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A Report From San Diego

By Rabbi Joey

I was one of twenty-five T’ruah rabbis who showed up in San Diego, to protest the cruel immigration policies of the Trump Administration this past Monday. What brought us together with other faith groups and people across the age spectrum?

Well, I can attest to the fact that my colleagues registered something that was sufficiently heinous to bring them to this farthest corner of our country, when it might have been easier to be at the beach or away from the city on a hot afternoon. In the streets of downtown San Diego, the rallying cry was Abolish ICE. For each of us, the criminalizing of refugees and Jeff Sessions’ Zero Tolerance policy stood out as anathema to Jewish values – it vexes our souls.

For all who participated in that march, a broad ethnic and racial coalition, we know the power of the people. We have come to recognize that white privilege can inure those of us who have it to the very real violence being perpetrated by our government, in the name of protecting the few who benefit the most from it. In this sense, the separation of families is the reprehensive tip of the iceberg – and Jews know something about this path of delegitimizing people of color and those whose religious teachings or gender identities may diverge from what is labeled mainstream.

And yet, with everything we know about how insidious Donald Trump’s administration is, we still risk coming unglued within the progressive flank of Democratic politics. (Let’s be real about this – there’s no more Republican party, after all.) There are many, if not most, who will continue to advise that unless we stay “moderate,” our most outspoken leaders-in-the-making won’t be electable. Nevertheless, speaking for the 25 rabbis, I can say that each of us bore witness to the need for a thoroughgoing shift in laying out an honest, future-oriented political agenda.

Why are we calling for the abolishment of ICE?

Like all abolition movements, people are reluctant at first to go against the grain of so-called lawful institutions. (It’s “legal,” so that must make it “right," we hear a lot.) There’s a great deal at stake – public forbearance of an extremist regime, corporate dollars, media hype and fear-mongering around the issue of immigration. But as Jews, we have experienced the manipulative rhetoric of exclusion before, and we were its victims during World War II, and we should know that it’s only the first step in a series of greater encroachments on rights. What’s more, America has once again, as it has in the past, slowed the influx of immigrants to a trickle and the government is still making plans to build its walls and to weaponize its border enforcement. You may also not realize that ICE was founded only fifteen years ago, in the wake of 9/11 – and given its mission to hunt and detain migrants and refugees under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security. Before that point, it was INS (the Immigration and Naturalization Service) that oversaw an orderly process for gaining admittance to American society or temporary work status.

The flow back-and-forth across our border with Mexico reflected the cultural and economic benefits to both societies – one I can recall from living in south Texas in the mid-1980s. Los dos Laredos, for example (Tucson/Nogales; El Paso/Juarez are others), were neighborly regions of cooperation. If not perfectly harmonized, it was impossible to miss the rich exchange of music, cuisine, dollars and pesos – and members of the family who came and went.

We often fail to understand that people who migrate generally leave and they return. A border is a fluid emotional construct and less the permanent structure we envision when we live miles away from it. For example, there used to be hundreds of miles of safe passages across the border and only specific formal entrance points. Those entrance points were authorized gates of admission set up for customs purposes and, notably, for people fleeing dangerous conditions at home – asylum seekers. For all the rest who traveled back and forth, they didn’t risk harsh desert conditions, the unavailability of water, or a proliferation of armed forces arrayed against them. Their navigating the border was a routine and well-acknowledged traverse. It cost less – in pesos and bodily harm.

This business of state terror, which is relatively new, leads to perverse circumstances we should be familiar with. It goes hand in hand with Trump’s enabling of white supremacists at Charlottesville, the marginalizing of LGBTQ kids in schools, and the erosion of reproductive rights for women.

More importantly, let’s talk about the human face of the victims of a weaponized border. On Tuesday, we joined HIAS (If you don’t know about the venerable Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, founded in 1881, google it!) for a trip into Tijuana to see a women’s shelter and a men’s shelter run by Casa del Migrante, where there are long lines of people.

Who are the people that we saw? Why did they look depressed and exhausted?

I can tell you that we refrained from photographing them or, for those of us who spoke some Spanish, asking them about their journeys. This is because, as the directors of the shelters explained to us, they have suffered unbelievable traumas. Either they are mothers and fathers who have been separated from their children in the United States and deported, or they are asylum seekers who have been given to believe that they must wait weeks and months to apply for immigration. These latter ones, for the most part, come from Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras, where they have already seen their own family members killed and tortured, and they have made the decision to flee.

