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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Amy Eilberg

What Kind of Country Does This?

Of all the people I met during my trip last month to the U.S.-Mexico border, one person’s face haunts me.

Maria (not her real name) sat across from me at the lunch table at the Casa Alitas shelter in Tucson. This temporary refuge takes care of the lucky few immigrants who are allowed into the U.S. after crossing the border and presenting themselves for asylum.

Maria was eight months pregnant, being cared for until she could join her cousin in the Midwest, where she would give birth and wait for her asylum hearing. Maria looked sad, weary and a bit dazed. I made conversation with her haltingly, because of my very limited Spanish, and because I didn’t want to pepper her with questions. It emerged that her husband had left home sometime after her, in the hope of joining her. She sat in the chapel every day, praying for his safe arrival. When I told her that I would pray for her husband and for their baby, she cried. I wonder what happened to this young mom, her husband and baby.

My trip was sponsored by the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a national organization that brings together Muslim and Jewish women to learn about one another and stand up together against hate and prejudice. We were hosted by a remarkable organization called BorderLinks, an educational arm of the sanctuary movement.

Inspired young activists prepared us for our journey, introduced us to some of the complexities of the border region, and oriented us to the U.S. government’s long-term policy of dehumanizing and endangering migrants. Witnessing the expertise, passion and compassion of these young people would itself have been worth the trip.

Our group spent two hours in a courtroom. We watched scores of young migrants — chained at the wrists, waist and ankles — file in for their one to two minutes before an immigration judge. Each had met with an attorney, who may or may not have spoken their language, for 30 minutes earlier that day, and had been urged to plead guilty to the “crime” of crossing the border “without inspection.” (To be clear, it is unequivocally not a crime to cross the border for the first time in search of asylum.) Some were sent to detention for various lengths of time, and all were, sooner or later, sent back to Mexico. Their identity documents and their medications, along with their shoelaces, are taken from them. Generally, these items are not returned.

Those deported are dropped at a place in Mexico where they have no connections and no money, and with no shoelaces in their shoes, making them easily identifiable by traffickers.

One of our tour guides had previously worked for No More Deaths, one of the humanitarian organizations that places food and water along the perilous desert paths where migrants walk on their journeys.

For several hours, our group walked along one of these paths, contemplating how terrifying this journey would be after weeks of flight and inadequate nutrition, while we had no fear for our wellbeing, and no one was lurking to apprehend or kidnap us. We placed water, snacks and other supplies at one of the drop-off points, praying for those who would come after us.

Some of these policies date to the Clinton administration. But the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy has severely restricted the criteria for admission into the U.S. while awaiting one’s asylum hearing.

Not long ago, people who could demonstrate “credible fear” of mortal danger based on their identities or a history of domestic violence would be admitted into the U.S. with a tracking device. An overwhelming number of these people faithfully appeared for their asylum hearings. But now the criteria have been narrowed severely. The few lucky ones who meet the new criteria are dropped off in a town in the U.S. with no place to go, no money or identity documents.

The faith community has stepped in, creating shelter for many such people until they can be reunited with family or friends elsewhere in the country. Casa Alitas, the shelter we visited, has grown into a large and lovingly decorated facility where the “guests” are treated with respect, caring and sensitivity to what each person may need during this pause in their traumatic journey. An army of volunteers assists the small staff by providing meals, helping with childcare, clothing, language assistance, travel planning and many services (large and small) to ease the guests’ way. We did what little we could do as short-term visitors — from playing with children to give exhausted parents a break and planting flowers to beautify the outdoor play space.

The purpose of this trip was not tourism, not even our own personal learning. I will be faithful to the people and places I saw and the terrible policies whose impact I witnessed only to the extent that I accelerate my own activism and encourage others to do the same.

Many of us ache to rewrite our nation’s hateful immigration policies and procedures.

This is a long-term project that will depend on the strategic efforts of a groundswell of American citizens, and will require changes in the White House and in Congress.

In the meantime, we can easily make a small difference by supporting the people who support migrants at the border.

Want to help? Give what you can to BorderLinks, No More Deaths, and Casa Alitas. Connect with local organizations that provide support for new immigrants living in our own communities, such as Faith in Action Bay Area, PACT, Amigos de Guadalupe, Sacred Heart Community Service and HIAS.

Remember, our anguish alone does not help the people being persecuted. But our actions, however small, can make a meaningful difference until we reach our goal of a just and humane immigration system.

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