Understanding human dimension of border crisis essential for real policy change

Understanding human dimension of border crisis essential for real policy change
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Last month, a delegation made up of 17 Jewish organizations, led by the Anti-Defamation League and HIAS, went to the border with Mexico to bear witness to our nation’s immigration crisis. The idea for this mission originated months earlier when the Trump Administration began enforcing the practice of separating children and their families. We realized that leaders in the Jewish community needed to see the issue for themselves, and bring these learnings back to our communities with a real sense of urgency for a more humanized and less politicized serious discussion about our border policies and their impact on families and communities.

Many of us had never been to the border before; it was hard not to be moved. We learned just how much the U.S. has criminalized immigration. How cruel our policies are at the core. And how our immigration system – imperfect laws that have been on the books for decades – can be used as a political wedge to reinforce systemic racism and xenophobia in our communities.


That is why, after bearing witness to the tragic conditions in our border communities – a deeply honored practice in the Jewish tradition — this trip reaffirmed our drive to make a difference for our local communities and our nation’s policies.

What did we see? We met with courageous professionals and volunteers seeking to ease the pain of the broken process. We observed court proceedings and visited detention centers in San Diego. And we travelled across the border to Tijuana, where we met with faith leaders tending women, children, and men fleeing violence and despair who have been displaced, turned back, or are waiting for their chance to enter the United States to find safety and hope.

We learned that those fleeing violence and persecution who cross the border legally at a port of entry, present themselves to officials and ask for asylum are now automatically detained, often for many months, in prison conditions. And asylum seekers and other detainees are not guaranteed legal representation, leading many to make misinformed choices that can result in deportation when they might have grounds to stay in this country. 

What did we bring back with us from this experience? Until Americans understand the very human dimension of our immigration, refugee, and asylum crisis, we will not find the political will to fix it with true policy changes. We have no doubt that addressing the symptoms is important but we need systemic reforms to take on the root causes and create long-term change that we clearly need. Indeed, while there is a clear need for more lawyers to assist those seeking asylum and more resources for shelters like those we visited, we need a legislative and administrative fix to ensure that there are better policies introduced as soon as possible.  

People seeking refuge and asylum at our border have been continuously dehumanized though xenophobic attacks. This Administration and all Americans need to realize that the people impacted are mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. Their stories are powerful and could be persuasive if we are allowed to hear them. And yet, we also need to remove the toxin of politics because it has poisoned the debate.

There should be a more decent and humane way to treat the people and tackle the issue. We, as the brothers and sisters and sons and daughters and grandchildren and colleagues of a people who were turned away from country after country for millennia and have now found haven, safety, and hope in the promise of America, have a moral obligation to consistently speak up and seek the changes in a system that is creating very real victims and undermining the values on which this country was built. Again. After seeing this modern day crisis up close, the urgency of the matter is clearer than ever.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Mark Hetfield is President and CEO of HIAS.