Group of rabbis tours U.S. border immigration facilities

  • Rabbi Justin David of Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton, Dec. 13, 2017. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer 
Published: 11/25/2019 1:00:16 AM

In early November, Rabbi Justin David of Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton traveled down to the United States-Mexico border to witness firsthand the effects of U.S. immigration policies on people attempting to gain entry into the country.

David and nearly 20 other rabbis visited shelters in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, for people at different stages of the immigration process and an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in New Mexico as part of a trip organized by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and T’ruah, an international group of more than 2,000 rabbis advancing human rights. 

On the first day, David and the group went into Juarez to a shelter set up by the Mexican government for asylum seekers turned away at the border who are given a number and told to wait their turn to present their case before a hearing officer in the States. There are about 700 people housed in the shelter and typically people stay around six months to present their case, according to David. 

The shelter was a locked compound with guards and David said the Mexican government has attempted to create a safe environment for families. The living quarters were a large room with bunk beds where men and women were divided and children were allowed to choose which parent to sleep with. The shelter had a school and there were clothing swaps established, but “it’s a horrible situation they are forced into,” David said. 

“The (Mexican) government is trying its best to have it be a physically safe space,” David said. However, “I don’t think there were any illusions among the shelter staff that they were equipped to deal with the situation they were handed.” 

Many migrants face persecution and violence in their native countries and are seeking asylum status.

The Trump administration began implementing its Migrant Protection Protocols program — sometimes referred to as “Remain in Mexico” — where asylum seekers are forced to stay in Mexico border cities for the duration of their asylum proceedings. There are nearly 50,000 migrants in the MPP program as of Oct. 3 and nearly a third are under the age of 18, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees U.S. immigration courts. 

The rabbis were under ethical guidelines not to ask people’s personal stories within the shelter, but a Guatemalan woman told them she really wanted to share hers. They learned about how she fled her country with her family for fear of violence and that they had traveled up through Central America and faced many hardships along the way. 

“Our sense was that her story was frightening and horrible but not exceptional,” David said.

Later on that day, the group returned to the U.S. to visit another shelter — known as the Annunciation House — for asylum seekers and immigrants who have been released from ICE detention. The building is nearly 100 years old, very close to the border, and it has housed thousands of refugees and poor migrants since it opened its doors in the late 1970s. 

At the Annunciation House, David said he and the other rabbis found a “warm and inviting” atmosphere for residents where the staff’s first concern was for the safety of the nearly 200 people currently sheltered there. Even as the building has provided a sense of safety to the residents, David noted how vulnerable they remain. 

“They were next to an ICE depot so residents are always afraid that they are going to be picked up,” he said. “We heard that profiling in El Paso is rampant by border patrol officers and ICE officers.” 

David said staff members are still reeling after a 21-year-old opened fire inside an El Paso Walmart, where he killed 22 people and injured 26 others in early August. The man confessed to authorities that he had the intention of targeting Mexicans and Hispanics. 

In the past six months, the founder of the Annunciation House, Ruben Garcia, has worked to keep a low profile for the shelter. The address does not get publicly divulged and there are no signs announcing the shelter’s presence. 

“Which is really sad because we have this place that is a beacon of safety for people that has to go under the radar,” David said. “That struck me that even when people get into El Paso, which is objectively a much safer city than Juarez, they are still not safe.”


On another day of the six-day trip, David and the contingent went to an ICE civil detention center for men in New Mexico that prompted one of his colleagues to describe conditions as “Orwellian.”

The group toured the center with the facility’s warden and a spokeswoman for ICE and “we were led to believe that this place was a tightly run ship where the detainees are kept happy by taking advantage of a variety of activities offered to them.” It didn’t take long for David and other rabbis to poke holes in these claims. 

A supposed library the warden boasted about was a room with a few books. David said the warden talked about a law library that turned out to be two computers with access to LexisNexis, an online legal database. 

“The most glaring and disturbing part of the whole tour was when she took us to solitary confinement and talked about it,” David said. It raised questions among rabbis why a civil detention center would need solitary confinement in the first place. 

The reply they received was for “safety reasons” and that people often request solitary confinement. David reminded the warden that she described it as a “tightly run ship,” so why would people request solitary confinement out of fear for their safety? 

The ICE spokeswoman answered him, “Some people just want to be alone.” 

Afterward, the rabbis met with a group from Las Americas Center for Immigration Advocacy, where they briefed David and others about “protests, suicides on the rise, and protests that are met with retribution by prison staff.” The guards regularly abuse detainees and there are often hunger strikes. 

A district director for recently elected U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, described the situation to the group of rabbis as “a humanitarian crisis that is being met with law enforcement.” 

Not wanted

David said his purpose for visiting the border, the immigrant shelters and ICE detention facility was to witness the reality of what U.S. policies are like on the ground and “what the cost is in terms of human suffering.” 

For him, the message from the American government to immigrants, including asylum seekers, is completely unambiguous. 

“Overall, the effect of going to all these places and speaking with all these people was to really see a whole infrastructure and apparatus that is designed to communicate to the most desperate and poorest people that come to our borders that they are not desirable,” David said. “That they are not wanted. That they are less than. That they are not entitled to the same basic human protections and measures of human dignity that other people are afforded.” 

Luis Fieldman can be reached at 

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