The witnesses: Jewish activist group heads to U.S.-Mexico border

  • Eight members of the Jewish Activists for Immigration Justice stand on stepladders outside the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Florida last June. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Tents set up in a migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, just across the border from Brownsville, Texas. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/5/2020 4:31:23 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A large encampment in Mexico near the southern border holds more than 1,000 migrants, many from Central America, who have made dangerous journeys in hopes of applying for asylum in the United States.

But due to changes in the asylum system implemented by the Trump administration — including Migration Protection Protocols, also called the Remain in Mexico policy — the 1,200 or so people staying in Matamoros, Mexico, may wait months and perhaps years before their cases are heard, rather than having their asylum claims and arguments about credible fear expedited.

To provide assistance and comfort to these children and families being forced to live in what may be both dangerous and squalid conditions, 10 members of the Jewish Activists for Immigration Justice of Western Massachusetts are arriving in Brownsville, Texas on Saturday.

Carolyn Toll Oppenheim of Northampton, one of those who will be at the border for a week, said the work will be about making a commitment to American values that includes welcoming refugees and not forcing them to return to countries in Central America where they may face certain death.

“This is the antithesis of what a lot of us feel should be our country’s openness to people,” Oppenheim said of the ongoing efforts to block the nation’s borders. “I think there has been a vision that we’re a refuge for people who are generally in fear.”

Oppenheim, who previously observed a since-shuttered detention camp for migrant children in Tornillo, Texas in November 2018, spoke of the importance of joining the “witness” movement to offer hope to people under threat of physical violence and sexual assault at the camp in Matamoros, as well as to raise awareness among Americans.

Raised in a family of Holocaust survivors who were kept in displaced persons camps during and after World War II, Oppenheim said treating refugees humanely is in her blood.

“It frightens me to see this happening without enormous outcry,” Oppenheim said.

Alice Levine of Easthampton, who joined several others in protesting at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Florida last spring, said she expects that the trip will be filled with emotion.

“I want to be able to go down and see what they are experiencing,” Levine said of the migrants. “We will be able to learn more about sanitary conditions, the possibility of disease and rampant sickness because of the conditions people are living in.”

“Partly this is coming out of the Jewish tradition and history, feeling we are not free to remain silent,” Levine continued. “That is being complicit. Our responsibility is to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone.”

Dina Friedman of Hadley, who also went to Homestead, said assisting those seeking asylum with humanitarian aid is among the objectives of the upcoming trip to Brownsville, Texas.

Also important, Friedman said, is to bear witness to the massive deportations from the Brownsville airport back to Central America and so-called tent courts that are depriving people of due process.

After researching many places along the border where similar tent cities have popped up, the local contingent chose Brownsville because its members were looking for groups that could accommodate the weeklong, short-term commitment.

“One of the reasons we decided to go to this part of the border is the group there is very organized and effective,” Levine said.

In addition to joining up with the witness movement and “Team Brownsville,” there is an active Asylum Seekers Resource Center in Matamoros, Levine said.

Many in the group already know Josh Rubin, the leader of the witness movement in Brownsville, who came to Northampton recently to speak about his experience and a film about his work, “Witness at Tornillo.” 

During the trip, the group will be staying at homes in Brownsville and will join protests, including a “Love, Not Hate” rally set for Valentine’s Day. They will also cross over the bridge that connects the countries, possibly on a daily basis.

“We will have more opportunities to interact with families,” Oppenheim said.

The volunteers plan to bring families meals in wagons that can be pulled across the bridge and then served at the encampment; they also plan to deliver new clothes, children’s books and medical supplies. The group says they will make sure that the basic needs of migrants, such as tents, bathrooms and showers, are being addressed.

Levine said she hopes volunteers can participate in La Escuelita, or the little school, a program in which the children are getting some education.

The contingent may also see firsthand how the so-called tent courts are working. There, judges on video screens are hearing the asylum appeals from migrants, even though many don’t speak English or Spanish but indigenous languages.

More than $6,000 was raised from the local community and area temples that will go to support supplies and organizations working at the border. The 10 people who are going will be paying their own expenses.

Last weekend, the group held a send-off event at R. Michelson Gallery in Northampton where art from children held at the former Tornillo camp is on display.

Levine said the work will continue even after the journey is complete. “Our work doesn’t end when we finish the trip,” she said.

In fact, Oppenheim said several events are scheduled in the area, including Feb. 22 from 12:30 to 2 p.m. at Congregation B’Nai Israel in Northampton and Feb. 24 from 7:30 to 8:45 p.m. at Pathways Co-housing in Florence.

To follow the trip, go to

Scott Merzbach can be reached at


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