Organizational Leaders Go South for Firsthand Look at Border Conditions

Written by Kol HaBirah Staff on . Posted in Community News

Members of the local Jewish community were among the 27 leaders from 17 national Jewish organizations who traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border Aug. 21-22 for a firsthand look at the conditions facing immigrants there. The delegation was led by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and HIAS. Originally founded to aid the resettlement of Jewish refugees in America over 100 years ago, HIAS presently works with refugee populations of different backgrounds from around the world.

On Aug. 21, Jewish leaders from across the nation convened in San Diego, California, and set out for a series of meetings and visits on the U.S. side of the border. The group met with immigration attorneys and humanitarian workers who work with migrants and asylum seekers. Observing Federal immigration hearings inside a high-security detention center, they noted how some struggle to comprehend a complex legal system, often without legal representation. Others visited a shelter for unaccompanied minors and gained a deeper understanding of how U.S. policies impact real people.

“The system does nothing to ensure due process,” said HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield, who lives in Cabin John, Maryland. “It’s not treating them like human beings.”

The following day, the group crossed the Mexican border and visited two facilities in Tijuana. At the crowded Instituto Madre Asunta shelter, the delegation met women fleeing gang violence in Central America. At a men’s shelter nearby they spoke with a pair of migrants who had been deported from the U.S. overnight — and who members of the delegation had seen just the day before in an “Operation Streamline” criminal court hearing.

After returning to the U.S. the following afternoon, delegation members pledged to work together to educate their constituents, advocate for refugees and asylum seekers, and to call on elected officials to do more to protect them.

“Our Jewish tradition teaches us the importance of bearing witness, the importance of being present, of observing,” said DC resident Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL. “Now we have to be accountable for what we saw; and to share that, not only with our constituents inside our respective organizations, but with the broader community.”

The delegation included leaders and representatives of the following national Jewish organizations in addition to HIAS and the ADL: American Jewish World Service; Avodah; Jewish Family Service of San Diego; Jewish Council on Public Affairs; Jewish Funders Network; J Street; National Council of Jewish Women; Rabbinical Assembly; Reconstructing Judaism; Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association; Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; Repair the World; Righteous Persons Foundation; United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; and Union for Reform Judaism.

While the Orthodox Union (OU), Rabbical Council of America (RCA), and Agudath Israel have all chimed in in recent months about the Trump administration’s immigration policies, particularly the issue of family separation, HIAS confirmed that no invitations were extended to any Orthodox-affiliated institutions. Nathan Diament, executive director of the OU Advocacy Network, said his office “certainly would have considered sending a delegate.”

Hetfield responded that the trip was organized for groups HIAS works with most frequently, and while no Orthodox-affiliated participating in this delegation, they are “enthusiastically welcome” to join in the future.

“We’ve been proud to partner with the Orthodox Union on migration issues; they were one of the 36 groups that signed a recent letter to President Trump that HIAS spearheaded, urging him to raise the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. in fiscal year 2019 to at least 75,000,” he said. “Advocating for fair and humane migration policies is aligned with Jewish values, no matter the denomination, and we are pleased to stand in solidarity with the Jewish community in calling for them.”