The Leona Vicario Shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
The Leona Vicario Shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso

Rabbi Kaluzny travels to the U.S.-Mexico border to gain a deeper understanding of challenges faced by asylum-seekers.

Photos by Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny

Though news of deplorable conditions for immigrants and asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border has been overshadowed recently by reports of presidential impeachment and direct U.S. conflict with Iran, the situation still receives attention from humanitarian groups fighting for rights to be recognized.

Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny of Temple Israel joined 19 rabbis, cantors and activists from across the country on a human rights delegation to the U.S.-Mexico border where they observed U.S. immigration policies.

Led by representatives of HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, the delegates spent four days in El Paso, Texas, Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and neighboring communities late last year to get a firsthand view of the immigrant situation on the border.

From Michigan, little can be done to alleviate the human suffering taking place at the border. Federal laws restrict humanitarian and medical aid to reach the thousands held in detention centers. Over the summer, Temple Israel coordinated humanitarian efforts with a Reform temple in Albuquerque, N.M., by raising money to buy clothing, food and other supplies, such as disposable cell phones for asylum seekers who had been dropped off in the city with no resources as they await their asylum hearings.

Then, around the High Holidays, Temple Israel rabbis began to discuss the opportunity for one of them to go on a HIAS human rights delegation trip; it worked best with Kaluzny’s schedule. After paperwork, she underwent a full background check as required by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“All my colleagues were very supportive of me participating on this trip,” she said. “And our members for months have expressed their concern and their desire to help the situation in whatever way they can. Temple Israel members expect us as clergy to do good things and, when I was there, I represented them.”

Just before leaving, she gave a Shabbat sermon announcing she was embarking on the trip. Days later, she was at the U.S.-Mexico border, her phone laden with text messages of support and love for her and for the families and individuals dealing with conditions at the border, she said.

Rebecca Kirzner of HIAS said the purpose of these trips is for Jewish leaders to “gain a deeper understanding of the injustices and complexities at the border, and the unconscionable ways our government is slamming the doors on those seeking asylum in our country.

“Our goal is to make sure there is a strong moral voice in support of the rights, safety and dignity of refugees,” Kirzner said. “This is not just a legal issue or a set of political talking points. It is about how we treat others. “It is our hope the rabbis and cantors on the trip are able to share that message in their home communities, and also mobilize their communities to help. There are many ways the Detroit Jewish community can help through advocacy, volunteering, raising funds and activism.”

Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny hugs and interacts with children at the Leona Vicario Shelter in Ciudad Juarez
Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny was able to hug and interact with some children at the Leona Vicario Shelter in Ciudad Juarez.

“Twin Cities”

Once on the ground in El Paso, the group met with members of the Jewish community and with city government officials, including City Councilman Peter Svarzbein. The Jewish son of Eastern European and Argentinian immigrants, Svarzbein said efforts from groups like HIAS convey the message throughout the United States that the communities of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez are commercially and culturally intertwined like “twin cities” and do not wish to be separated by a wall.

Svarzbein described the situation at the border as “more complex and beautiful than one can ever imagine.”

“We understand better than anybody else that life at the border is the perfect personification and an embodiment of the American immigrant experience,” Svarzbein said in a telephone interview.

“The opportunities for both countries at the border is a blessing in many ways. When you think of the American dream and what that means, you don’t have a better or stronger personification of what that means than right here. Communities here have shared a cultural and economic flow for generations, and we do not want to be separated by a wall.”

Otero Processing Center

A highlight of the trip included an ICE-led tour of the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, N.M., 30 miles northeast of El Paso.

Kaluzny was familiar with news reports of inhumane conditions coming out of Otero. Recent studies from humanitarian groups, such as the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee and Freedom for Immigrants, say public statements from Management and Training Corporation, (MTC), the for-profit company running the facility, do not align with the accounts or experiences of those confined in Otero. Those individuals report troubling rights violations and dehumanizing treatment from ICE. They also say ICE inspections are largely ineffective at maintaining and enforcing the standards of detention ICE established for its facilities.

