The faces of the children tell the story; imprisoned by our government, punished for seeking a safe home. I saw them on a recent Jewish clergy trip to the El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, organized by HIAS and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. This issue is very important to the Jewish community, as Jewish faith commands that we care for the stranger. Ohavi Zedek Synagogue is engaged in working to support refugees and new immigrants in many ways.

Refugees are being detained, even while seeking asylum at legal ports of entry, for the “crime” of seeking asylum. Together with 17 other rabbis and cantors, I witnessed hundreds being rounded into cages under the border bridge between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas. It was gut-wrenching. I thought of the prophet Jeremiah, whose warning cries to the people to reclaim their sacred purpose landed him in prison. Now, while hundreds of people daily are being sent back to the violence and poverty they escaped, I wondered who will listen to our cries of pain and worry for the humanitarian crisis and brutality on our border?

While visiting a Catholic-run shelter for migrants in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, we noticed one of the residents who seemed especially excited to see our group of Jewish clergy. A colleague who spoke with her reported that she was a Jewish woman from Honduras, where she’d had a good job as a nurse and a nice home. When she had noticed that some medical equipment in the hospital was stolen, she reported it.Unfortunately, the authorities were connected to the theft and, fearing retaliation, shefled for her life with her 13-year-old son. They had lost everything. The violence these refugees are fleeing is real. For anyone to ignore that is immoral.

Decades of U.S. government policies have contributed to the poverty, corruption and violence that is prompting thousands of vulnerable people to flee Central America. Many are families with children, even children sent with smugglers to the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Only, they are the brave ones, not us. It is a shameful stain on our nation’s soul.

We toured the Otero detention center and the Southwest Key Casa-Franklin children’s detention center, both run by for-profit corporations.  We visited shelters in both El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, where refugees wait in limbo for court hearings and possible resettlement in the U.S., or deportation. We met righteousheroes, including staff at the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, Hope Border Institute and Annunciation House who are caring for refugees under enormous and complex pressures.

In the Casa-Franklin center in El Paso, housing 56 kids, there is to be no hugging, no touching, no human contact. The staff explained, this is “out of an abundance of caution.” The outer door is alarmed, lest anyone try to leave, the director explained, for the children’s security. We were told that these kids have arrived unaccompanied, as young as 5-years-old, but we saw mostly young teens.  We were told that other children’s detention centers house considerably larger populations, up to 1,000 youth. Having toured Otero, housing 1,000 young men, we could picture it: prison-like. 

The best we could offer the refugees was to wave, smile, and say hello. We witnessed their sadness and longing, perhaps the wish for human contact, perhaps the wish that we’d relate to them as fully human. Some of us felt like we were touring a zoo — a dehumanized zone where these “aliens” (a noxious term we heard used by staff) were to be held until they could be sent back. In fact, near 95% of the refugees whose cases are heard in El Paso courtrooms will be “repatriated” — deported back to the violence from which they’ve fled.

It is time for our government to address the core issues that have created the desperation that drives thousands to flee on treacherous journeys north. Border control can’t solve this problem; only systemic change will work. We need the wisdom and courage to address this change.

The faces of the children, teens and families will haunt me forever, but particularly this Passover, as we tell the story of our own people’s liberation. We owe these asylum seekers  the same liberation.  We owe them this as fellow human beings. We owe them this as people of faith. We owe them this as Americans.

This is a time for action. The non-profit organizations helping refugees on both sides of the border need our support.  And our political will must be exercised. The cruelty of our own government is unacceptable — we must speak out loudly. The problems may seem overwhelming. But change will only come when we start, each of us, one day at a time. Let us be the change.

Rabbi Amy Joy Small, Senior Rabbi

Ohavi Zedek Synagogue, Burlington, VT