In the past nine months, some 57,000 children have entered into the United States illegally, many of them fleeing violence and gangs in Central American countries. While Congress and the White House have bickered over how to deal with the flood of undocumented immigrants, many in the Jewish community have taken action.
“There has been a beautiful community response,” said Bryan Davis, Jewish Community Relations Council director and Holocaust education coordinator of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. Davis and the JCRC in Tucson have joined with the local Catholic service organization to offer assistance to the women and children released to family members in the United States.
While the local Jewish community there is split on how to proceed with the sudden influx of immigrants from Central America, the JCRC sees its mission clearly, said Davis.
After hearing about unaccompanied minors left at bus stations near Tucson at a June interfaith meeting organized by the local Catholic diocese, Davis and other faith leaders determined that they had to do something and were in a good position to respond.
In the 1980s, churches, synagogues and other houses of worship were central in the immigration crisis plaguing the border at that time. Then, the people crossing the border were fleeing their Central American home countries to escape civil war and political turmoil. The immigrants at the heart of today’s debate come from many of the same Central American countries, but instead of warfare are fleeing crime and gangs. In the 1980s, many were deemed refugees due to the conflict in their homelands, but today, the crisis is far murkier.
A 2008 law enacted by then-President George W. Bush forbids the immediate deportation of unaccompanied minors arriving from Central American countries, instead allowing them to stay in the United States legally until they are given a court hearing to determine where they are permitted to stay or will be deported.
Data collected by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security shows that the majority of unaccompanied minors entering the country illegally from January through mid-May came from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Those coming from Guatemala, DHS research shows, hail largely from rural areas, leading experts to believe many of the Guatemalan children are coming to the United States in pursuit of economic opportunity. Conversely, research shows many of the children arriving from El Salvador and Honduras come from regions plagued by violence, like San Pedro Sula, the Honduran city deemed the murder capital of the world, where an average of four murders – many gang-related – take place every day.
While Maryland is some 1,700 north of the nearest U.S.-Mexican border crossing, the problem has ripple effects in almost every state – including the Free State. Recently, a rift has formed between Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and the administration of longtime ally President Barack Obama over where to house the children while they await their hearings.
O’Malley has spoken out against mass deportations, describing such actions as sending the children “back to certain death,” but opposed a rumored plan to house some of the unaccompanied minors at a site in Carroll County where anti-immigrant graffiti appeared earlier in July.
On Tuesday, O’Malley brought together representatives from roughly 50 organizations to discuss the border crisis.
The governor asked what could be done “to make sure our country doesn’t turn its back on refugee children,” said D.C. resident Eli Kasargod-Staub, who was invited to the meeting as a volunteer with Jews United For Justice.
Those attending were “asked to step up and answer the moral call,” Kasargod-Staub said.
During the 90-minute meeting, Kasargod-Staub said he spoke about how Jews can relate to being persecuted and having to flee their homeland. During their history Jews also said to themselves, ‘We don’t know what’s on the other side, but we have to get out of here,’ he said, adding, “The governor’s leadership on this was really inspiring.”
Push to call them refugees
While Mexican children are deported immediately, there is a strong push among some advocates and organizations to declare some people from these Central American countries refugees. In the spring, the UN Refugee Agency suggested that many of the children traveling north from these troubled countries could and should be seen and treated as refugees and offered asylum.
Earlier this month, Pope Francis insisted that children fleeing Central American countries on their own “be welcomed and protected,” while Jewish organizations like the National Council of Jewish Women, HIAS and the Jewish Federations of North America issued a joint statement urging President Obama to pursue “measures to ensure that all migrants in danger of persecution have access to a meaningful opportunity to seek asylum,” citing the Torah’s instruction to “welcome the stranger.”
For Rabbi Larry Karol of Temple Beth-El in Las Cruces, N.M., the idea of welcoming the stranger resonates particularly strongly.
“We were strangers in Egypt,” said Karol. “It really brings the text to life,” he added, comparing some of the stories in the Torah to the stories of these immigrants.
“There are other people who don’t apply it that way, and that’s up to them, but for me, verses like that really resonate on this issue, whether it’s the general immigration reform issue or whether it’s this particular case, where you have people who really could be accepted for seeking asylum because of the situation in their home country,” he said, “or just basic persecution as many of the Jews did in the 1800s and 1900s and therefore came to the States or went to other places to escape persecution and have a better life.”
While the much larger Catholic diocese is leading most of the effort to aid the newcomers, Karol knows of many members of his congregation who have gotten involved in groups providing help to the Central American immigrants, delivering water to the center where many of the people are being detained while they wait for processing.
