While events at the country’s southern border are shaking much of the country, including Jews who are viscerally upset by the sounds and images of children who have been separated from their migrant parents and housed in chain-link pens, most Americans are far removed from those scenes. And while many Americans are alarmed over reports of increased aggressiveness and even bullying by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, most have had little, if any, personal relationship with immigrants targeted by the agency.
But for Americans living on or near the country’s border with Mexico, including members of the Jewish community interviewed in recent days by The Jewish Week, the news is something with which they live every day.
“One of the things I’ve learned about the history of this area is that the border is very permeable,” said Rabbi Larry Karol of Temple Beth-El in Las Cruces, N.M., near El Paso. “Families and businesses span the border,” with many El Paso residents working every day in Juarez, the Mexican city directly across the Rio Grande River, and many Juarez residents commuting every day to El Paso.
“There are many people in this area who are up in arms about this,” said the rabbi, referring to President Trump’s zero-tolerance policy in regard to Mexicans and Central Americans who surreptitiously cross the border.
Entering the country illegally is a misdemeanor, and immigrants previously caught doing so wound up in civil court, where they were told to report for a later hearing — a policy described by conservative critics as “catch and release.” But the federal government is now treating all adult immigrants caught at the border as criminals, requiring officials to seize their children and house them in separate facilities.
The new policy is aimed at stinging the migrants to deter other families from crossing the border, by the admission of some administration officials. But it’s seen as no more than cruelty by most of the Jewish community, which has rarely been as unified as it is today on a domestic issue.
In the El Paso area, where the administration has created a “tent city” in the suburb of Tornillo as its first temporary shelter for immigrant children, the communal consensus includes the Jewish Community Relations Council. Part of the Jewish Federation of Greater El Paso, the agency issued a statement earlier this month condemning the practice of separating children from their parents. “This policy is cruel and inhumane,” the statement said, “and only adds to the suffering of these families, who are often fleeing violence and oppression in their home countries. Children are particularly likely to suffer emotionally and psychologically from separation from their parents. And for parents there is no worse nightmare than being separated from their children and not knowing where their children are, or whether they are safe.”
David Kern, chairman of the JCRC, said by email that every Jewish organization in El Paso and Southern New Mexico is represented in the agency’s membership and that no member dissented during the discussion leading up to the statement. He also wrote that he hasn’t heard anyone from the area’s Jewish community “vocally defending the president’s immigration policies.”
Like Jewish individuals and organizations across the country, those in the El Paso area referred in their comments to the Jewish experience, which includes the cultural memory of having been “strangers” or “aliens” themselves, fleeing from one country to another because of violence or danger.
“We disagree on many things, but how we can disagree on welcoming people, or on building a wall to prevent them from coming in, is beyond me.”
“I can’t understand how any member of the Jewish community — and we’re not talking about politics — can disagree with welcoming someone else into the community,” said Rabbi Stephen Leon, religious leader of Congregation B’nai Zion in El Paso. “We disagree on many things, but how we can disagree on welcoming people, or on building a wall to prevent them from coming in, is beyond me.”
The rabbi, whose congregation is Conservative, added that one reason the issue is such a “sparkplug” for him is his involvement with Latino Jews whose origins stretch back to the Inquisition, when their ancestors were forced to convert. The author of a book about the subject, “The Third Commandment and the Return of the Anusim,” he estimated that as many as 15 percent of the immigrants now showing up at the border have Jewish roots.
Like other religious leaders in the area, Rabbi Leon stays away from politics in his sermons, focusing, instead, on religious values.
“Most congregations these days have a wide range of political perspectives, and I work in those parameters,” said Rabbi Karol, whose Las Cruces synagogue is Reform. He tries “to help people consider what I believe Jewish values are and how those can be applied today,” he said.
Similarly, Rabbi Ben Zeidman of Temple Mount Sinai, a Reform synagogue in El Paso, said his sermons advocate the Jewish view that “everyone is made in the image of God and that we have to treat people as human beings.” The religious obligation to observe those rules applies across political boundaries, he said.
Galvanizing At The Border
Although none of the three congregations are active in the immigrant issue as an institution, all three have members who are helping migrants and opposing the administration’s policies.
One is Melissa Untereker, a member of Temple Mount Sinai and a former president of the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. An immigration attorney, Untereker told The Jewish Week that most of the families now being treated as criminals are asylum-seekers. Those who asked for asylum even in the recent past were treated inconsistently, with some turned away and others allowed to enter, but that appears to have changed.
“What we’re seeing now is that they’re not being let in,” Untereker said, adding that Border Patrol agents are leaving their stations, meeting the migrants as they approach the border and telling them that there’s no room for them in U.S. facilities. That, in turn, forces the migrants to cross the border between official entry points, after which they seek out Border Patrol agents to declare asylum — something they’re allowed to do by law once they’re inside the country, the lawyer said. But instead of allowing that, she added, the agents are arresting them.
“If you’re preventing entry to someone seeking asylum, that’s absolutely contrary to international law, treaties and any sense of humanity,” she said.