What struck her most as the group approached the facility is that, though seeking asylum according to U.S. law is not a crime, Kaluzny said Otero indeed is a prison with barbed wire fences and high watchtowers. It was eerie, though, that at a facility crowded with 1,000 men, she said during the tour, it was “quiet enough to hear a pin drop.”

Kaluzny described that she saw male asylum seekers spending their days in a prison. The detainees she saw were living in dorms that housed up to 50 people at a time.

Though the facility was only supposed to house men, Kaluzny said some there looked to be teens or boys; but without dental or identification records, it was hard to prove.

Kaluzny said when they visited, only 19 of the 1,000 men being held there had any criminal record.

She said the detainees have little privacy or freedom of movement; even access to showers and bathrooms was monitored.

She added that detainees are allowed fresh air two hours per day. There are scheduled meals. They can choose to make a phone call, however, a two-minute phone call costs more than $1, which is more than they earn for a full day’s work, Kaluzny said.

Traffic at the border between Mexico and the U.S.
Traffic was heavy at the border between Mexico and the U.S.

As the HIAS group toured the facility guided by Otero’s warden and ICE officials, Kaluzny felt the prepared responses to their questions did not reflect the reality they were seeing. She said they had no individual conversations with the detainees.

“I walked out of there thinking that I was being told (by the warden and by the ICE officials) to not believe what my eyes are seeing and ears are hearing,” Kaluzny said. “The language our escorts used and how they described the place to us made it sound like Otero was a place (the detainees) were grateful to be, but this was not how it appeared.”

At Otero, the group observed men confined in an infirmary through a glass window, saw where they could sit at chairs and speak into a phone that was snaked through a hole in the glass, and saw a solitary confinement cell where men were fed meals through a slot.

One of the rabbis was a native of Venezuela and could communicate a few sentences to the detainees in Spanish as well as serve as a translator during meetings with those in Mexico.
“In the brief moments we were there, the best we could do was exchange a smile and communicate to them that we were there not to hurt or embarrass them,” Kaluzny said.

Ciudad Juarez

In Ciudad Juarez, officials from the Mexico Protection Program toured the group through the Leona Vicario Shelter that houses 650 people (with only 250 beds), 40 percent of whom are minors.

There, Mexico treats them as humanely as possible, providing them with shelter, food and clothing as well as hygienic facilities. The main downsides: Though they all had already presented for asylum, they must wait in Mexico for their hearings in U.S. immigration court and, if they leave the encampment, they fear for their lives from the drug cartels.

Here, families are sheltered in bunk beds and children receive some education. Some will venture outside the compound to find work in town and there is a daycare center, but many fear for their lives from the drug cartels and do not leave, Kaluzny said.

Despite the language barrier, she did have the opportunity to interact with the children, some who came up to the rabbis to receive hugs.

“I saw moms nursing babies and other children fast asleep in their exhausted parents’ arms. I wondered if they were getting everything they need, ” Kaluzny said.

“When I saw them, I saw us. I wanted them to know they have been seen and heard. You don’t walk thousands of miles and leave all that is familiar for any other reason besides wanting to give your family a chance at safety, stability and opportunity.”

Now that she is back home, Kaluzny said that this year she hopes to teach a course about immigration through a Jewish lens based on materials provided by the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. But, mainly, the best thing she can do is to keep talking about what she saw at the border and encourage her peers, families and friends to keep the conversation going at home.

“Even though there is less news coverage of this issue, it is still happening,” Kaluzny said. “It is far from resolved and we need to keep this as an issue in the front of people’s minds.
“As Jews, we must always remember and welcome the stranger. This is a human issue and we need to give them a voice.”

Read More: U.S. Immigration Policy Sparks Action in Michigan

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