentless need of their clients and their inability to win asylum for any of them. They work day and night, and feel that if they give themselves any needed time off, no one will be there to help. Their ongoing trauma was compounded by last month’s terrorist attack in El Paso, where a white supremacist went on a shooting rampage in a Walmart, killing 22 people and injuring 24 others.
We did not visit any ICE detention centers in the US but we did travel to a shelter in Juarez run by the Mexican government. The shelter, a former factory, holds a little over 500 people, all families, from throughout Latin America. The residents sleep on small pads on the floor crowded into small spaces. They line up to be able to use showers. There is no air conditioning. The day we visited it was 104 degree in Juarez. Yet they were very grateful to be housed and fed.
When we arrived, we were immediately surrounded by beautiful smiling children and their parents. That day, the parents were staging a quiet protest, standing together in the foyer because they had just been informed they could only stay in the shelter for two weeks, and then they would be released to the street to fend for themselves. They were understandably terrified. Several of the adults spoke English. They shared with us stories of the terror they left behind in their home countries and the hopes they had for a future in the US.
One woman, a former teacher in El Salvador, told us that local gangs had come for her 12 year-old daughter. Her husband and daughter were able to get to the US but she and her other two children were now trapped in Mexico. A woman from Guatemala told us her land had been stolen and she and her family were left impoverished.
The right to flee one’s country and seek safety in another is protected under both US and international law. For those requesting asylum in the US, to be denied a fair process could mean a return to some of the most violent countries in the world, to situations most of us cannot imagine.
Looking at the faces of these desperate families, anxious about their futures, I kept asking myself, “Are these the people who our government is so scared of?”
As we toured in the shelter, our delegation was surrounded by women and children asking if we could help them. I stood there, listening to their pleas, knowing that there was little or literally nothing I could do for them. A young man holding out a small scrap of paper approached me. “Could you call my mother?” it read. “She lives in Arizona and she doesn’t know where I am.” As we left many people came to us and said, “thank you for listening” and “God bless you.”
MY FEELING of powerless was devastating.
And yet.
The Torah commands us: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to me” (Exodus 22:20-21).
This charge – to care for the stranger – is the most repeated law in the Torah. Over and over the Torah tells us that we are to love the stranger because God loves the stranger, and that God hears and will head their cries. Every Passover we are told to regard ourselves as if were slaves and freed.
Our tradition calls us to action. And our history does as well.
The Jewish people know all too well what it means to be oppressed and to try to flee oppression only to be turned away and denied protection. We are now free in America, but we also remember that we were once slaves in Egypt and strangers across the globe, in Babylon, Russia, Germany. We remember that America was a safe harbor for many of our ancestors. But we also remember that America refused others in their moment of greatest need. We must not allow America to fail again.
The refugee crisis is a Jewish issue, one that demands from us a Jewish response.
It is our responsibility as Jews, citizens and human beings to commit ourselves to aid and protect those seeking safe asylum in this country. Doing so is simply an embodiment of our Jewish values. I recall that Elie Wiesel once remarked, “Sometimes we must interfere, when Human lives are endangered. When Human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
There are those of us who are powerfully heeding this call. HIAS is a truly remarkable organization, providing asylum-seekers with access to legal representation. They are also organizing Spanish-speaking volunteers to travel to Mexico to provide “Know Your Rights” presentations and help screen asylum-seekers for potential legal representation.
We do not all have the ability to join HIAS on the front lines of this battle. But we can assist the effort in many ways. We can advocate on behalf of the refugees, demanding that our elected officials act immediately to provide a just and humane asylum process for those seeking safety in our country. We can contribute money and provide desperately needed resources, in-kind donations and airline miles. We can join with organizations such as T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which has been working to mobilize synagogues to protect immigrants facing deportation and to provide them with legal assistance and other resources.
It is incumbent upon the American Jewish community to take seriously Rabbi Hillel oft-quoted counsel – “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” – and to raise its collective voice and its influence.
When the history of this dark time is written, it will praise the deeds of the righteous who heard the commandment and remembered their history, and who stood up, in the name of justice and mercy, to the Pharaohs of their time.
The writer is president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative/Masorti rabbis.