I was humbled and inspired to travel Nov. 3-6 with other rabbis and cantors to El Paso and Juarez, along with staff from HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and T’ruah, a rabbinic organization for human rights, to visit detained immigrants near the U.S.-Mexico border. These are my reflections from the journey.
Visiting Otero Detention Center, near Alamogordo, New Mexico, we actually are entering a jail. But what crimes have the detainees committed? And why isn’t it called a prison? Why is everyone from the warden to the guards to our guide putting on happy faces? While these actually are prisoners, people who are accused of committing crimes, these detainees only have committed the “crime” of leaving home; of walking many miles across the desert to a promised land; they have committed the “crime” of fleeing for their lives; the “crime” of seeking sanctuary.
Every morning, we pray umanos li, and You, Holy One, are my refuge, my sanctuary. You are that safe place that we call home. This is the place that these men were seeking, but what they found in their asking, in their seeking, in their journey born of fear and despair, was this: a place of detention also born of fear and despair; the fear and despair of many people in this country, our fellow citizens, our fellow travelers, the fear of the stranger.
We are in a “dorm.” This euphemism causes my very bones to shake. The last time we Jews encountered this much distortion of words and their meanings, we were in Nazi Germany heading for disaster. This is a men’s dorm yet I am certain that the man/boy’s eyes I look into are younger than 18. I cannot stop looking; I want to hold this young man who keeps wrapping and unwrapping his blanket. He is lying in a bunk bed. He should be out leaping and running and being alive; instead he is here shrouded in a blanket. When we enter and exit this “dorm,” the doors are unlocked before us and locked behind us. I am confused about my purpose here; facts on the ground, yet all I want to do is grab the boy, load him onto the bus and take him to safety.
As the tour continues we see in rapid succession space after space. Answers flow quickly before questions are asked.
Because I am me, I explore the word “detain.” I stumble along in my thesaurus: delay, keep, impede, hinder, arrest, hold, capture, confine, and control. I immediately remove “keep” from the list. “Keep” is our Shabbas word; I cannot have this word reside here on this list yet, if only, these men were being kept safe, protected by me, by my country, while they sought the sanctuary they came for.
I also want to remove “hold” from the list because “hold” is what I try to do every day of my life. Hold onto Torah, to G-d, to a life of mitzvot, hold on to other humans, strangers, family, and friends as we make our way through our lives in the delicate balance of hope and fear, love and anger, joy and justice. I do not want to hold, to stand as a barrier to these asylum seekers.
I trudge back to the bus on this beautiful blue-sky day aware that the state I am in, New Mexico, bears the motto “land of enchantment.” But the soul state I am in is so far from enchantment, I have to remind myself to breathe. I catch my breath with the recognition that I am both jailer and visitor; I am the guard in this detention center as surely as if I held the keys in my hands and turned the lock. What is done here in the land of enchantment is done by me, by you, by each one of us.
“This land is your land; this land is my land, from California to the New York Island,” is about everything that happens shore to shore; everything that is done in your name, in my name, in all of our names. Here for the next few hours, my strongest emotion is shame. I am ashamed for each one of us; I am red-faced and burning. We are Jews; we are commanded to know the stranger, to love “our” strangers, but here we are shredding the Haggadah, forgetting, when we are constantly taught to remember, we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We were persecuted, oppressed, and enslaved. In Nazi-conquered Europe, we were persecuted, hunted, and slaughtered. We must stand up and reopen the borders of our hearts. We must not do the same to these fellow humans who are only seeking freedom from fear.