Our Trip to the Border

By Melanie Roth Gorelick and Tamara Gilden

Last week, we traveled to both San Diego and Tijuana to learn firsthand about our nation’s immigration crisis as part of a 2018 Jewish Leadership Border Mission, led by HIAS and ADL. Participants on the mission met with the Mexican Consul General, immigration lawyers and advocates, government officials; visited detention centers; and attended an Operation Streamline hearing. We both returned with a deeper understanding that our immigration system is profoundly broken and in dire need of reform.

We learned from our border visit just how much the U.S. has criminalized immigration, often stripping vulnerable people of their dignity and humanity. The participants who visited a federal court during an Operation Streamline hearing witnessed 18 men and one woman shuffle into the courtroom in shackles to be tried simultaneously, with four hearings condensed into one. Operation Streamline expedites the criminal prosecution and deportation of those caught illegally crossing the border.  Most had been caught the day before and spent the night in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody with little food, water, or sleep. Many looked frightened and exhausted. All pled guilty and were deported within 24 hours. We saw two of them the very next day at a men’s shelter in Tijuana.

In immigration court, the few asylum seekers we saw that were approved to move forward with their cases will most likely remain in detention, possibly for more than a year, while they await a final determination. These people are invisible, deprived of their civil and human rights, and held in prison-like facilities.

In Mexico, the director of a shelter for woman and children shared how family separation has gone on for years. While most women were waiting to gain entry into the U.S., many were undocumented parents recently deported after living in the U.S. for years. They describe deportation as a near-death trauma. These women were working to meet onerous requirements, such as having a full-time job and fully-furnished house with a refrigerator, in order to regain custody of their U.S. citizen children. The shelter helps them throughout this process, despite the growing number who need support. Though equipped with only 44 beds, the shelter houses between 110-105 women and children.

While we heard devastating stories, we also met heroic people working to help those impacted by U.S. immigration enforcement, such as those who represent the most vulnerable seeking asylum, including unaccompanied minors, trafficking victims, and sexual and domestic abuse survivors. Service providers on both sides of the border now offer education, psychological and trauma counseling, and skill-building. Others help those who are deported to build lives in their home countries.

We are particularly proud of the Jewish community, and the nearly invisible but committed work of the Jewish Family Services of San Diego (a HIAS affiliate) in providing immigrants legal representation. And we are also proud of the incredible ADL staff in San Diego for all they do to support this work.

It was clear to us that although the “zero tolerance” policy, which remains in force, is intended to deter those who want to enter the U.S. both legally and illegally, regardless of whether they are refugees, asylum seekers, or economic migrants, the number of people seeking entry remains steady. America is still a beacon of hope for those fleeing violence and persecution, even if it means risking detention, kidnapping, or worse. The chance at a better life for them, and most importantly, for their children is motivation enough.

We need to reform our policies, foreign and domestic, to address our system’s failures and the factors forcing people to flee their homes. This is a humanitarian crisis, and we must mobilize our community.

We at JCPA are committed to working toward a sensible, just and humane immigration system, one that balances national security concerns with the protection of civil and human rights. On October 11, we will take this message to Capitol Hill for a Jewish Leadership Advocacy Day on Immigration.