Abby Porth stood in the southern Texas heat outside an imposing rust-red structure that once housed a Walmart superstore.
There was no Walmart greeter welcoming her.
Today that 250,000-square-foot facility in Brownsville, Texas — known as Casa Padre — houses 1,500 boys, ages 10 to 17.
They are among more than 11,000 children now in 100 detention centers across the country, including so-called “tender age” shelters for babies and toddlers. More than 2,400 children have been separated from their parents since May, when President Donald Trump and his Justice Department instituted a “zero-tolerance” policy for undocumented immigrants crossing the border.
That policy mandates prosecution and detention in all cases, including for asylum-seekers, many of whom are fleeing violence in Central America (even though Customs and Border Protection officials admitted last week that the agency cannot feasibly detain all violators).
The policy, which has sparked outrage across the country, proved intolerable to Porth, the executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. So she went down to Texas last weekend with a small group from the Bay Area to see the detention centers in Brownsville and nearby McAllen, just a few miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Our history has taught us to be deeply concerned about the scapegoating of immigrants for our nation’s problems,” Porth said. “Our history has shown us the difference between rational and compassionate immigration policies that welcome refugees, and those that don’t.”
Porth traveled with three of her JCRC colleagues and several parents from the Brandeis School in San Francisco, all to protest what they see as a gross violation of Jewish ethics, human rights and common decency. Other local contingents fanned out last weekend in Texas and Southern California, joining hundreds from across the country.
The same weekend, Jewish clergy took part in a rally in downtown Napa to demand an end to the family separation policy. Others protested at a June 21 interfaith gathering at Grace Cathedral, and still others continue to make their voices heard in front of the ICE offices in San Francisco.
As reported recently in the New York Times, the Brownsville center is run by a nonprofit with a staff of 1,000 and provides the children with medical services, classroom instruction and outdoor playtime. Unlike other centers making the news, this one does not keep children in chain-link cages and instead houses them in dormitories.
According to the New York Times, the vast majority of children at Casa Padre crossed the border unaccompanied. The average length of stay is 56 days, after which the children are released to sponsors.
On June 25, Porth’s group went to McAllen, demonstrating at the Customs and Border Protection processing center, now notorious for news photos showing young immigrant children being kept in cages and sleeping on concrete floors.
According to press reports and eyewitness accounts from a visiting congressional delegation, inside the McAllen center children are crowded into the cages with no books, games or toys. They are given reflective Mylar sheets for blankets. In other centers around the country, a no-touching policy prevents staff from comforting upset children. Last week, reports highlighted alleged abuses at the Shiloh Treatment Center near Houston, which reportedly gave children sedation drugs.
Howard Kleckner, a JCRC board member, said their delegation showed up outside the McAllen center in the morning, along with dozens of other demonstrators. They stood near a driveway between two adjacent facilities, one housing adults, the other children.
As the hours passed, Kleckner saw buses pulling up and driving away. He could also see the human cargo within.
“You could see the kids inside the buses, with their faces pressed against the windows,” said Kleckner, who guessed the children were 4 or 5 years old.
As the buses drove away, demonstrators shouted “Let them go” and “Release the children.”
“We went because we were really emotionally upset about this whole process,” Kleckner added. “We wanted [detainees] to know that they had the backing of other communities, especially the Jewish one in San Francisco.”
San Francisco resident Julie Chronister, whose son attends Brandeis School in San Francisco, organized the Bay Area Jewish contingent.
Chronister, a psychologist, has been horrified by the family separation policy and worried about the traumatic effect on the children. She said she needed to personally see “the horror at the border.” And so she went.
Even though Trump signed an executive order last week halting the family separation policy, Chronister remains concerned that there is no plan in place to reunify families already separated. A June 26 federal court order requiring the administration to reunify the families within 30 days was encouraging to those opposed to the policy, but the Trump administration so far has shown no inclination to follow through on the order.
“There needs to be immediate reunification of the kids,” Chronister told J. on June 25 from Texas. “Trump’s executive order is one small step forward. I am worried we don’t know where the kids and their parents are. The attorneys don’t have the power or information, which only the government has. In general, we’re standing up against the criminalizing of people seeking asylum across the border.”
San Francisco immigration attorney Sara Dunsky knows the United States has gone through nativist phases before. But she says the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy used to prosecute and detain all border-crossers and asylum-seekers is new.
According to Dunsky, there is no U.S. law requiring that undocumented immigrants be prosecuted. The new policy is a choice on the part of the administration, she said, and a bad one.
“There is always prosecutorial discretion,” she noted. “You don’t have the resources to prosecute everybody, nor would you want to. First-time offenders frequently have their charges dropped. You can also charge and not detain. To say the appropriate response in our use of prosecutorial discretion [is] we will charge every single one of you and detain all of you and separate you from your children, that just defies understanding.”
She is also appalled by the administration’s flouting of longstanding American law regarding asylum-seekers and due process for all individuals entering the country, legally or not.
As someone inspired by Jewish values, she appreciates Jewish activism surrounding the immigration crisis but remains distressed by the expanded detention of children.
“We have child welfare laws,” she said. “The best interest of the child is a well-known legal standard applied to children, citizens or not. Prolonged detention is unacceptable. We have ample evidence that it’s incredibly damaging to their health and well-being.”
