Rabbis get firsthand look at border conditions
Photo: John Moore/Getty Images
A boy from Honduras is shown being taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico border near Mission, Texas, June 12.

By Dave Sorter

Even after President Donald Trump signed an executive order ending the policy of separating children from their parents as they cross the U.S.-Mexico border, local rabbis and other Dallas Jewish community leaders involved in finding solutions to the immigration crisis agree that much work remains to be done.
While families are now being detained together after being arrested because of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy for illegal border crossings, another apparent softening of the policy took place Tuesday. U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it was no longer handing illegal immigrants over to prosecutors because it did not have enough detention space, seemingly returning to the Obama administration’s “catch and release” protocol. Trump administration officials maintain that zero-tolerance remains in effect.
Trump issued his executive order on June 20. One day later, Dallas-area rabbis David Stern (Temple Emanu-El), Nancy Kasten and Elana Zelony (Congregation Beth Torah), along with local Anti-Defamation League regional director Cheryl Drazin, joined a national interfaith delegation that traveled to McAllen to see firsthand the conditions at the border. The national Religious Action Center and the Central Council of American Rabbis (of which Stern is president) helped organize the trip, which was initiated by the Rev. Al Sharpton.
And this group may have been prevented from visiting a detention center because of first lady Melania Trump’s visit there the same day.
Then, on June 22, Congregation Kol Ami Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis traveled to McAllen with a group organized by LULAC, the Latino civil rights organization.
Both Zelony and Kasten were struck by the inclement South Texas weather they encountered, especially flooding. They saw it as a metaphor for the suffering the separated children are experiencing.
“It made me realize people are literally sweating their way to the border,” Zelony said. “And people aren’t going to stop coming to the United States for a better opportunity. All I could think about were immigrants camped on the Reynosa side of the river.”
Added Kasten: “We were in a big coach. The bags were under the bus, and the water was 3, 4 feet deep. When we got to dry land, the bags were soaked; some people lost their computers. Cars were stranded in the middle of the road. The one thing I was thinking was that this separate-at-the-border policy is just one of many indicators that this administration doesn’t care.”
Trump and other administration officials have defended the zero-tolerance policy as a way to keep drugs and criminals out of the country and to uphold the law against illegal border crossings.
The June 21 group first visited the Catholic Charities Respite Center, which takes in people who crossed at the legal checkpoint and who are seeking asylum. It’s also too small for the current level of activity.
“They process up to 200 people a day,” Zelony said. “There are two showers and two toilets. The building is clean and efficiently run, but woefully inadequate. They need a larger facility.”
Some of the group, including Zelony, attended a federal court proceeding, where all of the about 50 immigrants whose cases were heard pleaded guilty to crossing the border illegally. Then, they attended a news conference, where people “quoted scripture and warned us to remember our world history,” Zelony said. “It was also pointed out that this wasn’t the first time we had separated parents and children. Slavery was mentioned, and I would add Ellis Island.”
After the news conference, the group tried to visit the detention center — which they were scheduled to do earlier but were bumped because of the first lady’s visit. However, the Border Patrol turned them back.
“That seems like it’s pretty typical down there,” Kasten said.
“All I could think about was what it must feel like to be an immigrant and make a long journey, to stand at the border only to be refused and told to return home,” Zelony said.
Dennis’ group didn’t get in either, but protesting from the outside, he did see conditions he did not like.
“It was indeed a neighborhood of faceless, windowless warehouses, and the facility holding hundreds of children isolated from their families was no different,” Dennis wrote. “…These children are being warehoused in a storage building designed for tires and floor tiles, now repurposed to store children.”
Then, it hit home. A bus neared the facility.
“At first, I thought it was another protest caravan,” Dennis wrote. “But then its features came into focus. We saw bars on the windows, with a cage wall behind the driver. A dozen heads, hands and faces of children and teens could be seen inside this rolling jail, built to hold felons and convicts.”
Some in the group surrounded the bus, trying to impede its progress. Those at the sides of the bus were waving at and shouting words of encouragement to the youngsters. Those at the front and back were angry. Guards, local police and a SWAT team converged. Negotiations took place, Dennis and others urged the crowd to step back, and the situation returned to that of a peaceful protest.
No one was prepared for any of that, Dennis wrote. His group was not prepared to see the children caged in the bus, and the guards at the facility were not prepared for the uprising. It was part of the chaos that struck Kasten one day earlier.
“There was a lack of clarity of who’s responsible for which aspect of the border crossing,” Kasten said. “But the chaos is just a distraction from the main issue: How does the wealthiest nation in the world harness its resources to help these children? It doesn’t seem people are interested in a long-term solution.
“We need ‘We the People’ to deal with the issue, but it’s been they and them and theirs.”
All those who took the trip understand more work needs to be done. Ensuring that families are reunited — which Trump’s executive order does not address — is the primary issue. Zelony wants to try to raise more money for the Catholic Charities Respite Center, by donating to Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. She’s even thinking of asking the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas to include the agency among its allocations.
Kasten, meanwhile, received a calling to educate and advocate — and to empathize.
“What I got from the trip was that when you go to a place that’s different from your day-to-day life, you feel a sense of connection and empathy from other people,” she explained. “You come face to face with people who are reflecting God’s image in a way I never would have experienced had I not gone.”
She added that she wants to “go out and meet people and talk to them without preconceived notions. That’s something we all need to do.”
In fact, just two days after visiting McAllen, Kasten was heading for Washington for the last day of the Poor People’s campaign.
“I’m trying to find ways to educate people about the unintended consequences of systems the country has in place,” she said. “I’m starting to see patterns and gain a broader understanding.”

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