Refugees from southern Mexico and Central America, fleeing violence and poverty, hoping to find asylum in the United States, have made it to the Mexican border with the United States but can get no further.
Because President Donald J. Trump, whose views on immigration fueled his election in 2016 and are a driving force in his reelection campaign now (spoiler alert — he’s against it), has overhauled American policy toward asylum, would-be immigrants must wait outside the country before their claims are filed, and then they must wait outside the country again until a decision on the claim is handed down. Most of those claims are going to be denied, statistics show, but until then the refugees wait outside the borders that separate them from their longed-for new lives.
Many of them end up in a Mexican border city, Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. They face a hard, dangerous life there as they wait; it’s not a particularly safe city to begin with, and an influx of people without many resources doesn’t make it safer. Many of them have gathered into encampments that they organize and run themselves; the Mexican government is providing them with some aid.
There is a huge need for help, and American nonprofit organizations are recognizing that need. They are working with donors and volunteers to provide food and some structure to the refugees — often families with young children — crammed into the camps.
Steven Sirbu, the rabbi of Temple Emeth in Teaneck, is on sabbatical now. Last week, he took a three-day trip to the border to help and to learn.
“The encampment has at least 1,000 people — the estimate is somewhere between 1,000 and 2,500,” and the fact that there is no more accurate count is telling,” Rabbi Sirbu said. “They’re living in a municipal park very close to the Rio Grande; it’s just a short walk over the border to the park to see the conditions there.”
Rabbi Sirbu went with four other New York-area Jews; a former intern, Rabbi Daniel Bar-Nahum of Temple B’nai Torah in Wantagh on Long Island; two of Rabbi Bar-Nahum’s congregants, and Marti Michael of Westchester County, who has had a long career as a Jewish administrator and now is devoting herself to immigration issues. “She’s been to the border at least once a month for a year,” Rabbi Sirbu said.
“Over the months, she got connected with a group called Team Brownsville, which has been volunteering and bringing food over the border to anyone in the encampment who wanted it.” That was how he first learned about Team Brownsville; it was under that group’s auspices that he and his four friends went to Matamoros.
Rabbi Sirbu reported on what he learned and saw there.
Team Brownsville works with the Mexican government, which “built a tent for serving food that holds around 250 people at a time.” It also installed some light. “There is no running water in the park, but water is trucked in every day, and I believe that the water also is paid for by the Mexican government,” Rabbi Sirbu said. “There are dozens and dozens of Porta Potties, that seem to be well maintained.
“Given the conditions, it is amazing to see how clean everybody looked,” he said.
Team Brownsville now works with Chef Jose Andres, a Spanish-born American celebrity chef who took his fame and used it to do good. Mr. Andres created an organization called World Central Kitchen, which provides food to people who need it, as a result of either natural or human-made disasters. It also works to help people learn to provide food for themselves.
Rabbi Sirbu and his group got to Brownsville on Sunday, February 16. They went to Matamoros three times, and each time they saw something different.
There are many children in the camp at Matamoros; children crave activity and structure, so Team Brownsville tries to provide some. It has created a school that for now meets on Sundays; “the team is working on creating a daily education program,” Rabbi Sirbu said, but for now it’s just the one day each week. “It included activities for different age groups, including some math, some language, some art, and some music; it’s all taught in Spanish.” There’s also a library tent.
Rabbi Sirbu’s group volunteered with the World Central Kitchen to prepare and then serve dinner.
“Creating one meal is a two-day process,” he said; about eight to 10 volunteers serve about 1,000 people. “There is a chef on site, at a church kitchen in Brownsville. She plans the menu and the food is ordered in bulk.
“On Monday, I was part of the prep shift. We peeled dozens and dozens of sweet potatoes and cut them. We peeled dozens and dozens of apples and diced them. And then the chef cooked it between Monday afternoon and Tuesday afternoon, and put it in huge vats. On Tuesday afternoon, we returned to the church, and put it into big catering trays. We filled 27 catering trays with hot food, and there were another 20 trays of salad.
“They also deliver hundreds of sandwiches every day, for lunch, and they leave everything behind.” So there are leftovers from both meals — but there are no refrigerators, and it is very hot on the border, even during the winter. It’s like manna — everything has to be eaten by morning.
Team Brownsville also brings simple food for breakfast, but volunteers do not serve it.
For dinner, “they bring enough volunteers to serve everything, and they usually also invite four children per shift to help out. Two children help with the hand sanitizer and distribution of water bottles, and the other two help with the distribution of fruit and forks and napkins.