The spike in arrests has swamped federal courts near the border, forcing judges to conduct “wholesale” or group arraignments and leaving lawyers like Untereker in the unusual position of feeling powerless. Once their arraignments are over, most migrants are sentenced to time-served and transferred to the custody of ICE, which begins the deportation process. Those migrants who claim asylum are granted an administrative interview and can apply for asylum if their fear of returning to their native country is found credible. If the asylum officer finds no credible fear, the migrants are deported immediately.
Untereker’s current work involves providing consultation to parents in detention, she said, but she rarely has “good news for anyone. … Most of the time, I’m telling them they’re going to be deported.”
Making things worse is that their children are in the custody of entirely different agency, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and no coordination appears to exist between that office, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, and ICE, part of the Department of Homeland Security, she said. Many of the children have been sent to shelters in other states, and parents are sometimes deported while their children remain in ORR custody.
The big question is how the families will get reunited, said Untereker, who adds that no protocol seems to exist for achieving that goal.
While Untereker tries her best to help on the legal front, Susan Fitzgerald, a member of Temple Beth-El, has volunteered for New Mexico Communities in Action and Faith, a faith-based group working on behalf of social justice. She and her husband, Pat, both in their 70s, have also opened their home to migrant families waiting for asylum.
“Immigration has always been a touchstone issue for me,” Fitzgerald said, adding that her mother came to the United States from Belarus, as did her father’s parents. Discussing how complicated immigration can be in the area, she said a “typical situation” might involve “what we call a mixed-status family” — a single family in which the mother is undocumented, her partner has a Green Card, one of their children was born in the United States and the other child is a “Dreamer,” born outside the country but raised in the U.S. “One is legal, two have some sort of protection, and one is totally unprotected,” she said.
Elsewhere along the border, other Jews have also been active.
They include Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, founding president of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox organization committed to social justice. A one-time New Yorker who now lives in Phoenix, the rabbi heads a pluralistic learning center in the area. Two years ago, he created another group, Arizona Jews for Justice, that focuses on helping refugees. He’s also visited several facilities along the border, two hours from Phoenix, including one in which children are being held.
In San Diego, the Jewish Family Service now serves as the legal arm for a rapid-response network of 40 organizations that have come together to help migrants. The area includes the Otay Mesa Detention Facility, a large center that houses adults, and several facilities that have traditionally housed minors who arrived in the country alone, said Kate Clark, the agency’s supervising immigration attorney. She has been told that 10 percent of the children at those facilities are now minors who have been separated from their parents.
‘Moral State Of Emergency’
On a national level, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the public affairs arm of organized American Jewry, issued a statement last month condemning the separation of children and families at the border.
The JCPA’s statement reflects the Jewish consensus over the family-separation policy. That consensus even includes Stephen Steinlight, a former national affairs director at the American Jewish Committee and now a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, which has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“I’m clearly against crossing the border illegally, but these kids have no agency in arriving illegally,” Steinlight said, adding that he is speaking for himself and not CIS. He added that he doesn’t want to see children and families separated, a practice with which he’s uncomfortable, and considers it a losing issue for “immigration hawks” like himself.
The Jewish Week also contacted the Republican Jewish Coalition, which has issued no statement on the matter and declined to comment.
Several rabbis active in T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights participated in a protest last Sunday at ICE’s detention center in Elizabeth, N.J.
Bend the Arc, another Jewish organization devoted to social justice, joined T’ruah, HIAS, the Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center and several other groups in publishing a statement this weekend declaring a “moral state of emergency,” said Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block, its Washington director. The group is asking Jewish organizations and individuals across the country to sign the declaration and make a public commitment to mobilize to end the crisis.
The phrase used in the declaration, a “moral state of emergency,” appeared in a letter about civil rights sent to President John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the renowned Jewish scholar and religious leader, Rabbi Kimelman-Block said. He called it “an opportunity and a moment of responsibility for the Jewish community to shine a spotlight on what’s happening, so no one can say we didn’t do anything.”
The Anti-Defamation League, meanwhile, circulated an open letter last week to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of homeland security, expressing “strong opposition” to the zero-tolerance policy. “Separating families is a cruel punishment for children and families simply seeking a better life,” the letter said. It also referred to Jewish history, noting that Jews “understand the plight of being an immigrant fleeing violence and oppression,” and to Jewish religious thought, saying that Judaism “demands of us concern for the stranger in our midst.”
By last Friday, the letter’s 27 signatories included the Orthodox Union, which added its name after the organization faced a barrage of criticism for a June 13 meeting between Sessions and OU leaders. Much of the criticism came from OU members, some of whom signed a petition circulated by T’ruah before the meeting calling for the organization’s leaders to raise the immigration issue with Sessions. The Washington-based OU Advocacy Center said its leaders did, indeed, raise the subject, but during a private meeting.
One OU rabbi who posted a blistering criticism of the organization on Facebook immediately after last week’s meeting told The Jewish Week that the organization “should be credited with having done the right thing.” But Rabbi Barry Dolinger of Congregation Beth Sholom in Providence, R.I., said the OU’s leaders “should have felt comfortable making a statement about the cruelty of this policy before their meeting with Sessions. … Many people expect that if the OU engages in political activism, they should do so on behalf of the Orthodox community and on behalf of vulnerable Americans.”