We lowered our faces, rather than look directly into their eyes – there was something onerous and humiliating about acknowledging the fact that our own country not only dismisses their plight but augments it. We heard the stories of women who were fortunate enough to use computer connections at the shelter to see their toddlers’ confused faces on the other end – they were somewhere in the US, uncomprehending the separation. We heard about psychological breakdowns and suicides. We registered that for many – men and women – they prefer to remain close to the border, believing that despite all the odds stacked against them, at least they will preserve a symbolic emotional connection with their loved ones. They cannot even imagine the layers of bureaucracy that await them – and will be exploited to throw them out.

If we come to grips with our government’s harsh approach to the issue, we realize that what was once the limited enforcement arm at specific border points now acts with impunity throughout our country, within our communities. If they once wore uniforms and operated within only one hundred miles of the border, they now circulate below the radar everywhere: they show up in unmarked cars and in plain clothes.

What’s also difficult to swallow is the forsaking of treaties the US has in the past obligated itself to maintain. There’s the 1951 Refugee Convention that recognized people fleeing danger in all places in the world as being eligible for asylum. This declared them as being neutral, in terms of the ephemeral political struggles that cast certain groups as insiders and others as potential stigmatized outsiders. And there is the Refugee Act of 1980, signed by Jimmy Carter, which lent upward flexibility to the numbers of refugees allowed to come into our country. It recognized the global emergencies that drive people to look elsewhere for survival. It also established the definition of a refugee as someone experiencing “the well-founded fear of persecution.”

This meant that it became American law, in fact, to guard against second-guessing the motives of people making risky journeys, packing up their young children. It allowed for a formal process for vetting them and gradually granting them a pathway to becoming part of the fabric of our immigrant nation. It afforded compassion and solace for people forced to leave their homelands.

Instead, today we have the Jeff Sessions’ led approach. Operation Streamline is institutionalizing mass prosecutions, criminalizing immigration. A burgeoning detention industry is diverting funds away from resettlement and naturalization to incarceration, and a thriving border culture is summarily undermined. Human beings across our country are experiencing fear at the hands of ICE, a virtual police state type of oppression.

What I have seen is disturbing at its core. It’s reminiscent of the lead-up in Nazi Germany to the Holocaust. As rabbis, each of us recognized what the willful abnegation of laws intended to protect racial groups and vulnerable members of the society does to the rest of us. It divides us from one another; it dispossesses many. Even within the daily pummeling of the news cycle, it’s a subtle business, because it’s so easy for those of us who stand outside the horror to be compliant about it. We insist on counseling moderation. The abolitionist’s slogan is unworkable, we worry.

I recommend a novel I read recently by Walter Kempowski, All for Nothing – it was translated not so long ago. Written twelve years ago, it’s an extraordinary German work of fiction set in Hitler’s final days. The account raises questions for us about the mundane acceptance of fascism – of covering it and pretending that nothing egregious touched the mainstream of that society beyond the gritty inconveniences and momentary perils of the war. In Kempowski’s telling, the occasional blips on the screen of ragtag emaciated groups of prisoners marched off to labor camps hardly interfered with everyone else’s moderate intolerance for a zealously patriotic regime.

I am also thinking this Fourth of July about this week’s Torah portion, and Moses’ ascent to a mountaintop. It is there that he takes in a glimpse of the land he won’t be allowed to enter. What stands out in this passage is the different name given to this special place – Har ha-Avarim. The midrash imagines that a good translation would be the Mount of Crossings. It is here that the people will enter the land ... but not Moses. There is sadness in this, some part of us that remains outside. It stabs at us, who know better what this says about our society – in the moment when it consolidates its power elites. The memory of the journey to this point is all but erased.

It will be the highest priority to resist this travesty – to stand up with other American citizens and as Jews. We should know what it means to be on the run. We also know what it means to be hopeful and empathetic with the stranger’s plight. We were immigrants ourselves not so long ago, and we have our families’ stories of travail. This is the moment for us to abolish ICE and what it represents – to come alive and to resist. We can help others make the crossing.

Sun, February 17 2019 12 Adar I 5779