Throughout our Torah, we are told to welcome, love and protect the sojourner, for all too often society preys on them and their vulnerability. In fact, our responsibility toward the migrant is mentioned more times in the Torah than any other commandment.
I just returned from three days at the U.S.-Mexico border on a clergy mission organized by HIAS and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. We went to the border to bear witness and better understand the situation so that we can fulfill the Divine command to love immigrants rather than demonize them.
Our trip began in Juárez, Mexico, to see the effects of Migration Protection Protocols (MPP), a 2019 administration policy where migrants are forced to wait in Mexico for their U.S. asylum hearings. This program, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” has created tent cities along the border where asylum seekers from South and Central America live. They left all that they knew because they feared for their lives; we slammed the door on them.
The physical and emotional exhaustion was evident on the migrants’ faces. They are dependent on food and charity programs from the Mexican government because our government has ignored them. All they want is to breathe free.
Instead, they are given a number and told to wait in line (often for many months). Without a home to wait in, they seek refuge in these tents. And even when they declare asylum, the policies of MPP send them back to Mexico. Deuteronomy 15:7 teaches that “as long as there are those in need among you, do not close your heart or your hand to them.” But our country has done that and more.
We visited the few asylum seekers who were given access to the limited number of shelters Mexico had set up; there were 250 twin cots for over 650 individuals at the shelter we visited.
The migrants didn’t understand why they weren’t allowed entry to the U.S. This group of American rabbis easily crossed the Paso Del Norte bridge and border crossing. They were in awe of our privilege, and we were in tears because, as Americans, we felt responsible for their treatment, and for their despair.
We saw the result of the U.S. government’s discriminatory policies. Children ran around the modified warehouse that was turned into a shelter. In one area there was a makeshift school taught by volunteers; in another they’d play with the few donated soccer balls. But the parents sat in silence. We stared into their eyes looking for a glimmer of hope, but they were broken and defeated.
Next, we visited the Otero County Processing Center, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in New Mexico. Located in the desert, surrounded only by sand and mountains, few know what goes on in this facility. Cameras aren’t allowed and special permission is needed to tour the place. We were granted access as a humanitarian group of clergy, but our access was severely limited.
The facility had been in the news because detainees had gone on hunger strikes. Time and again, the consequence for speaking up about their mistreatment was solitary confinement, which international law experts have classified as torture. And yet, we saw the long narrow hallway of small dark rooms without any outside light. We heard one detainee banging on the door, calling out to us. The warden quickly closed the shade, covering the small slit of a window, so that we couldn’t see in.
The ICE representative who gave us the tour of the facility suggested that many detainees prefer it because they live independently. We were shocked and dismayed. These detainees are awaiting their respective appearances in immigration court, but they are treated like criminals.
As we exited the facility, a pro bono lawyer explained that at least in a prison, prisoners have certain rights. These detainees’ rights are ignored; we saw their brokenness.
Our trip concluded with a visit to the Walmart in El Paso, Texas. After experiencing so much brokenness, we sat among the shattered pieces. This Walmart was the site of an Aug. 3 mass shooting that killed 22 and severely injured 26. The store is closed but a makeshift memorial was set up in the parking lot, with 22 crosses for the innocents murdered.
This was more than just a mass shooting or terror attack; it was a violent act of discrimination and hate, an attack on the Hispanic and immigrant communities. The white supremacist perpetrator of this massacre drove to El Paso because of its high percentage of Latino residents. We heard a story from a survivor about a group of women in the frozen foods section who heard gunshots and got down on their knees and began to pray. The shooter heard that they were praying in Spanish and shot all of them.
Our country’s immigration policies tell migrants at the border that they are less than. The treatment of detainees in ICE custody tells them that they are less than. And this shooter drove hours to this Walmart because he, too, believed that they were less than.
We ended our trip as rabbis do: with prayer. We gathered at a scenic overlook early in the morning, covered in tallitot and wrapped in tefillin, as rays of light peeked through the clouds. Looking down, we could not see where the border was, where America ended and Mexico began. We just saw humanity, in action, striving to live their lives. That is all any of us want for ourselves. Why can’t others have the same?
If we do not protect the stranger, if we do not stop the avenues of oppression toward the migrant, then Torah becomes meaningless to us. We left the border with a better understanding of the discrimination that takes place, and with a promise to uphold the holy words of our Torah.
Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, N.J. A version of this article first appeared in the New Jersey Jewish News.