What I saw on the border

Jess Smith
on August 24, 2018

I’ve just returned from the US-Mexico border. I spent the past week there as part of a delegation of Jewish leaders from 17 different organizations, learning firsthand about the detention and persecution of migrant families.

I was honored to represent J Street on this trip, organized by HIAS and the Anti-Defamation League. As a mother, as a progressive and as an American Jew who is deeply conscious of the history of our people, I know that it’s essential that we bear witness to what our government is doing to today’s refugees — and do all that we can to fight back.

I know that we must use whatever means we have to shine a spotlight on injustice, to speak out when the powerful target the powerless, to find ways to act.

As Jews, we have been stigmatized and mistreated so many times. Our traditions and values call out for us to stand up in defense of the vulnerable people who are being similarly targeted and marginalized at this very moment.

This week, the parallels between our ancestors and those today who are seeking a more secure, freer life in the United States really hit home. We spoke to Michael Hopkins, the CEO of Jewish Family Services of San Diego (JFS), who explained that JFS was founded in 1918 to help Jewish immigrants who were trying to cross the border into the US.

One hundred years later, they’re still working to aid and support those who risk everything in pursuit of safety and a better future.

The Trump administration’s assault on immigrants and refugees has been overwhelming, infuriating and disorienting. That’s the point. Outside the buildings in Washington in which the discriminatory policies are drawn up, and outside the political rallies around the country at which the president derides immigrants with xenophobic rhetoric, entire lives are being destroyed.

After a meeting with the executive director of the regional ACLU about the importance of immigrants having access to legal assistance, a group of us had a last-minute opportunity to visit a children’s “shelter-based facility” (aka detention center).

The facility holds 65 unaccompanied minors, children of all ages. It’s a strikingly nondescript building in the middle of the El Cajon neighborhood of San Diego, in a sea of strip malls — right next door to an auto-detail shop.

Many of these children are apprehended at the border and turned over to the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). They come to the border seeking protection, having traveled hundreds of miles to escape harm in their home countries.

Most have gone through arduous, dangerous journeys to get here, and they are arrested at the border. Many are shocked to be arrested and have no sense of what’s ahead.

Make no mistake: these children are incarcerated. They have no freedom of movement. They are permitted two calls a week, and the calls have to be approved by the facility.

The small outdoor space that serves as the “recreation area” for all these children opens up to a barbed wired view of the neighborhood community, with homes adjacent to the property. We saw about 30-40 boys crammed into a tiny lunch room, sitting hip to hip.

They smiled to see us. They are children. It was hard to keep it together.

That was the tip of the iceberg. On both sides of the border, we witnessed countless mothers, fathers and young adults who were fleeing persecution, looking for safe refuge — and instead, were treated like criminals.

For me, the lesson of this trip was clear: As the descendants of refugees, immigrants and asylum-seekers who fled to this country similarly seeking a secure and dignified life, we cannot afford to separate the experiences of our forebears from what migrant families are going through today.

The administration’s attacks on immigrants and refugees are part of something larger. They are the cornerstone of a politics of tribalism and prejudice. This dangerous agenda — with its attacks on democratic principles and institutions and on the value of inclusiveness, pluralism and diversity — is a threat to all of us, and to the future of our country.

As heartbreaking as it’s been to see so much injustice, this week has driven home for me why it is so critically important that we at J Street join coalitions that are battling to protect immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers — and battling to fix a broken system.

It’s also come as one more reminder of how high the stakes are in this November’s midterm elections. We need to change the direction of our country by electing a Congress that will hold this president accountable instead of enabling his bigoted, dehumanizing actions and rhetoric.

We need to support leaders who know that America has always been, and must always be, a nation of immigrants.

Over the course of the next few weeks until Election Day, J Street will continue to do everything we can to achieve this major shift in our nation’s politics.

Supporting our partners on the frontlines of this fight, we will continue to demand recognition of the shared humanity and dignity that binds us all together — from our ancestors to the children I visited this week.

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