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National delegation bears witness to border immigration issues

Ricardo Santana Velázquez, the Mexican consul in Nogales, Arizona (back row, center), with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs delegation at the consular office on Sept. 9. (Courtesy Melanie Roth Gorelick)

A 23-member delegation from 12 states recently completed a fact-finding mission trip to the Arizona-Mexico border, conducted by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which is the national network hub of 125 Jewish Community Relations Councils around the country and 17 national Jewish agencies. The Jewish History Museum hosted the delegation for several parts of the program and accompanied them throughout their time in Tucson.

“The JCPA is one of many Jewish community delegations from across the country arriving in Southern Arizona to bear witness to the experiences of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Bryan Davis, JHM executive director. “The Jewish History Museum is serving as a landing space and facilitator of these experiences, working together with communities across the U.S. who are translating Jewish values, history, and our communal memory into action to advocate for migrant justice.”

The mission examined U.S. policies and conditions facing migrants and asylum seekers primarily from Central America and Mexico. The aim was to gain first-hand knowledge of the challenges and situation on the border to better understand and advocate for sound immigration policies. Participants met with government officials, immigrant families, and local Jewish and other faith advocates working to address the crisis, including nonprofits on both sides of the border.

“Our itinerary included speaking with U.S. border patrol representatives and visiting a shelter that helps asylum seekers who are allowed into the U.S. while they are awaiting a hearing,” said Melanie Roth Gorelick, senior vice president of JCPA. “The increased militarization of the border since the 1990s to the present day has brought disruption to this area and to the people whose families are impacted. Our expert speakers from South America all expressed great alarm at current conditions throughout South America and the current treatment of these communities by the U.S.A.

“At dinner, our guests were young millennials who come from across the country to volunteer to help asylum seekers and migrants in the desert with an organization called No More Deaths,” she added.

Observing a federal deportation hearing through Operation Streamline was among the most jarring of experiences, participants said. Operation Streamline is a joint initiative of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice, started in 2005, with a “zero-tolerance” approach to unauthorized border crossing with criminal prosecution of those engaging in it. The group witnessed more than 75 people who had crossed illegally into the United States being arraigned in Federal court in shackles, Roth Gorelick said.

“We heard from indigenous advocates and lawyers who are working to change the laws and policies both nationally and locally, and from scholars who are experts on the geopolitical turmoil in Honduras and Guatemala. They all underscored a need for a change in our immigration system to be more compassionate, humanitarian, and sound,” said Roth Gorelick.

The group also met a Mexican consul, faith community groups coordinating the humanitarian response, and advocacy groups. They toured local shelters and walked the border fence with local author Todd Miller,  whose latest book is “Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World.”

The delegation included board members, rabbis, and Jewish community leaders from Arizona, California, Kentucky, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

“There are many inspiring people working at the border worthy of support, some who are a band-aid for a broken system and others who are advocating for systemic change that is based on compassionate and humanitarian values,” said  Roth Gorelick. “There is a lot of work to do. Our eyes and hearts have been open to a reality that we have now intimately witnessed. It has touched the lives of those on the trip, and we cannot turn away.”