Hearing about the problems the immigrants face at home and the challenges they face here has led Karol to think about his own family’s immigration story. Much like some of the teens fleeing from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, Karol’s grandfather fled Russia to avoid being forced into the Russian army. After living in South Africa for a decade, he eventually moved to the United States, something Karol doubts would have been possible in the current immigration climate.
Using the website EntryDenied.org, a project by Bend the Arc, a Washington, D.C.-based Jewish group with a mission to promote social justice, Karol determined that his family would likely be denied if they were trying to enter into the United States today. The website asks users to answer a series of questions about any one of their ancestors and then uses those answers to compare with current immigration laws to ultimately give the user a notice of either denial of acceptation into America.
“There were Jews who left Europe – Eastern Europe, especially – for some of the same reasons that these families are leaving the Central American countries, because of the threat of violence,” said Karol, who disclosed that there are a mix of opinions on the topic within even his own congregation. “I think that there is, in many cases, a similarity between the Jewish immigration story [and that of the Central American immigrants].”
‘They’re tired and scared’
In Yuma, Ariz., a small city in the southwestern corner of the state, less than 10 miles from the Mexican border, Burton Schapiro has seen the crisis firsthand.
A member of Congregation Beth HaMidbar, Schapiro is an active member of the Yuma County Interfaith Sponsoring Committee. The situation along the border had been the topic of multiple conversations, and they debated how to get involved. In early July they found their answer.
For months, the local bus terminal had been a launching point for immigrants processed by the Border Patrol and permitted to travel to family members inside the country with whom they could stay. One day, a pastor on the committee got a call from a manager of a nearby Walmart looking for help for a group of people who had been dropped at the store. The group included two pregnant women and one 3-year-old. One of the women was from El Salvador and the other from Honduras, and they had befriended each other on the journey through Mexico. Between the pair they had the equivalent of just $28 in American money and needed to get to family in Atlanta.
“The story that we’re hearing on their journey from Central America is just scary,” said Schapiro. “When they get up here, they’re tired, they’re dirty, they’re hungry and they’re scared.”
The interfaith committee raised money to purchase the tickets the women and child needed to make their trip, passing around collection plates at local services at one of the Yuma churches, and the women were able to make it to Atlanta, said Schapiro. Since then, the group has helped others, offering people showers, food, clothes and help deciphering the bus system.
In an effort to not alienate some members of their congregations or become entangled in a web of political controversy, the group tries to stay as below-the-radar as possible, Schapiro said. But he doesn’t shy from speaking up when he feels a line has been crossed. He once stood up at a conference where the keynote speaker was one of the architects of Arizona’s controversial law requiring police officers to stop and question anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally. He compared the practice to Nazis stopping Jews on the streets of Germany. He received some boos from the crowd, but it didn’t bother him. For him, helping immigrants is a form of tzedakah, a just act.
Back in Tucson, some 3 1/2 hours east of Yuma, Anne Lowe, director of Northwest outreach at the Tucson Jewish Federation, has found her own way to get involved in the border crisis. She refills Humane Borders water stations placed in remote parts of the desert known to be popular pass-throughs for people crossing the border from Mexico into the United States.
“I realize it’s an illegal thing to cross the border without proper documentation,” said Lowe. “On the other hand, should they have a death sentence for this?”
Lowe describes her involvement with the organization – and the organization itself – as “purely humanitarian.” Regardless of a person’s stance on immigration law or the need for reform, she said, no one wants these people to perish in the southern Arizona desert heat.
In addition to delivering water, Lowe has volunteered with other federation staff to assist people at the bus stations, once volunteering alongside a Native American man from a nearby reservation to help women and children purchase bus tickets. Water deliveries, though, have become her calling in the current crisis.
Once a week, groups of two to four volunteers travel into the desert at dawn in trucks carrying dozens of gallons of water. They follow a designated route, filling the tanks at the stations they pass and checking for vandalism (in the past, there have been incidents of tanks being riddled with bullet holes and contaminated with chemicals), in addition to measuring water levels – proof, Lowe said, that what they’re doing is really helping.
“I firmly believe what the Torah teaches us, what the Talmud teaches us: that to save one life is to save the world,” said Lowe. “I’m hoping that somewhere along the line the things we’re doing are making a difference and helping to save somebody’s life.”
Like many Jewish activists along the border – Humane Borders has about four or five Jewish volunteers – Lowe said she was inspired to get involved by her own Jewish heritage.
“No one helped the Jews during the Holocaust; very, very few nations helped the Jews. Our own America didn’t,” she said. “I don’t think, as Jews, we can turn our backs on people who are looking for a better life or trying to escape violence in their home countries.”
Said Lowe: “We have to remember history.”
Heather Norris is a staff reporter for WJW sister publication, Baltimore Jewish Times.
Senior Writer Suzanne Pollak contributed to this article.