Rabbi Josh Whinston of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor speaks to a multi-faith group protesting outside the Tornillo, Texas, detention center. He is in the center standing in a tallit and kippah while people with signs stand around him and watch and listen.
Rabbi Josh Whinston of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor speaks to a multi-faith group protesting outside the Tornillo, Texas, detention center.

Local rabbi leads pilgrimage to border to protest U.S. immigration policies.

Louis Finkelman Contributing Writer
Photos by Rachel Goldberg

Rabbi Josh Whinston of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor led a group of 20 people, including 11 of his congregants as well as some from Ann Arbor’s Beth Israel Congregation to El Paso, Texas, in mid-November to join an interfaith group protesting U.S. immigration policies and to provide hands-on help to immigrants caught in the system.

Several incidences prompted Whinston to take action. This summer, he helped drive a Guatemalan woman, Yeni Gonzalez, from Ann Arbor to Pittsburgh in an attempt to reunite with her children, who were separated from her when she crossed the border. He called the experience “the most important thing I have done in a long time.”

About a month ago, a congregant asked Whinston what they could do about U.S. government treatment of immigrants besides writing a check.

“We take our own values seriously. We take care of the stranger. It is our Torah and our value, especially given our history.”
— Rabbi Josh Whinston

And, finally, Whinston viewed the late-October murder of 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue as not just an act of hatred of Jewish people, but also an attack on Jewish values. The alleged killer said he wanted to kill all Jews because Jews support immigrants, specifically HIAS, an organization formed to support immigrants.

“We take our own values seriously,” he said. “We take care of the stranger. It is our Torah and our value, especially given our history. I am not politicizing this massacre. Those were the killer’s words. We have to live up to our values.”

Whinston got in touch with a colleague, Rabbi Miriam Terlinchamp in Cincinnati, who had contacts with Faith in Action, a national community organizing group. They put together the “Let Our Families Go” campaign that included stopping in other states along the way to add others to their caravan.

Wendy Lawrence stands with sunglasses on with a pin that says "HOPE" and a sign that reads, "¡Bienvenidos extranjeros!"
Wendy Lawrence Rachel Goldberg

On Nov. 15, the group went through a series of activities at sites encountered by asylum seekers at the border. For example, they briefly crossed the bridge to Juarez, Mexico. As they returned to the U.S., Wendy Lawrence, a Temple Beth Emeth member, marveled at how easily she could cross, compared to others on the same bridge.

“There was a checkpoint before the border, apparently just to scare people from trying to get to the U.S.,” she said. “We, a group of white adults, were waved through. We didn’t have to get our passports out. The other line, for non-citizens, heard ‘We’re full.’

“People who wish to gain recognition as refugees have the legal right to seek asylum in the United States, If, however, they cannot get to the border, they have no way to request recognition. The legal crossing point accepts only a small number of asylum seekers. The rest wait, and wait, on the Mexican side of the border. If they cross elsewhere, the U.S. government considers them ‘illegal entrants,’ prejudicing their claim for asylum.”

Asylum seekers who do enter the U.S. automatically get detained for an interview by law, so pilgrimage participants went to a detention facility at Tornillo, in the Texas desert about 45 minutes outside El Paso. The facility holds more than 1,000 children separated from their families and has capacity for 4,000, according to U.S. Health and Human Services.

Temple Beth Emeth member Rachel Goldberg describes the scene outside the detention center.

Rachel Goldberg stands with a Detroit Tigers hat, a button that reads "HOPE" and a sign that says "Exodus 22:21: You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt."
Rachel Goldberg Rachel Goldberg

“There we formed part of an interfaith group observing, witnessing,” she said. “The group included priests, Muslim women in hijabs and a group of high school students (young women from a local Catholic school) and also folks wearing yarmulkes and tallit (rabbis and congregants) and various Christian groups. This was a group of diverse people compelled by their faith to upend their lives to witness.”

Whinston recounts the group’s scheduled activity there. “For a time, we sang together and heard speeches. Then we approached the entrance to the facility,” he said. “Predictably, agents of Homeland Security denied us entry. We were ready for that result; we did not push it. We were not expecting to see the inside of the facility.”

Yet the visit included something unexpected.

“In the hour we were there, a few buses drove in, taking more children into the facility,” said Goldberg, a teacher at Summers-Knoll School in Ann Arbor. “Whatever we were doing when a bus went by, we stopped to wave to the children. We saw little arms reaching out from the window to wave back to us. I couldn’t stop thinking that those could have been my relatives or my students.

“The last bus that came in while we were there had shades over the windows, so we could not see the children, and they could not see us.”

Lawrence, also a teacher at Summers-Knoll, had a strong reaction to standing outside the facility.

“As we stood outside Tornillo, I thought that we have a support system,” she said. “The multiple generations of congregants from our temple, the high school students from a local Catholic girls’ school, the clergy of different faiths, all stood together.

“We were in an unfamiliar, threatening place, but we had a support system. The children who go into this prison have no family support system. They are all alone.”

Religious leaders and other concerned Michiganders sit and stand for a photo at the border.
Religious leaders and other concerned Michiganders journeyed to Texas to protest U.S. policies regarding immigrants and asylum seekers. Rachel Goldberg

Some Direct Aid

When asylum seekers get released from a detention center, they are released with nothing, just the clothes they are wearing, Lawrence said.

Goldberg notes that shelters, usually run by Christian faith-based charities, provide food, clothing and shelter to the released detainees.

So, after leaving the outskirts of Tornillo, the members of the group proceeded to shelters, splitting up for volunteer work at about 10 different venues, ready to do work that Rabbis Whinston and Terlinchamp of Ohio had arranged.

Whatever Goldberg and Lawrence had planned to do at the shelter, though, got pre-empted, as a new contingent of detainee families arrived. The women helped provide the newcomers with clothing, bed sheets and, for the children, one toy each.

Lawrence noticed the adults wore ankle monitors.

“As the parents were doing adult things, like figuring out paperwork, the kids were not getting into the normal mischief that kids get into while their parents do adult things,” Goldberg said. “The kids looked exhausted and dejected.”

The pilgrimage participants also provided — and served — a meal for people at the shelter.

“How has this experience changed me?” Lawrence mused. “It brought into sharper focus what I knew but wasn’t paying attention to. It is easy to ignore. We have to force people to see what is happening because otherwise it fades into the background, and that’s how the dark wins. As soon as we stop talking about it, that enables those in authority to do this to who knows how many more kids.”

To that end, some of the participants shared their thoughts at an annual pre-Thanksgiving service last week at Temple Beth Emeth/St. Clare’s Episcopal Church; the two religious organizations share a building in Ann Arbor.

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