The two local rabbis who went to the border between the United States and Mexico last month, on a trip organized by HIAS and T’ruah, reported a similar motivation.
They’d both read and heard a great deal about what was going on there, but they wanted to see it for themselves.
So Jennifer Schlosberg, the Conservative rabbi who leads the Glen Rock Jewish Center, and Leah Sternberg, assistant rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, the Reform synagogue in Short Hills, went on the intense three-day trip to Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico to put faces to the abstraction that is immigration policy.
“As a congregation, we are preparing to host a refugee family from Ukraine, and I’m organizing it,” Rabbi Sternberg said. “If we are to host a refugee family, I have to know about the wider issues of refugees and asylum seekers in our country.”
As much as she expected from the trip, she found that she got more. “It was one of the most important experiences I’ve had as a rabbi,” she said. “And more than that, as an American. It gave me the chance to understand one of the most important, most complicated issues in our country.”
That’s true not only in terms of the policy decisions the issue of immigration demands, but also of the emotional climate it creates, she continued. “In terms of the divisiveness, the lack of the ability for us to speak to each other on important issues,” questions around immigration evoke anger rather than an urge toward understanding and compromise.
The trip took 15 rabbis from around the country and across the Jewish streams, from the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist worlds. (HIAS originally was the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and T’ruah represents the Rabbinical Call for Human Rights. Both organizations are global in reach.)
The group focused mainly on migrants seeking asylum in the United States. “Much of what we learned about was who they are, and the backgrounds they come from,” she said. “We heard a lot of stories about why they are coming and what they are going through. The thing that struck me most was the idea of compassion and dignity. Those are the two words that most come to mind when I reflect on what I saw and what is needed in this conversation about asylum seekers and refugees.
“I saw that no one chooses to make this difficult, dangerous trip to seek asylum at the border lightly. They are faced with trafficking and kidnapping and violence and rape. No one would choose that if they had any other options. But there are no other options, so they say, ‘I will do it.’
“There is no other way forward.”
So people forced to leave their countries — and people from all over the world end up at our southern border, Rabbi Sternberg said — “cross the border to a place that they have been told is a place of safety, and the system meets them without dignity or compassion. That is what is so heartbreaking about it.”
The so-called Stay in Mexico policy, which the Trump administration instituted in 2019 and as the adapted-to-covid Title 42 still is in place, demands that would-be immigrants seeking asylum in the United States remain in Mexico until their cases can make their way through the system. It’s complicated, and a recent Supreme Court decision has found that the Biden administration cannot yet lift the parts of it that it had tried to end. The legal situation is complex, but the result is more straightforward. Many asylum seekers trying to enter the United States through border stations along the Mexican border are forced to remain in Mexico.
As Rabbi Sternberg put it, “We have the potential to change this. The immigration system has to do so much work that we are always going to be advocating for changes to make it run better. I believe that an attainable goal is for our systems to reflect that sense of humanity that we all need, and to treat people with dignity and compassion.
“That human aspect is so often missed when it is mixed up with politics. But we are Jews, and rabbis, and we were seeing it through that lens. We were able to see that these are humans. Faith gives you the ability to see that, and to put it at the forefront.
“That doesn’t negate the politics, but when you layer the two of them” — humanity and politics — “you are able to see the political scenario in a different light.”
That light, at least for Jews, is “the understanding that we are made in the image of God,” Rabbi Sternberg continued. “That has to be at the forefront of this situation. We are talking about individual human souls and stories. When we are able to hold onto those souls and stories in one hand, and the politics in the other, we would have the ability to allow them to work together in a way that might help make our system a little more whole.
“How can you make a policy if you don’t know the experiences that humans have been through?”
The trip was a way to change abstractions into human beings, Rabbi Sternberg said.
She heard many stories. “One that stuck with me — it killed me — was that when people took their daughters with them, or sent them on alone” — something parents do only when the alternative, keeping them at home, is even worse — “they made sure that they had birth control shots.”
Why? “Because they were sure they’d be raped along the way.
“I didn’t know what to do with that,” she said. “When you are hearing a story about a 6-year-old whose parents were deported, but who was kept in a facility for unaccompanied minors, and she was by herself in court, and a lawyer said do her, ‘Do you understand why you are here?’ And she was 6. Of course she didn’t understand.”
Rabbi Sternberg went on the trip knowing that she’d learn far more, and learn it far more viscerally, than she could have had she just stayed home and read about immigration. “But the idea that these are real people who are affected by this issue was made so much more real for me,” she said.
“We walked across the border from Juarez to El Paso” — from Mexico to Texas, on a bridge over the Rio Grande — “and we saw how easy it was for us to get across that border. In a place where so many strive to get to, where they took such a perilous journey to reach, it was so easy for me.
“My privilege came out, in such powerful ways, there. That was an important humanizing piece. What does this mean for me? What does it mean for all those who are seeking a life here, in this country?
Rabbi Schlosberg went on the trip “because immigration policy has been very important to me,” she said. “In 2020, I protested outside the Bergen County jail.” The county then housed immigrants; it held a contract with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to hold them, and frequently was accused of maltreating them. (The county ended the contract in 2021.)
