By Rabbi Elyse Wechterman
At Passover, Jews mark the beginning of the journey. On Friday, the seventh day of the holiday, we read Shirat Hayam and reenact the crossing of the Reed Sea. This iconic moment, after the Exodus from Egypt with Pharaoh’s forces on one side and the raging sea on the other, is the moment of truth. Will the Israelites continue forward into the unknown, risking it all for the possibility of a better life, or hightail it back to Egypt defeated and demoralized before ever leaving the land of their enslavement?
We have come to celebrate the courageous actions of those who leapt forward, most notably Nachshon ben Aminidav who, legend says, was the first to leap into the sea and the first to trust that there was something better, brighter and more just awaiting if only the people would march forward.
The thousands of migrants now arriving on our border are also Nachshons — they too are stuck between the forces of violence and degradation they left behind in their native lands and an unknown sea — the sea of America’s pitiful, corrupt and confusing immigration and asylum policies. Instead of the water parting and a clear path before them, these Nahshons are met with detention — sometimes for years — family separation, no access to attorneys, denial of medical care, Kafkaesque waiting periods and almost guaranteed deportation back to the places they are fleeing.
Last month, I traveled to El Paso with a delegation of Jewish clergy sponsored by HIAS (The Hebrew Immigration Aid Society) and T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization. This was my third visit to the border in eight months. Each time, I learn more and more about the crisis that is unfolding on our border but I understand it less and less.
At the Otero Immigration Processing Center in Chaparral, New Mexico, thousands of men fleeing torture, violence and poverty are held like criminals — matching orange or yellow jumpsuits, limited connection to the outside world, no guarantee of attorneys and little by way of explanation of the procedures facing them. Allegations of serious abuse and harassment, particularly of LGBTQ detainees, have been made and are under investigation at Otero and other centers like it.
Our visit left me with more questions than answers: When did seeking asylum — a right guaranteed under U.S. and international law — become criminalized behavior in the United States? And when did we do away with the guarantees of due process and the right to fair trials in our constitution? When a private facility is run under contract to ICE for an average of $133 per detainee per day, we must ask, when did asylum seeking become an opportunity for corporations to make a profit?
We visited a facility for unaccompanied minors, Casa Franklin, run by Southwest Key Corporation in El Paso. Set up more like a residential school than a prison, the facility still had bars and alarms on the door and no resident is ever allowed to move from one space to another unaccompanied.
The children are waiting for the immigration courts to grant them hearings after which they might be reunited with family members already settled in the United States. Whereas stays in this shelter used to last no more than 14 days, there are now some children who have been there for 60 days or more. Not designed as a long-term facility, we must ask, why are these children there? Regardless of their status, why are they not with family members in caring homes, even if they are awaiting an immigration hearing? Denied hugs and physical touch and the sense of permanence and safety children need to flourish, what will be the long-term effects of this trauma wherever these children end up?
Crossing over the Paso Del Norte Bridge between El Paso and Ciudad-Juarez, we saw thousands of migrants being held in a makeshift camp by CPB (Customs and Border Protection). Made to stand in the hot sun for hours, given little space, a few blankets and insufficient food and water, these migrants are facing unsanitary conditions, malnutrition and illness. Two children died in CPB custody in recent months — from preventable illnesses resulting from lack of appropriate care. When did our country become so heartless and inhuman to our fellow human beings?
When did America become the Reed Sea, an overwhelming force holding back progress toward freedom and liberation for our fellow humans? With the exception of our Native American neighbors, we are a nation of people from somewhere else. We Jews especially resonate with this story. Not only do we remember walking out of Egypt and across the sea, but we also remember all the other journeys in our people’s history: out of Eretz Yisrael to Babylon, out of Spain toward Africa and the New World, out of Eastern Europe to the Goldene Medina of the United States.
Each time, we headed into the unknown with a few Nachshons who dared to lead the way and in most cases — even when we were forced out by others — we were met with open arms and an opportunity to build new lives for ourselves. How can we not recognize ourselves in the Nachshons on our border now? How can we be part of a system that slams doors shut and locks gates tighter rather than opens up spaces and pathways for new life?
As we conclude our Passover festival, we must recommit ourselves to providing open pathways and welcome spaces to those fleeing their Pharaohs and coming to our shores.
Rabbi Elyse Wechterman is the executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and lives in Abington.