“It is so good to see the smiles on the kids’ faces, because they know that they are contributing. Partly it’s because so much of the time they’re so bored, and partly it’s simply because they are contributing. It made their faces light up.”
Rabbi Sirbu also saw two respite shelters in Texas. “They’re for individuals who cross the border and whom ICE deems able to be released into the country. They just get dropped off somewhere.” The respite shelters give these immigrants just that — respite.
The first one he saw “was a former farm, now just a collection of buildings run by the Sisters of Providence. They have 20 or so beds, and they can take in people on a moment’s notice. They’re people who have no place to go, at least until they find out where their relatives are, and how to get a bus to go there. Then they leave,” usually after just a day, or maybe two.
That shelter is in the country, the second one is in McAllen, Texas, run by Catholic Charities. “It was a former department store; it’s day and night, those two shelters. One a former farm, one a former store, one in the country, one in town, but it’s a similar mission.”
Rabbi Sirbu and his companions also went to an immigration court in Harlingen, Texas, where they could see some juvenile court cases. The cases that took up most of the time that they spent in court involved two young men; both were juveniles but will turn 18 in the next few months, so their status will change. “We saw three judges, and all of them were sympathetic,” Rabbi Sirbu said. “Especially this one,” who knew that it would only become more difficult for these two young men, whether or not they eventually would be allowed to stay in the United States.
On his last day, Rabbi Sirbu separated from the group and met Rabbi Claudio Kogan, an Argentinian-born physician who worked, among other synagogues, at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick before he moved to McAllen, where now, Rabbi Sirbu said, “he is in the bioethics department of the University of Texas of the Rio Grande Valley.
“At the last minute, right before I arrived, he was asked to give the keynote speech at a naturalization ceremony,” he continued. “I went with him. It was wonderful. There were about 420 or so new citizens who were taking their oath of citizenship at the McAllen Convention Center.
“It was a very moving ceremony.”
The people being sworn in as Americans “came from many countries, but the overwhelming majority of them came from Mexico,” Rabbi Sirbu said. “The Central American countries also were well represented. And then there was one from China and one from Canada and one from Cyprus and one from Ukraine. The whole globe was well represented.
“They acknowledged the oldest and the youngest new citizen. The oldest was 85 and the youngest was 19.”
What Rabbi Sirbu saw at the naturalization ceremony and what he saw in Matamoros were entirely different. “Presumably the new citizens entered the country legally. You could tell that when the judge or Rabbi Kogan spoke about the long journey it took to get them to where they were then, they nodded.
“Rabbi Kogan’s own journey to citizenship took 15 years.”
After the ceremony, Rabbi Kogan took his friend Rabbi Sirbu to see another part of the complex immigration story. They went to the Rio Grande, where it tends to be very windy, and it was windy that day. Rabbi Kogan “saw a piece of muddy clothing on the ground, not far from the river, and he told me that it probably had been worn by someone who had crossed the river.” Once he was on the other side, Rabbi Sirbu said, the migrant, who would not have been in the United States legally, would have taken his top layers of clothing off and thrown them away, so that he no longer looked muddy, and so that his dishevelment would not have telegraphed his status.
Why did he go?
“I went because the issue of immigration and refugees has become very important to me since this crisis began, in 2013, when the Syrian refugee crises began,” Rabbi Sirbu said. Temple Emeth “is part of HIAS’s Welcome Campaign” — HIAS is the streamlined if cryptic new name of the onetime Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — “and that’s because the issue of refugees speaks so clearly to the Jewish heart.” He’s been deeply moved by photographs — first of the Syrian refugees, and now also by the people trying so desperately to get into the United States from Mexico. “I felt I needed to see with my own eyes, to get a sense of what these human beings are going through. To get a sense of the nuance.”
What did he learn from his trip?
From the camp in Matamoros, Rabbi Sirbu said, he learned that “we have to be more proactive.” The camps are there, people are filling them, “and we have to stop pretending that they are going to go away. That’s not a solution. Leaving them in the camp indefinitely is a moral catastrophe.”
It’s not that it’s an easy situation, he added. “It’s very easy to say that you are for closed borders — and a country can’t function if you have no control over who comes in — but it is much harder to say what you are for if you are not for closed borders.”
Still, no matter how much you understand that borders cannot be entirely open, “it is heartbreaking to see 1,000 people just waiting for their chance to come here,” Rabbi Sirbu said.