Rabbi Lee Bycel (right) with Juan, a deported man he met in Tijuana
Rabbi Lee Bycel (right) with Juan, a deported man he met in Tijuana

Bearing witness to injustice as we approach High Holidays

Bearing witness is being present as an act of injustice is taking place. Bearing witness is seeing firsthand what the dispossessed and the most vulnerable are experiencing. Bearing witness can be uncomfortable. Bearing witness can be life-changing. Bearing witness to our lives and the world around us is what the High Holidays are all about.

On Aug. 21-22, I had the opportunity to participate in a HIAS-ADL Jewish leaders’ delegation to the border, joining 26 other leaders from 17 national Jewish organizations. The first day was spent in San Diego at briefings on the border crises. I spent several hours at the federal courthouse observing a hearing for Operation Streamline, a program enacted in 2005 but adopted in California just last month. People who cross the border illegally, for whatever reason, are now sent to criminal court instead of immigration court. They are seen in groups and, in most cases, deported immediately.

At the hearing I witnessed, 18 men and one woman were brought in together. Their legs were shackled. Everyone pled guilty. They had been held anywhere from one to four days in conditions like a maximum-security prison: little to eat, lights kept on all night and confined to a cell.

They had met their court-appointed attorneys for about 15 minutes on the morning of the hearing, and were encouraged to plead guilty, for the sake of expediency. A not-guilty plea would lead to months of detention, with deportation the most likely end result. After the hearing, they were immediately deported with a criminal misdemeanor on their records. The entire process took no more than 90 minutes.

Yes, the process met legal standards, but it certainly did not meet ethical standards.

Bearing witness to these “trials” was painful. There was no opportunity to for people to tell their individual stories, what moved them to make the arduous and dangerous journey to America, what their lives were like back home, who they left there and what they lost, and what they hoped for their future. And there was no time for them to really understand what was going on. They were exhausted and stunned by their treatment.

We have criminalized human migration. We have dehumanized the human story. We have created an efficient and legal system, but it is not fair, it is not just, and it does not reflect Jewish values.

The Jew has been the quintessential refugee throughout history. We respect people, and especially the stranger, because we were once “strangers in the land of Egypt.” Thirty-six times in the Torah, we are mandated to help “the widow, the orphan, the poor and the stranger.” As we prepare to welcome in the new year, the question facing each of us is this: In what ways can I help those yearning to come to America and ensure that they can find refuge here?

All I want is to be unified with my family and go back to my job. Will I ever be able to do that?

The next day, at a men’s shelter in Tijuana, we heard from two of the men we had seen in the courtroom. One was 31 years old, married with four children. He had no desire to leave his family but wanted to come to the U.S. to earn some money and then return home. He knew of the need for workers here and he was truly desperate. Where he lived in Mexico he could not support his family on his extremely low wages. I wondered if I would do the same to protect my family. I hoped I had his strength and fearlessness to take that risk.

Another man told me that he had been in jail with the two others but did not have a hearing. His name was Juan and he spoke fluent English. He had lived in the U.S. for many years and only returned to his home country to see his mother, who is on dialysis. He is married to an American woman and has an American son. In his eyes, you could see the piercing pain of frustration and fear. “All I want is to be unified with my family and go back to my job. Will I ever be able to do that?”

Bearing witness involves observing, listening, understanding and action. I called Maria, Juan’s wife, the next morning. She told me the story in detail. Juan had no criminal record, had never been accused of anything. He loves his family both here and in Mexico. He was denied a green card because he once had been caught entering the U.S. illegally. That violation, even though he has paid taxes and contributed to society, prevented him from getting a green card. He is now being told that he can re-apply in 10 years. She wept as she asked, “Will I ever see him again?”

One has to wonder about our family reunification programs and their current implementation. Why is Juan not eligible and yet Viktor and Amalija Knavs, parents of Melania Trump, become citizens under this program? The president has consistently called this “chain migration” and has vehemently opposed it.

Bearing witness is recognizing that what is happening to Juan and many, many others is simply wrong and inhumane. Bearing witness is speaking out about such injustice when we see it, and doing everything we can to change it.

On the High Holy Days, we bear witness to our own lives. As part of that process, we see ourselves as immigrants and refugees, and put ourselves in the shoes of the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the people seeking safety in a new land. In our land. We ask ourselves if we would have the bravery and wherewithal to leave our home, our loved ones, to find a better way of life.

Bearing witness can be cathartic. Bearing witness can allow us to translate our values into actions. Bearing witness can encourage us to use some of our resources to welcome the stranger, like we were once welcomed so many times in our history, years and generations ago.

The United States must develop sensible immigration policy for immigrants already here and for those from the global village who seek to come. We bear witness to the people arriving at our doors, to create a society of acceptance, ethical and moral values, and justice.

Rabbi Lee Bycel
Rabbi Lee Bycel

Rabbi Lee Bycel is the Sinton Visiting Professor of Holocaust, Genocide and Refugee Studies at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of the upcoming “Refugees in America: Stories of Courage, Resilience and Hope in Their Own Words.”