Our moral obligation to US migrants and asylum seekers

Our moral obligation to US migrants and asylum seekers
© Getty Images

Recently, I joined a group of Jewish clergy on a trip to El Paso and Juarez to see firsthand how U.S. immigration policy is affecting the individuals seeking entry to America and changing the border communities through which they pass.

What we saw was profoundly sobering. The predicament of those trapped at the Mexican border looks increasingly bleak as the federal government enacts more restrictive policies in the name of protecting Americans from the alleged invasion.

Our trip took us through the institutions that govern a harrowing entry process: overcrowded shelters for undocumented immigrants on both sides of the border, an ICE detention center in the New Mexico desert, and a federal courtroom where we watched a judge dispense convictions for illegal border crossing.

When people asked me why I was making this journey, my answer was simple: “Because I am a Jew.” My grandparents arrived in this country seeking a better life, in some cases fleeing pogroms and persecution, and the Torah’s command to care for the stranger summons me in a voice I dare not ignore. The Bible tells us that Jews are not permitted to stand by in the face of suffering and injustice.

But the crisis at our border is a non-denominational issue, and it should be non-partisan. Immigration reform is a moral challenge that concerns all of us who demand that people be treated with dignity—and we can all do our part to help by assisting in the provision of food, clothing, shelter, and legal counsel.

During the George W. Bush administration, we came close to a bipartisan agreement on an immigration policy that might have prevented our current crisis. Yet, since today we are nowhere near consensus, I wish to share a few observations from our trip that are now seared in my memory. Consider these images an appeal to our universal empathy for the pain of those suffering at our border.

First, at the Leona Vicario shelter in Juarez, Mexican authorities and international aid agencies care for hundreds of asylum seekers, bereft of resources, and fleeing gang violence under the government’s “Remain in Mexico” protocol. On that day, the shelter official shared that some 650 people sleep in the shelter’s 250 beds. They also shared that morale is sinking as word spreads that successful asylum claims are unlikely.

At Annunciation House, an El Paso shelter for undocumented immigrants ominously located next door to an ICE detention facility, a staff member explains a city is a dangerous place for undocumented people, and statistics confirm it is one of the worst places in America to make a successful case for asylum. The shelter is kept locked at all times, lest anyone threatens or harms the guests. ICE agents occasionally pick people up on the street outside.

In the desert of New Mexico, at the Otero County Processing Center—an ICE facility run by a for-profit company called MTC—detainees stared at us from behind locked doors or soundproof glass or silently made way for us when we walked by them in a hallway.

Otero is called a “processing facility,” but it is a prison—where 87 percent of detainees had no criminal history besides crossing the border illegally, according to the warden. She tells us she is judged by how efficiently she can house those under her care, and the numbers bear this out: she spends three dollars per prisoner each day on food.

One final image: We sit in a federal courtroom as four defendants are sentenced for illegally crossing the border. All are convicted for a misdemeanor offense, and we learn these men will not be guaranteed legal representation during the civil immigration process, which ultimately decides whether they will be allowed to stay in this country.

I had not understood that until recently, the El Paso-Juarez border was crossed easily on both sides. Even today, tens of thousands of people walk back and forth every day, and stores lining the El Paso side are full of shoppers from Juarez — a fact not lost on the gunman who shot 22 dead in a Walmart this summer.

Sadly, it is not hard to see how recent policy changes and tightened border controls have done severe damage to this unique civic pattern, of which El Paso’s residents, Republican and Democrat, have long been proud.

Our country must do better, and I am not without hope — even as the Supreme Court considers ending the DACA program — that we will yet find our way to a compassionate solution, freeing those confined at our southern border and providing a path for the hundreds of thousands already in America to remain in their adopted home.

Arnold Eisen is the seventh chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.