Earlier this week, I stood outside Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, TX. Painted on the exterior wall was a quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt from 1938: “Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”
A powerful and meaningful quote to read, having come to Las Americas and El Paso on a delegation of 20 rabbis and cantors co-sponsored by HIAS and T’ruah, to experience what is happening at the southern border of the United States. And as I read that quote, inspired by all the hope it contains, I was reminded too of the fact that FDR four years later signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the relocation and internment of Japanese citizens during World War II.
I had first thought of the Japanese internment earlier in the day. Right before we arrived at Las Americas, we had a tour of Otero County Processing Center just over the state line in New Mexico. Led by Warden Dora Orozco and two ICE agents, we were shown the for-profit detention center that houses just under 1100 migrants.
It was, for all intents and purposes, a prison. Meals were served communally, with 20 minutes to eat. Everyone got about two hours outdoors, on a concrete slab surrounded by barbed wire. People were housed in dormitories 50 to a room in very narrow bunkbeds layered double deep. There were recreation rooms and a library. Those entering waited in small rooms while they were processed and turned over their possessions. Those leaving were led out in chains. Medical attention was limited. And there was, if needed, rooms for solitary confinement.
It was a prison. Except the people there were not criminals. They were migrants, legally seeking asylum.
As we pulled away from Otero, my mind brought me to our family social justice themed road trip last summer, which took us to Minidoka, the Japanese internment camp in Eastern Idaho which is now a National Park. Both Otero and Minidoka are in remote locations in the desert. Both housed immigrants. Both were outward expressions of inward xenophobia. Both were built on a pretense of a “national emergency.” Everything has changed and nothing has changed.
I came to the border not knowing exactly what to expect. And I left feeling both more confused, but also more resolute.
More confused, in that the situation goes beyond who we usually think of as being the usual villains of our current administration. Indeed, our heroes can also be our villains. We can recognize the disconnect between FDR’s words and some of his actions. (He also turned away the S.S. St. Louis and other Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Europe.) I also learned that one of the acts that led to the construction of the wall in the first place was NAFTA, signed by President Clinton, with the desire to both maintain cheap labor and keep it south of the border. And the section of the wall we visited (which was 28’ high closely spaced metal columns) was built during the Obama Administration.
Yet more resolute, in knowing that what is happening to migrants at the border is a moral outrage, and that current policies are leading to the dehumanization of others. People are being criminalized for the simple act of fleeing oppression, poverty, and violence. The detention centers have major problems, including limited access to medical care. Families are still being separated. Asylum claims, based on outdated law, are being overwhelmingly denied. Because of overflow, migrants are being released and dropped in El Paso and other locations. And during this visit, during our planned foot crossing of the Paso del Norte bridge over the Rio Grande between Mexico and the US, we were witness to the unplanned and shocking sight of migrants—adults and children—being held by border patrol in a fenced-in pen underneath the bridge. [At the time we weren’t sure what was happening, subsequent national news reports revealed we were witnessing an unprecedented and unconscionable situation in which migrants were being held for days in pens under the bridge.]
Much of this trip was hard. In addition to Otero, we visited Casa Franklin, a children’s detention facility. Some members of our group sat in on Federal court proceedings. We visited a section of the wall between New Mexico and Mexico. And we went into Mexico proper, to Juarez, to a shelter for migrants who are making their way from Central America.
As one activist told us, “the border is a laboratory for injustice.”
And yet there is also hope. We met with a panel of immigrant legal advocates at Las Americas who are working in the grassroots and in the courts on behalf of individual migrants and for broader change in how we as a country address claims of asylum. We visited the Hope Border Institute, a faith-based organization working for border justice. And we went to Annunciation House, an incredible organization that coordinates relief efforts for the dropped and released migrants, to shelter, feed, and transport them to sponsors where they will await an asylum hearing.
The situation at the border is complex and fluid. One thing I learned is that the two cities of El Paso and Juarez are essentially one metropolitan area. Our guide for one day Diego was born in the US, grew up in Mexico, and went to school in the US. Growing up he would regularly run errands across the Rio Grande, and he slips easily into Spanish and English.
God makes rivers, but humans make borders.
The scope of the issue at the border is enormous. I’m so grateful for the work that HIAS and T’ruah and other Jewish organizations are doing. I left the southern border with much to process, and yet also some clear action steps that can be taken. There will be more to share in the days and weeks ahead, and I am truly honored by the work my congregation Temple Beth Hatfiloh has done to dive deep into issues of immigration and declare itself a Sanctuary congregation.
The mistreatment of immigrants and migrants in this country is not new. It was important to see it happening now first-hand, just as it was to visit Minidoka last summer. And it was important to see it as a rabbi with colleagues led by Jewish organizations. During our last night of processing together, the conversation turned towards Passover and that ancient story of immigration and migration. How was Passover going to be different for us this year, having seen what we have seen and learned what we have learned?
As we begin the month of Nissan, the month of Passover, the mythic story of the Exodus comes more fully to our intention. We will prepare to sit around the table, eat the symbolic foods, share a special meal, and, most importantly, tell the story of our ancient ancestors, who fled an oppressive and dehumanizing system of injustice and crossed a body of water to a new land with the promise of a better future.
Passover is a story of the reality, necessity, and challenge of migration, and it is why these contemporary issues of immigration resonate with us. It is a reminder that the act of migration is a just act, one that must be met with compassion. And Passover is a story of hope and change, with that fundamental lesson that because something is now or has been, it doesn’t mean it has to be.