Two weeks ago, Rabbi Elana Zelony, a Rabbis Without Borders member, visited an immigrant detention center in Texas as part of an interfaith delegation to bear witness to what has been happening at these centers. She shared her experience, and her testimony, with other Rabbis Without Borders members. With her permission, we have reprinted it here.
Dear RWB Alum,
Rebecca asked me to share some reflections about my recent trip to McAllen, TX to witness what immigrants are experiencing. I was part of an interfaith delegation that went on Thursday. I went because T’ruah wanted a “local” rabbi to be there. I live in Dallas, which is an 8 hour drive and world apart from McAllen.
My journey began at 3:30 am Thursday morning. My Lyft app wasn’t working so I had to wake my husband and children to take me to the airport. I almost missed my flight. The flight was very bumpy, and we almost had to turn around. The rain was heavy and the Rio Grande was starting to rise out of its bed. All I could think about the inconveniences of my journey was how much easier it was than every single immigrant’s journey.
Our first stop was the Catholic Charities Respite Center. People who have crossed at the legal check point and been given permission to seek asylum go there. I learned a little about what they experience. Before they arrive at the Respite Center they are fitted with ankle trackers so the government can know where they are. They are helped to buy bus and plane tickets. Most of them are going on to other cities to meet family members while they await their day in court. Their chance to plead asylum could take years the system is so backed up. When they arrive at the Respite Center they are given baby supplies, hygiene supplies, hot meals, clean clothes and showers. They process up to 200 people a day. There are two showers and two toilets.They can also receive basic medical attention. If necessary they can sleep on the floor there. The building is clean and efficiently run but woefully inadequate for the need. They need a larger facility. If you can, send money to Catholic Charities of McAllen. You can also organize teams of volunteers to go and help. Do not send supplies. The warehouse already is bursting at the seams.
Next, I went over to the Federal Court house to hear the cases of immigrants who had not crossed at a legal check point. Most of the delegation didn’t go, but Justin Nelson who is running for TX Attorney General took a few of us. He sweet talked the marshal and we were permitted to observe the courtroom. About 50 immigrants sat before the judge. They smelled from their journey and looked tired and unhappy. They all had headphones to translate the proceedings. Some of them were shackled. One by one the judge asked them the same questions: Did you knowingly and willingly cross the border illegally? Did you receive legal counsel this morning? Is _______ the country where you hold citizenship? Do you waive your right to trial? How do you plead? They all plead guilty. On the elevator back to the lobby I spoke with a man who is a federal defender. I asked why they all plead guilty. He explained they all are. People wait for up to a week just to cross the bridge between Reynosa and McAllen and ask to enter. Some of them decide to risk crossing the river without going through our government.
The walk to the courthouse involved walking through flooded streets. I was up to mid-calf in water. All I could think about were immigrants camped on the Reynosa side of the river in the same flood waters. I thought about the tents trying to house the overflow of immigrants at the detention center on the McAllen side. It was a sobering thought. I asked the federal defender if those who crossed illegally still had the right to plead for asylum. He said that the answer to my question used to be yes but that now it was unclear.
Next was a press conference. AP, LA Times and London Times were present to name a few. People quoted scripture and warned us to remember our world history. They said the executive order wasn’t good enough because it wasn’t a plan to reunite families or a plan to process immigrants in a more just and compassionate way. The comment that stirred my heart the most was that we have to stop saying, “This isn’t America. This isn’t who we are. Clearly, if we are doing these things this is who we are.” It was also pointed out that this wasn’t the first time we’d separated parents and children. Slavery was mentioned, and I would add Ellis Island.
Finally, we tried to make our way to the detention center. We were supposed to go earlier in the morning, but the First Lady was there instead. The road there was so flooded 18 wheelers were up to their axels in water. Our bus was tall, so the driver went for it. We were in sight of the detention center when Border Patrol turned us back. There would be no visit that day. All I could think about was what it must feel like to be an immigrant and make a long journey, to stand at the border only to be refused and told to return home.
At the end of the day the question on my mind was, “Did we accomplish anything? What value was there in these actions? My friend said that while we hadn’t stabilized any Central American Governments or reunited any families that day our actions had value. She said keeping the attention of the world on this situation is important to try and create accountability and transparency. She also thought the gathering of clergy who do not agree about many things, but who feel the same way about this particular issue was important.
I got home around midnight on Friday struggling to find the words to share with my congregation over Shabbat. In the end, I quoted almost no text, although the parsha included the Children of Israel standing on the border of Edom and begging, “My brother, let me cross your border.” I gave them no moral imperatives. I didn’t even sing the trope of the Jewish immigration story. I think they know all that. I simply told them what I had witnessed.