Op-Ed Columns Opinion

Our Exodus Story Lives at our Southern Border

By Rabbi Michael Swarttz

In late March my wife, Rabbi Carol Glass, and I participated in a Jewish clergy mission to El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, to witness firsthand what is happening on that part of the U.S.-Mexico border. The trip was sponsored by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.  There were over 20 of us, rabbis (and one cantor) from around the country.

The trip was a great learning experience, but a difficult and discouraging one. The degree of human suffering that we encountered was and is palpable. There is nothing like being there, witnessing with our own eyes and coming face-to-face with those who are at the receiving end of our broken immigration system. On the other hand, we were inspired by the people we met doing truly heroic work under very trying circumstances to provide aid and relief for the tens of thousands of asylum seekers who are trying to enter the U.S. to escape the violence and danger in their home countries. 

We visited a men’s detention center under the supervision of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (I.C.E.). The formal name of the center, the Otero County Processing Center, speaks volumes, for the men being held at the center are indeed being “processed” in the facility. Conditions are not great, to say the least. Medical needs are abundant, and treatment is wholly inadequate. Many of the men are asylum seekers who broke no laws in the U.S., yet they are treated like criminals in a facility that very much feels like a prison.  

In contrast, we visited several incredible relief and advocacy organizations, among them:

Annunciation House, which provides short-term shelter to asylum seekers and facilitates their travel to places where they have relatives who can take them in.

The Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, which provides legal support to low-income immigrants.

The HOPE Border Institute, which advocates for justice for immigrants and comprehensive immigration reform.

In Juarez, Mexico, we visited a shelter that provides housing for migrants and asylum seekers. We traveled by bus into Mexico, but we walked back across the border bridge.  Looking down from the bridge we saw some of the hundreds of migrants who were being detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers.

We learned that the practice of family separation has not ended, despite what our government has claimed. Rabbi Ben Zeidman of Temple Mount Sinai in El Paso described how his congregation became involved in refugee support when then Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the policy of “zero tolerance,” which resulted in separating thousands of children from their parents. That inspired the congregation to become actively involved in relief efforts, and to this day their members provide over 1,000 sandwiches daily for migrants living in Annunciation House facilities.  

We heard frequently about the Guatemalan children Jakelin Caal and Felipe Gomez Alonzo, a seven- and eight-year-old, respectively, who died in December while in the custody of the CBP. Jakelin and Felipe have become tragic symbols of the cruelty of our government’s family separation policy, which is a shanda beyond words, and which will remain a stain on our country’s moral record.

One of the statements we heard that has haunted me since the trip came from Camilo Perez-Bustillo of HOPE, who described the border as “a laboratory for injustice.” The senseless deaths of Jakelin and Felipe are a stark example, along with countless others, that seem to support this alarming assertion.

While it is easy to feel powerless in the face of such overwhelming suffering and dysfunction, there is much that we can do to help:  

Annunciation House needs volunteers who can serve for a minimum of two weeks.

Lawyers (especially Spanish-speaking) are encouraged to join HIAS legal delegations. 

On a local level, MIRA (miracoalition.org) is a coalition that includes several Jewish organizations that promotes the rights and integration of immigrants and refugees.  They need volunteers.

You can donate air miles to Miles for Migrants, which has a partnership with HIAS.  These will be used for booking flights for asylum seekers.

You can support the emergency shelter run by Jewish Family Service of San Diego (JFSSD.org), which provides perhaps the most concerted Jewish organizational response to the border situation. 

You can contribute Tzedakah to any of the organizations mentioned. They are all easily found online. 

HIAS reminds us that, “My people were refugees too.” I write the week before Pesach, while this article will appear after the holiday. On Pesach we tell the story of our ancestors’ flight from slavery to freedom. We have been refugees many times over since then. For the asylum seekers in El Paso and Juarez, and elsewhere along the border, that story is now their stark reality. They are strangers to us and to our country, and the Torah implores us time and time again to love and show compassion to the stranger, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Let us do what we can to translate our love and compassion into action on behalf of these strangers who come to the U.S. seeking haven and a better life, as our ancestors have done time and time again.

Rabbi Michael Swarttz is spiritual leader of Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Westborough.

CAP: Rabbi Michael Swarttz, third from the left, and his wife, Rabbi Carol Glass, on the right with kippah and Magen David t-shirt listen as Diego, middle, their guide from HOPE explains how his organization advocates for justice for immigrants and  comprehensive immigration reform.

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