“I knew a little bit then about what was going on, but I wanted to know more. I wanted a deep dive into the issue. I wanted to see for myself, in person, what is happening. I wanted to go to a shelter and look into the eyes of a person who has gone through these atrocities.
“There is so much focus in the media on the issues, the policies, the procedures, but I wanted to experience it for myself.”
When people trying to immigrate into the United States are put into jails to await the resolution of their cases, they are being treated as prisoners, she said. She had seen that, at least from the outside, in Bergen County. Now, she wanted to see it at the border.
One of the things she learned, Rabbi Schlosberg said, is that immigrants were treated very differently in different facilities.
After a half-day information session, the group toured the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, New Mexico. “Of course, we knew what they were trying to show us,” Rabbi Schlosberg said; the group was given the message that everything in the center was just fine.
That’s not what she saw.
“It’s an ICE detention center; its day-to-day operations are run by a private company, whose slogan is ‘Believe It Or Not, I Care,’” she reported. “That slogan was posted on signs all over the detention center.
“That’s what I felt they were telling us on the tour. They obviously knew who they were, and they were trying to sell it as a place that treats people with dignity and respect.
“But there were no doors on the toilet stalls, and they didn’t even face the wall. The showers were open head, gym style. There was no dignity. No privacy.
“When they get there, all their possessions are taken and put in a locked area, and they’re given uniforms. They look like prison uniforms.
“The company tried to sell us on how they give the people there a lot of screen time to talk to their families and friends and to research their cases and talk to their lawyers.
“They said, ‘We give them 50 hours of screen time.’
“So I raised my hand, and I asked, ‘Over how much time?’ And they said, ‘Over the course of the month.’
“So do that math. It’s not very much time.
“When we were back on the bus, the lawyer from HIAS, an immigration attorney who was staffing the trip, told us that what they don’t tell you is that all the screen time is subject to monitoring. To surveillance. So any video call that you make to anybody is recorded.
“That was a perfect example of how people are treated in that system.
“Often husbands and wives are in the same facilities, but not together. They’re hallways apart from each other, and they’re only able to visit each other one hour a week, on a Friday afternoon.”
Next, the group went to see a shelter. “I think that who gets put where is partly the luck of the draw,” Rabbi Schlosberg said. But “being placed in the shelter as opposed to the detention center was like a dream. The people there were treated with dignity and respect by the volunteers who work there. The volunteers have taken their most valuable resource — time — and use it to live in the shelter and support the asylees.
“The shelter we visited was the Annunciation House in El Paso.” As its name suggests, it’s run by a Catholic group. “The woman who gave us a tour was a recent college grad from Boston who was giving a year of her life to do that work.”
Like Rabbi Sternberg, Rabbi Schlosberg was deeply troubled by the group’s visit to Mexico. “We went by bus, and didn’t even have to show our passports,” she said. “They just scanned our bags. Then we went to the HIAS office, where they shared with us a lot of what they do in Ciudad Juarez. Then they escorted us to a shelter on the Ciudad Juarez side.
“Unlike the detention center, everyone there was responsible for something,” she said. “It was a community of people” — a temporary community, to be sure; the average stay was just a few days — “who worked together to live there. Families were assigned to meal duty or clean-up duty. It was families — mostly women and children — and the children were hanging out together.
“Then we crossed the bridge from Mexico to Texas by foot. That’s where I lost it emotionally.
“The rule is that once they step foot on American soil, they have a right to seek asylum, so there was a border patrol standing on the Mexican side of the bridge — that was American border patrol — to prevent them from doing it.
“What did it take me to cross the bridge? Thirty-five cents and an American passport. I understand that I come with the privilege of being a white person. I do not look like an asylee. I know that I come with this privilege, and it was with this privilege that I walked across the bridge.
“Beneath me as I crossed — this is giving me chills right now — it was almost voyeuristic, I was on a bridge, and I saw migrants crossing the river and stepping foot on American soil.
“It was very powerful. I was privileged. Even literally, I was above them, just kind of peeking in and seeing their world. Seeing real life.”
She was able to do something about it — something small but absolutely real and important. “I woke up one morning in the hotel to the news of shelters being overwhelmed.” It was a very cold day. “The temperature dipped to freezing, and I was in my comfy, warm room waking to the news of people being on the streets in the freezing cold.” She also heard a plea to donate to local shelters. “So I googled; the shelter was only half a mile away. I immediately did a collection and posted it on social media. I spoke to my colleagues and they posted it too. In total, we collected about $4,000; we collected about half of it during the trip.
“So four of us went to the local Walmart in El Paso.” That was the store where a white supremacist terrorist murdered 23 people and wounded another 23 in 2019. “We bought lots of winter clothing. By nighttime, we had all this stuff collected, and we got it to the shelter by 10 that night.
“It spurred one of my colleagues not only to collect a large amount of money but also to get people to knit hats to send to the border.
“It was a way of actually doing something. And the tikkun of doing it at that Walmart was powerful.”
Overall, Rabbi Schlosberg said, the experience of being at the border “was giving a face to people who are being treated like numbers. Our people understand this.”