Throughout our Torah, we are told to welcome, love, and protect the sojourner, for all too often society preys on them and their vulnerability. In fact, our responsibility and obligation toward the migrant is mentioned more times in the Torah than any other commandment.
I just returned from three days at the U.S.-Mexico border on a clergy mission organized by HIAS and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. We went to the border to bear witness and better understand the situation so that we can fulfill the divine command to love immigrants rather than demonize them.
Part one: Discriminatory policies
Our trip began in Juárez, Mexico, to see the effects of Migration Protection Protocols (MPP), a 2019 administration policy where migrants are forced to wait in Mexico for their U.S. asylum hearings. This program, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” has created tent cities along the border where asylum seekers from South and Central America live. They left all that they knew because they feared for their own lives. And we slammed the door in their faces. The most vulnerable among us, poor, hungry, and fearful for their safety, were left to fend for themselves in a country that is not their own. Emma Lazarus’ words on the Statue of Liberty proclaim, “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
The physical and emotional exhaustion was evident on the migrants’ faces. They are dependent for food on charity and programs from the Mexican government because our government has ignored them. All they want is to breathe free.
Instead, they are given a number and told to wait in line (often for many months) until their number is called. We are treating refugees and asylum seekers like customers at a deli counter. Without a home to wait in, they seek refuge in these tents. And even when they declare asylum, the policies of MPP send them back to Mexico. Deuteronomy 15:7 teaches that “as long as there are those in need among you, do not close your heart or your hand to them.” But our country has done that and more.
We visited the few asylum seekers who were given access to the limited number of shelters set up by the Mexican government. At least they had a bed to sleep on at night, even if there were only 250 twin cots for over 650 individuals at the shelter we visited.
The migrants didn’t understand why they weren’t allowed entry to the U.S. This group of American rabbis easily crossed the Paso Del Norte bridge and border crossing. They were in awe of our privilege, granted to us by luck and by virtue of where we were born. And we were in tears because, as Americans, we felt responsible for their treatment, and for their despair.
We saw the result of the U.S. government’s discriminatory policies. Children ran around the modified warehouse that was turned into a shelter. In one area there was a makeshift school taught by volunteers, in another they’d play with the few donated soccer balls. But the parents sat in silence. We stared into their eyes looking for a glimmer of hope, but they were broken and defeated.
Part two: Discriminatory treatment
Next, we visited the Otero County Processing Center, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in New Mexico. Located in the desert, surrounded only by sand and mountains, few know what goes on in this facility. Cameras aren’t allowed and special permission is needed to tour the place. We were granted access as a humanitarian group of clergy, but our access was severely limited.
This detention facility had been in the news because detainees had gone on hunger strikes. Time and again, the consequence for speaking up about their mistreatment was solitary confinement, which international law experts have classified as torture. And yet, we saw the long narrow hallway of small dark rooms without any outside light. We heard one detainee banging on the door, calling out to us. The warden quickly closed the shade, covering the small slit of a window, so that we couldn’t see in. One detainee was in solitary confinement for 30 days.
The ICE representative who gave us the tour of the facility suggested that many detainees prefer it because they live independently. We were shocked and dismayed. These detainees are awaiting their respective appearances in immigration court, but they are treated like criminals.
There was no difference between this facility and a prison. Detainees cannot walk freely around the facility and they have limited time outdoors. Guards check on them every 15 minutes to ensure they are where they are supposed to be, and while they are paid pennies for the work that they do in the prison, it takes days for them to collect enough money to make a short phone call home.
As we exited the facility, a pro-bono lawyer explained that at least in a prison, prisoners have certain rights. These detainees’ rights are ignored; we saw their brokenness. We prayed for these sacred souls, and for those who work there to see them as sacred souls as well.
Part three: Discriminatory violence
Our trip concluded with a visit to the Walmart in El Paso, Texas. After experiencing so much brokenness, we sat among the shattered pieces. This Walmart was the site of an Aug. 3 mass shooting that killed 22 and severely injured 26. The store is closed but a makeshift memorial was set up in the parking lot, with 22 crosses for the innocents murdered.
This was more than just a mass shooting or terror attack; it was a violent act of discrimination and hate, an attack on the Hispanic and immigrant communities. The white supremacist perpetrator of this massacre drove to El Paso because of its high percentage of Latinx residents. We heard a story from a survivor about a group of women in the frozen foods section who heard gunshots and got down on their knees and began to pray. The shooter heard that they were praying in Spanish and shot all of them.
Our country’s immigration policies tell migrants at the border that they are less than. The treatment of detainees in ICE custody tells them that they are less than. And this shooter drove hours to this Walmart because he, too, believed they were less than.
Our immigration policies are broken, but so is the soul of our country. We have forgotten that we must love, welcome, and protect the sojourners. We have forgotten that all human beings are made in God’s image and no human being is illegal. We have forgotten that if we are made in God’s image, then how we treat each other is a reflection of how we treat God. And our immigration policies are a desecration of God.
We ended our trip as rabbis do: with prayer. We gathered at a scenic overlook early in the morning, covered in tallitot and wrapped in tefillin, as rays of light peeked through the clouds and radiated throughout the land. Looking down, we could not see where the border was, where America ended and Mexico began. We just saw humanity, in action, striving to live their lives. That is all any of us want for ourselves. Why can’t others have the same?
If we do not protect the stranger, if we do not stop the avenues of oppression toward the migrant, then Torah becomes meaningless to us. We left the border with a better understanding of the discrimination that takes place, and with a promise to uphold the holy words of our Torah. Let us all uphold the Torah, and uphold these holy souls just yearning to breathe free, and repair our broken souls and broken immigration policies.
Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El in South Orange.