The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
In this week’s parasha, Matot-Masei, we learn that Moses kept a journal of the goings forth of the Israelites as they became migrants, after crossing the Egyptian border and then traveling through the wilderness of Sinai. “These are the journeys…. Moses wrote down their goings forth....” (Num. 33:1-2). This week, hearing echoes of the Jewish experience of border crossings from the Exodus until today, we became witnesses of immigrant journeys in a wilderness of our own country’s making. We went to the US-Mexico border, on a Jewish delegation trip we heard about through T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, to see with our own eyes and learn from those directly involved about what is happening in this era of family separation, zero tolerance, and the criminalization of immigration. And, like Moses, we kept a journal of what we saw and heard.
What follows is a chronicle of impressions we took with us from the border in Laredo, TX. These are but small pieces of a tragic and epic story that is unfolding daily–of people seeking a life free from fear and want, entering the wilderness of the United States immigration system.
The wilderness of crossing the U.S. border
People whose lives are so unbearable in their home countries that they choose to leave behind all they know have little, if any, idea of what they will encounter when they try to enter the United States. Because of our inefficient, inflexible, and grossly understaffed system, immigrants attempting to enter at a recognized point of entry find a wilderness of endless waiting that prevents them from entering legally before their resources run out. These checkpoints are heavily guarded with surveillance equipment and armed border patrol agents. Other immigrants cross the Rio Grande at unlawful points of entry by swimming, wading, or flotation device, or through the limited stretches of land where a wall has not yet cast a shadow. We learned from the Chief of Laredo’s Border Patrol that if immigrants choose to cross there, they are faced with a very dangerous situation: the desert, extreme heat, perilous currents, lack of food and water, traffickers whose motives are nefarious, and the United States Border Patrol in their jeeps and boats, patrolling day and night, seeking them out for arrest.
The wilderness of federal immigration court
As a result of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, immigrants apprehended crossing the U.S.-Mexico border now face criminal prosecution. At the Federal District Court in Laredo, we observed the wilderness of an overwhelmed and intransigent court: Over 70 young immigrants from Mexico and Central America who attempted to enter over a 12 day period from June 25 - July 7 stood before the judge in one large group. They were represented collectively by one public defender, each one charged with the misdemeanor offense of illegal entry. As each person was called by name, s/he had no opportunity to tell his/her story. Given only a cursory explanation (indirectly through English to Spanish translation) of the complicated, constantly changing, and confusing legal wilderness that they have now entered, every single one pled “guilty for crossing the river” and was warned that if they ever try to return to the U.S. and are caught, they will be charged with a felony. After court, they were turned over to ICE and put into either expedited removal proceedings or, if previously removed (deported), in reinstatement of removal proceedings. Once this happens, there are only two escape routes: 1) a claim to U.S. citizenship or 2) a claim of fear of return because of persecution based on race, religion, national origin, membership in a particular social group or fear of torture, by the government or by an individual. Both options leave individuals entrenched in a system that is blatantly designed to criminalize, disenfranchise and oppress entire populations of people who risk their lives to come to this country seeking asylum or an otherwise brighter future.
The wilderness of detention
We passed by two detention centers which we were only able to observe from the outside. At the massive fortress of the Pearsall adult detention center, the flags of the US, Texas, and Geo Group, the private, for-profit, company that runs the facility, were flying high. We also saw a “Family Residential Center,” a huge detention facility in Dilley, that houses 2,400 women and children, and is run by a different, for-profit, private company called CoreCivic. These corporations flourish off of the mass incarceration of immigrants, and with significantly less oversight than government-run facilities, they are able to cut corners and worsen conditions. Those who enter these facilities enter a vast wilderness of imprisonment and weeks and months with no information about their status or visits from a lawyer. Their lives are circumscribed by the same rules that apply to criminals.
The wilderness of being undocumented
Should any of these folks eventually manage to enter the United States on a visa, their journey in the U.S.A.’s immigration wilderness does not end. They wait for years to be granted any kind of semi-permanent status. And even after achieving that, such as green card holders and DACA recipients, they still face prejudice--being called “illegals” (as we heard one local pastor say) and are sometimes assumed by their neighbors to be criminals or dangerous. More significantly, they are still at risk for deportation, even after having served in the U.S. military or having simply lived, worked and sent their kids to school and paid taxes for many years.
As our journey ended, we sat looking out across the Rio Grande at a bridge that crosses into the city of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Two nations. Two Laredos. Separated by a river, a bridge, a wall, and all of the invisible barriers of fear and prejudice that prevent our country from implementing a just immigration policy. As we contemplated this bridge, we reflected upon the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav:
Kol ha’laom kulo, gesher tzar m’od.
All the world is a very narrow bridge
V’ha’ikkar, lo l’facheid klal
And the crucial thing is not to be overwhelmed by fear.
We will keep the image of this concrete bridge and the encouragement of Rabbi Nachman before us as we continue to describe and decry the injustices that our country’s immigration wilderness has created, greeting potential new citizens not with a passageway that eases their entry, but with an intangible and bewildering span that is intentionally designed to be impossible to navigate.
Rabbi Dena Feingold is the rabbi of Beth Hillel Temple in Kenosha, WI. Abigail Backer is the Director of Youth Programs at Beth Emet Synagogue in Evanston, IL.The mother and daughter team were part of an “Asylum Witness Trip” set up by congregation Agudas Achim of Austin, TX from July 8-9, 2018.
For information on how to take Jewish action surrounding family separation, check out this continuously-updated Reform Movement resource created in partnership with Temple Emanuel in McAllen, Texas.