On Sukkot, we are commanded to live in temporary booths for seven days to remind us of the time when our wandering ancestors had to dwell in similar structures following the exodus from Egypt. As Jewish communities around the world build and congregate in sukkot this week to remember our ancestors’ journeys, it is also a fitting time to consider the plight of immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees today.
I had the privilege of participating in a recent trip to the Arizona-Mexico border to examine U.S. policies and witness conditions facing migrants and asylum seekers firsthand. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) led a delegation of Jewish community leaders on a fact-finding trip so that participants could better understand the situation at the border in order to more effectively advocate for sound immigration policies. I participated so that I could bear witness and become a better advocate on behalf of the Network’s member agencies, many of whose clients and staff are affected by U.S. immigration policy.
After three days of intense experiences and learning together with 22 amazing, committed Jewish community leaders from around the country, I observed that the humanitarian crisis at the border cannot be understated, and that it is extraordinarily complex. Years of multilayered policies at home and abroad coupled with push and pull factors from other countries like violence, economic devastation, and climate change have led to this current situation.
This crisis will not be easily resolved, but I was uplifted by the volunteers and advocates I met during the trip that have committed their lives to helping support migrants throughout their treacherous, exhausting, and often hopeless journeys.
Our itinerary included:
• A visit to the to the Mexican Consulate in Nogales, Arizona to learn about the demographics of Mexican immigrants in the U.S., the impact of U.S. immigration policy, and the consular system’s role in migration matters.
• A walk along the Arizona-Mexico border fence accompanied by a border militarization expert where we learned that the original fence was erected in 1994 during the Clinton administration, though more and more resources have been allocated to a stronger and more militarized border in the years since;
• Tours of shelters for asylum seekers on both sides of the border where we met migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, and Venezuela fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries and learned about the administration’s policies that force them to wait months in Mexico before being processed;
• A meeting with U.S. Border Patrol agents with whom we discussed current policies, processes, and challenges;
• Observation of an Operation Streamline hearing, a federal program that fast-tracks the criminal prosecution and deportation of migrants caught between Ports of Entry where we observed over 60 men and women processed and deported in less than 45 minutes; and
• A discussion with representatives from the local Jewish community who are coordinating a humanitarian response including the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Tucson, and Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix.
I was heartbroken to meet migrants fleeing violence in their home countries who traveled weeks over dangerous terrain and waited for months in Mexico in crowded shelters awaiting the opportunity to seek asylum in the U.S. Once in the U.S., these migrants will enter a nearly yearlong legal process to establish their case for asylum. With a two percent acceptance rate, these migrants will likely be denied asylum and be sent back to the dangerous lands from which they fled.
But I was given hope by the Hepac Hogar de Esperanza migrant shelter in Nogales, Mexico, where migrant families can wait in safety before beginning the asylum process in the U.S. On the day we visited, 1,024 people were waiting in Nogales to enter the U.S., with 130 more people deported from the U.S. arriving every day. There I met an engineering student fleeing Venezuela for fear of political persecution in his home state just because he attended university, who implored us to tell our fellow Americans that, “We are decent people and we are not coming to hurt anyone.”
I was inspired by the volunteers at Casa Alitas shelter in Tucson who strive to return the dignity that has been systematically taken away from these human beings by giving them toothbrushes, underwear, medical care, and a safe place to sleep before embarking upon their next journeys to locations across the country as they await asylum proceedings. Casa Alitas is run by Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona with generous support from the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.
When we arrived at Casa Alitas a group of 30 migrants had just arrived – men, women, and children who had moments before been released from detention after crossing the border. They had travelled so far and looked so weary, and yet had so much farther to go on their journeys – literally and figuratively, as asylum seekers their cases transferred to other cities around the country if they have a local sponsor. Perhaps some of the individuals I met will end up in your community as they await their asylum proceedings.
Of the migrants we encountered, our local guide reminded us, “We have to see them as ourselves and ourselves as them.” As Jewish human service agencies, we are uniquely positioned to treat the strangers in our midst with compassion and provide direct services to immigrants in need. We must also continue to advocate for sound, bipartisan immigration policies to ameliorate the crisis at the border and ensure that America remain a safe haven to those fleeing violence and persecution.
The unraveling of years of restrictive, complex, and inhumane U.S. immigration policy will take time, but in the meantime and as we remember our ancestors’ journeys, we can make a difference in the lives of those that we touch daily.
Darcy L. Hirsh
Washington Representative, Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies