Let’s stop arguing about ‘concentration camps’ and start talking about our dehumanizing immigration system

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An immigrant released after spending six months in an ICE detention facility hugs her daughter while being reunited with family at Portland International Airport, Sept. 2, 2018. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

MOUNT KISCO, N.Y. — Last summer, I was on the phone with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer assigned to Armando Rojas, our deported synagogue custodian of two decades,
assuring him that I could vouch that he is not a flight risk or a danger to the community. That should have been obvious: Armando had no criminal record, a steady job and a family who needed him.

The ICE officer’s responses were taut and clipped.


Without thinking about it much, I said, “Well, I just want you to know how important he is to us. And I want to thank you for taking such good care of him.”

For the first time in the conversation, there was a pause, and the ICE officer seemed caught off-guard.

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Finally, he said, ”Many people don’t understand that, but that’s what we do and what we are here for. To help people. I appreciate you saying that.”

There has been a great deal of heated debate about whether it is appropriate to call the growing number of immigration detention facilities in this country “concentration camps,” a term most recently used by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). I will leave it to scholars to parse the terms of rhetorical escalation.


But what I can say from personal experiencewith our opaque immigration system is that it is not only devastating for those who go through it, but also for the Americans who are employed by it. Using terms like “concentration camp” may have technical merit, but I worry that it actually frees those working in the system from taking any criticisms seriously.

Armando came to this country from Mexico nearly 30 years ago. In the 20 years he worked in our synagogue, he paid Social Security, Medicare, state and local taxes. He has no criminal record and a family who relies on him.

While Armando was in ICE detention awaiting deportation, our attorney filed for a stay with a judge. Within a week he was suddenly, and without any notice to his family, deported to Mexico. This was in February.

I emailed the ICE officer assigned to his case the day he was deported asking him to call me. Hours later I received an email back from the officer saying he “regretted” to inform me that Armando was put on a plane to Mexico “before his attorney was able to file a request for a stay.”

As it turned out, the stay of deportation was actually granted before Armando was deported, a factor an immigration judge later pointed out, scolding the government for “erroneously deporting” Armando.
The truth was, the ICE officer knew all along that our attorney was working on a stay: Our attorney had spoken with him as soon as Armando was placed in ICE detention. Subsequently the officer had been
difficult to reach, sometimes going a few days without returning our attorney’s calls.

By the time I responded to the ICE officer, we had heard from Armando on the other side of the border and what had happened to him. I emailed the ICE officer back, CCing our congregational leadership, decrying the fact that Armando was dropped into a country he hasn’t been to in decades with no chance to collect belongings or money, nor to contact his family.

I added that “Armando is beloved in our community of 500 families; he is a kind, generous and caring person. But you didn’t need to know any of that in order to know that no human being should ever be treated this way.

“And you ‘regret’ to inform me? Is this how you always treat human beings?”

I received no communication back.

Later we learned that the ICE officers who dropped Armando’s group at the border taunted them, saying “you’ll all probably get kidnapped.”

But should we be surprised by this behavior when we put Americans in the position of taking parents and children away from their families?

In April, Armando’s son and members of my congregation met Armando in Tijuana so that we could be with him while he asked for asylum. A few yards from us, a dozen or so mothers and children sat in the dirt waiting for someone to listen to their stories, a function of Border Patrol’s metering policy of turning away asylum seekers by saying, sometimes disingenuously, that the detention facility is “at capacity.”

In June, Rojas was taken into custody, sent to Albany and began waiting for a chance to seek asylum from an immigration judge.

While we must fight the injustice of what’s happening in our country, we must not inadvertently associate those who work in the immigration system with those who carried out a genocide. Using such language, easily dismissed, allows those complicit in the system to abdicate their own responsibility for the daily indignities and traumas they carry out, since they can rationalize away the criticisms they believe are
overblown.

We don’t need to resort to hyperbole; what they are being asked to do is bad enough.

Rabbi Aaron Brusso is the rabbi of Bet Torah in Mount Kisco, N.Y., and serves on the Executive Council of the Rabbinical Assembly.

—JTA News and Features

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