Bearing witness

Bearing witness

Lessons from a past president

How many times do we wish that things had been different? That different decisions had been made? That the Jews the United States turned away as they attempted to escape Nazi persecution had been allowed in; that planes in a position to bomb the railway lines leading to Auschwitz had been instructed to do so; more recently, that children separated from their parents at the U.S. border had not been taken from their families (and recently we learned that the administration deliberately withheld information that might have reunited them); that the detainees held at the Bergen County jail were not subject to inhuman treatment in exchange for ICE dollars.

We cannot undo the past, however much it hurts to remember it. But we can undo the horrors that exist now. Not to act is deplorable. Not at least to look is immoral.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the American military leader and later U.S. president, who did so much to secure victory in World War II, believed so deeply in bearing witness that not only did he visit every inch of a concentration camp liberated by the Americans, but he “sent communications to both Washington and London, urging the two governments to send instantly to Germany a random group of newspaper editors and representative groups from the national legislatures,” he later wrote. “I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and British publics in a fashion to leave no room for cynical doubt.”

In addition, Eisenhower insisted that Germans from a nearby town visit the camp to see what had been done in their name, and he required American soldiers to tour the camp, so that they could see the evil they were fighting.

It is hyperbole, perhaps, to suggest that the conditions at the Bergen County jail in Hackensack resemble those of a camp, but they are horrible nonetheless. Living with rats and insects, receiving substandard medical care, being given only dirty water to drink; rendered unable to take the standard precautions against covid — and that although the first ICE detainee in the country to test positive for the coronavirus was at the Bergen County Jail.

The detainees, some of whom are on a hunger strike, some for the second time, do not have to be there. As Matt Katz reported for WNYC, “The striking detainees, particularly those who suffer from medical conditions that make them more susceptible to the virus, say they want to fight their deportation cases from the outside, because adhering to social distancing guidelines is difficult in the jail. Immigrant detainees face civil immigration violations which, by law, don’t require imprisonment.”

They are in jail because ICE gives money to Bergen County for each immigrant. Both of New Jersey’s senators, Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, have condemned this. From Menendez: “As a former mayor, I understand the tremendous local fiscal and other challenges caused by the pandemic, but I do not believe taking blood money from ICE, to turn our jails into way stations for deportations for nonviolent, non-criminal immigration detainees, is consistent with our values nor is it in the best interests of our communities.” From Booker: “No private or government entity should be contracting with ICE. These arrangements too often incentivize locking up people who pose no risk to the public, and perpetuate dangerous and dehumanizing immigration enforcement tactics.”

An online public meeting of the Bergen County Board of Commissioners last Wednesday — at which some 40 members of the public spoke for several hours, condemning the situation at the jail — resulted in the chair of the commission reading a prepared statement suggesting that some immigrant support groups are in favor of the existing arrangement. She didn’t cite any specific groups, nor did she acknowledge the several hours of opposition.

My first question — and I have many — is: Has she visited the jail? Have the other commissioners done so? On whom are they relying for information? Does the commission benefit from ICE dollars? Are the decision makers following Eisenhower’s example, and advice, and bearing firsthand witness to the events unfolding so close to their desks?

Immigration is too complex an issue to solve in an op-ed or by any one interest group. But we have been given an opportunity to do something, at this time, about a situation that we will regret later. Not to take that opportunity would be a terrible mistake. Let us call upon our New Jersey decision makers to go and see for themselves the conditions under which detainees live.

If social distancing is not possible in detainees’ lives this visit will be dangerous. But then again, that may be the point.

Lois Goldrich of Fair Lawn is, among other things, an editor emerita of the Jewish Standard.