The children kept hugging us. They just wanted hugs. They wanted to be seen, to be loved, to feel safe. It’s odd — we teach our children to not talk to strangers, and yet when we entered the Shelter de Leona Vicario they ran to us, grabbed our hands, and wanted to play. My Spanish is limited and their English was non-existent, but they kept telling us their names and ages, and giggling as we made silly faces at each other. I couldn’t help but get emotional as I saw them and thought of my children. Their ages were the same, and they skipped around with their Spiderman shirts, cat ear headbands, and Princess Elsa sweatshirts.
I returned on November 6 from a rabbinic mission to the US-Mexico Border, organized by the Jewish Immigrant Rights organization HIAS and the Rabbinic Human Rights organization T’ruah. In our group were 17 rabbis from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Michigan, California, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Washington D.C., and the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary. We went to bear witness to the atrocities and human rights violations happening at our border due to our country’s policies. We went to give hope to the hopeless, to return to our communities with a divinely inspired call to action. We went because of the fierce urgency of now.
The Trump Administration’s so-called Migrant Protections Protocol, otherwise known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, put in place this year, sends asylum seekers who come to a port of entry at the southern border of the United States and declare asylum back to Mexico as they await their many appearances in immigration court. While DHS may try to justify this policy as legal, it is grossly immoral. The six port of entries in California and Texas that enacted MPP have sent more than 50,000 asylum seekers back to Mexico as of October. These asylum seekers left their homes in Central and South America, fearing for their lives, seeking the safety and security of a nation whose Statue of Liberty asks to be given “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.” And when they finally approached the border, they are sent back to Mexico, to a country they do not know, to a place that they do not call home. And while the administration has dubbed this program “Remain in Mexico,” immigration advocates refer to it as “Remain in Fear” because that is the end result, more fear and uncertainty for these immigrants.
We saw tent cities throughout Cuidad Juárez, El Paso’s binational sister city. These makeshift camps are set up because metering and MPP have left tens of thousands who made it through hell to get to this border, to seek asylum, in an unethical limbo. And we have said they are someone else’s problem. We have promised that we will get to them eventually, but with backlogging, they have essentially been forgotten.
The “lucky” ones are able to be in shelters like the Shelter de Leona Vicario that I visited in Ciudad Juárez, where the Mexican government is paying to shelter these asylum seekers that our country have ignored and turned our backs on. As I saw these children in this shelter, I teared up. I thought about what I would do to protect my children if we were in a similar situation. Like a rolling of the dice, my children are able to go to school, to the park, to participate in Girl Scouts, to take Tae Kwan Do lessons, while these children — for their own safety — are in a shelter in Mexico, after they and their families left their homes because they feared their own safety, anxiously awaiting their asylum cases to be heard. The facility houses 650 asylum seekers (more than 40 percent of whom are minors) but only has 250 beds. These children share twin beds and desperately try to have fun with the limited donated soccer balls inside the converted warehouse. Volunteers attempt to teach them in a makeshift school at one end of the warehouse; they acknowledge that they will be in this shelter for months if not years, and do not want to stunt their educational growth.
Some of their parents shared stories about how gang members in Central America kidnapped them, and even though they managed to escape, their children deal with anxiety daily and cry themselves to sleep at night — even as they fall asleep in the arms of their parents. They worry that gang members know where they are, and so they remain inside the warehouse, except for the handful of times that they make their way back unto the pedestrian bridge to the Customs and Border Patrol for their immigration court appearance, only to have their process delayed further. This is what our country has done: We have essentially closed our borders to those who seek refuge. We have abandoned these families, and forgotten these children.
I think about my own children. I think about these children. And I cry, for they are all God’s children. Our responsibility is to protect children, to protect those who cannot protect themselves. Our job is not only to protect our own children, but all of God’s children. So I saw these children, giggled with them, hugged them tight, and cried, because we as a society have failed to protect them, and we as a nation have turned our backs on them.
Rabbi Jesse Olitzky leads Congregation Beth El in South Orange, NJ.