The rain was unrelenting last Thursday in McAllen, Texas near the border with Mexico. It seemed a fitting commentary on a policy, created by President Trump and his administration, that has caused untold misery for thousands of innocent children — even infants — and their families. It was as if the heavens themselves were weeping.
I came here as part of a group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith leaders to witness and protest the separation of children from their parents at the border. It was especially important for religious leaders to speak out after Attorney General Jeff Sessions used a passage from scripture to support his direction to law enforcement “to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for His purposes.”
This passage from the New Testament has been used historically to justify slavery. We came to McAllen to say that appropriating scripture in this way is perverse, that the God we serve would never ordain the elected government of the United States to use the law to routinely separate parents from their children. We came to demand that the Trump administration rescind its inhumane and oppressive policies on our border.
Our witnessing took place in three locations around a square block 10 miles away from the border: at the Catholic Charities Respite Center, the Federal Courtroom where Magistrate Judge J. Scott Hacker heard the cases of dozens of people who had crossed the border illegally, and a restaurant where a news conference with our leaders, Reverend Al Sharpton and Rabbi Jonah Pesner, took place.
As a group of us made our way on foot between these three locations, our feet were submerged, whether we wore sandals, dress shoes or cowboy boots. Our skirts and pants were soaked through. But when we got to our destination, we were offered shelter, a place to dry off, and in one case, the blessing of hot coffee.
Ten miles away men and women, girls and boys, parents and children, were experiencing the same rain, but with no knowledge of when or how they would find safety or shelter. Ten miles away, hundreds of human beings were trapped between returning to known and unavoidable terror or forging ahead, facing the unknown risks of crossing the border.
In some ways, borders are arbitrary. The same rain falls on both sides. In order for borders to be meaningful, they need to represent something. The United States border is not only a safeguard of our own freedoms, but remains a symbol of hope to those fleeing persecution.
At the March on Washington in 1963 Rabbi Joachim Prinz said (in the gendered language of the day) that “when God created man, He created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.” Right now our government is trying mightily to change our concept of neighbor into a threat rather than a responsibility.
The sign on the wall at the Respite Center says “Restoring Human Dignity.” The question is — does human dignity need to be restored because of the ordeal of getting to the border, or because of the ordeal that follows, the ordeal that is ordained by our government? The Respite Center’s mission can be seen as a reflection of the promise of America, or it can be an indictment of the way our country treats the stranger.
Human dignity is given by God, to every human being, and it cannot be taken away. The way we treat strangers is a reflection of our own human dignity, not only a judgment of our neighbor’s.
The Trump administration’s cruelty demands a moral as well as a political response. While we should not pretend that there is an easy solution, it is correct to press our failed Congress to do something to right the situation. This is their job.
But as American Jews, with our own special history, we have a job to do, too. We must speak out, bear witness and tell our nation and the world that our faith teaches us to welcome the stranger and love them – because we were strangers in the Land of Egypt.
We must make clear where we stand — and who we stand with. That’s why, on Saturday, J Street supporters will proudly join #FamiliesBelongTogether marches and rallies across the country.
Alongside millions of our fellow Americans, we’ll send a powerful message to all those who seek to spread bigotry and tear migrant families apart: Not on our watch.
The President may be beyond learning the lessons that history and religion can teach us. But our country and its citizens are not beyond redemption. By standing up for what is right, we can help redeem our nation, its borders, and the values for which they stand.
Rabbi Nancy Kasten is a community educator in Dallas, TX and is an active member of the J Street Rabbinic & Cantorial Cabinet.