We recently returned from a visit to the immigrant processing and detention centers in McAllen and Brownsville, Texas, where we went to advocate for the reunification of immigrant children with their parents. We learned just how much we need sane, compassionate and cohesive policy to address the issues and protect immigrants from becoming victims of our political process and news cycle.
Inspired by the grassroots activism of a Bay Area Jewish woman who organized the Parents Everywhere Care demonstration, we jumped on the plane because, as parents, we could not imagine the horror of being voiceless if our children were separated from us. As Jews and as immigrants, or children of immigrants, ourselves, history has taught us what happens when democracy and accountability break down.
As we visited different facilities and talked to a broad array of people on the ground, we heard many views. From FOX, NBC and CNN news reporters to airline gate agents, from border security guards to local lawyers and activists, everyone had a perspective to share. There were the Chicano militant activists advocating for an independent territory within Texas. There was the university professor advocating for the immediate opening of all detention facilities and the abolition of ICE. There was the Latino-American border security agent who made it clear he is no Democrat and explained that he believes Central Americans seeking to emigrate are unfairly jumping ahead of Mexicans who have patiently waited for years for legal entry.
As we heard diverse and often conflicting views, we also heard unanimity. Reporters from national network news channels were unanimously more interested in capturing images of activists jumping in front of a child transport van than in reporting on the varying perspectives of demonstrators. Everyone was concerned about the issue of separating children from their parents, though they had different reasons. The expense to U.S. taxpayers of housing and caring indefinitely for more than 2,000 undocumented children, the trauma caused to the children and their parents, the possibility that these children will unnecessarily languish in our foster care or — worse — be put up for adoption in the United States, were all reasons given.
Across the board, we heard serious concern that the children are not all accounted for and that our government may not be tracking each child. We heard despair over the lack of transparency into what is happening and the absence of independent oversight and control. There was growing concern that there is really no plan in place to reunite these children with their parents — children who are now dispersed around our nation.
We heard from elected officials who have been allowed entry to the detention facilities that they “despair” because of the “deplorable” conditions. And there is growing suspicion about the organizations that have been put in charge of the care of these babies and children, the exorbitant fees they are charging the U.S. government, and questions about who is profiting from what seems like the state-sanctioned trafficking of children who belong with their parents.
We were also struck by the quiet, orderly towns and friendly, helpful people we encountered, contrary to the reports of a “crisis” of law and order at the U.S. border. We were struck by the housing of 1,500 immigrant boys separated from their families in the Walmart-turned-Southwest Keys facility in Brownsville. Stopping to take in the image of this quiet, big box complex in the midst of a shopping center, with traffic and life going on normally around it, someone commented on the irony of warehousing immigrant children in a Walmart. We wondered if the local population was blind to this outrage in the same way that we are in San Francisco when we pass or step over thousands of homeless people on our streets. As it turns out, we all continue about our lives when the challenges seem insurmountable and our lives must go on.
But perhaps the single most significant point of consensus was embodied in the words of one local who asked us, “This has been going on for so long. Why didn’t anyone fly down years ago, during the Obama administration, to protest?” To a person, locals commented that perhaps the silver lining in the policy of recent weeks (seemingly newly suspended, but without a plan for reuniting the 2,000+ children who have already been separated) is that now we might just have the political will to demand comprehensive immigration reform.
We returned to the Bay Area on June 25 and are now bringing home to our Jewish community this message: While each of us will choose which protest to attend, and what organizations to support, and whether or not to denounce the creation of large detention facilities in the Bay Area, let us not lose sight of what is most needed — comprehensive immigration reform. Immigration reform is a bipartisan issue that affects every one of us, and how we treat others says something about who we are. Our Jewish community developed a consensus policy platform on immigration reform years ago, and has since been advocating tirelessly for rational and compassionate immigration policy.
Please join us in advocating for reform through the Jewish Community Relations Council and in supporting the extraordinary social and legal services on the ground, including Catholic Charities, the Texas Civil Rights Project, the American Bar Associations’ South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) and the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES).
But we can’t leave it to the organizations to do alone. They need us — taxpaying citizens who can speak to our representatives and demand that we address this issue once and for all.
We are not helpless. We have tremendous power to send a message to our elected representatives. Please check out ways to do this at JCRC.org. There you can find additional information on direct action that can have real impact. Our sage, Rabbi Hillel, taught us: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when? Now is the time for us to speak up and demand change in our immigration policy.