Texas was not the only place where Jews have spoken out about the family separation policy on the border.
Rabbi David Cooper, emeritus rabbi of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, and Rabbi Amy Eilberg, coordinator of Jewish community engagement at Faith in Action Bay Area, traveled to San Diego to take part in a June 23 protest organized by PICO California, the parent organization of Faith in Action.
They joined thousands of others, including scores of faith leaders, who converged to attend different protests scheduled in Southern California. Hundreds showed up for a rally at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, chanting “No estás solo” (“You are not alone”) from across the street, hoping detainees inside could hear.
Many protesters left stuffed animals by the entrance, where some had draped a cloth reading “Concentration Camp” over the facility’s main sign. Others linked arms and attempted to get close enough to the facility to block the entrance, though there were no arrests.
As an observant rabbi, Eilberg felt she could not in good conscience avoid direct action against the Trump immigration policies, even if that meant protesting on Shabbat.
“Ripping babies from the arms of their parents was so over the top, so egregious an offense on basic decency, it really awakened the nation,” she said. “People are being criminalized because they’re immigrants. The president said we should do away with due process and just send them back. It’s immoral, it’s un-Jewish, and it’s un-American.”
She was referring to the new federal policy to treat border crossing as a serious crime rather than as a misdemeanor, which is how first-time offenses had been classified before, according to statute.
Cooper, who has a long history of social action, appreciated the large interfaith showing in San Diego. He said protest “turns our values from our connection to the divine source into an action that we have to do to further the values of our tradition.”
He had attended protests outside prisons and detention centers before, but Otay Mesa was different. The facility was “particularly scary,” he said, because of the high barbed fence ringing it and its high gray walls.
“We could hear people calling to us from inside. I couldn’t tell what, but they were shouting back in Spanish. It was very touching,” Cooper said. “We heard, I can’t confirm, that people inside were told that if they did not stay quiet, they would be punished, and that’s why they stopped calling out.”
On this same trip south, Cooper and others went to a spot on the California-Mexico border called Friendship Park, which for many years allowed family and friends on either side of the border to talk and touch one another through the fence. But in recent years, more barriers and security measures have been added and visits limited to weekends. Thick mesh fencing bisects the area, limiting visibility and preventing people from reaching loved ones on the other side.
“It’s disheartening to learn this was once an open area where people could talk and touch,” Cooper said, “but now it’s even worse than a prison, where at least you have a glass [window] in front of you.”
Closer to home, Jews and Jewish clergy added their voices to those traveling to border protests. On June 24, an interfaith clergy council and other social justice groups staged a “Families Belong Together” rally at Veterans Memorial Park in Napa, organized by Women’s March Napa Valley and the local farmworkers advocacy group Latinos Unidos. Several hundred people showed up, many chanting “No human being is illegal.”
Among the speakers was Rabbi Niles Goldstein of Congregation Beth Shalom of Napa. “I talked about the biblical and prophetic traditions,” he told J. “The idea that at a time like this, when so many families are trying to find a better life and are faced with such hostility, it’s important to recall some of the central ideas of the Jewish tradition. I brought up rachamim [compassion], hachnasat orchim [welcoming the stranger], defending the widow and orphan, and lifting up the downtrodden.”
Beth Shalom member and Napa resident Irit Weir attended. She says she came to the United States from Israel many years ago as an undocumented immigrant. Her husband, Hagafen Cellars winery founder Ernie Weir, lost many family members in the Holocaust. The current immigration crisis resonates with both of them.
“Someone [at the rally] was holding a poster [saying] the family who hid Anne Frank went against the law, but the people who killed her did it according to the law,” Irit Weir said. “Now’s the time to make a stand and go beyond comfort and discomfort.”
Jewish visitors to the Texas detention centers, however, learned there was more nuance to the crisis than they thought.
At the Texas-Mexico border, Porth spoke with a Border Patrol agent who was of Mexican descent. He told her he was a supporter of Trump and his policies.
“He believed the Central American immigrants trying to immigrate here are jumping ahead in line,” she recounted.
In McAllen, Chronister chatted with two Border Patrol agents sitting in a diner. She said the agents felt the immigrants were better off in detention centers than they’d be “lying half dead trying to get across the border.”
The agents told her they have long become accustomed to seeing children at the border being separated from their families, and one recalled an immigrant parent handing him a 6-month-old baby.
“From their perspective they are doing good work,” Chronister said. “They think nothing has changed since Trump came in.”
In fact, noted Porth, something major has changed. “Every person we spoke with — immigrant rights advocates, translators, social service providers, Border Patrol — unanimously held the view that these issues have been going on for many years. What is new is the separation of children and the criminalizing of refugees.”
Protests against the Trump immigration policy are continuing across the country. On June 30, rallies to keep families together will take place in many American towns and cities, including in San Francisco. On July 2, the Jewish social action organization Bend the Arc will sponsor a national day of action in San Diego demanding the government end “the criminalization of immigrant communities.”
For Rabbi Cooper and many other Jews joining these actions, it’s a Jewish imperative.
“The Torah over and over again speaks about how to treat those who come into the land, the geirim, people who we might call immigrants in modern English,” he said. “We’re not allowed to molest them; we must allow them to settle and love them. It’s about time that the United States caught up with the Torah.”