As many of you know, I spent this past week at the southern border of our country, in El Paso on the US side, and in Juarez on the Mexican side. I was honored to join a group of Jewish clergy which was led by HIAS, who we heard from here on Yom Kippur. And T’ruah, The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights—two highly respected and excellent organizations. They brought us on this trip to bear moral witness to what is happening to immigrants coming to the US border, to bring back stories, and to be part of the movement working toward change.
There is no way I could share with you all that I saw and learned in a single sermon and I won’t pretend to try. I’ll share some stories with you tonight and plan to continue to unpack this experience with you in the months ahead.
It will probably not shock anyone to know that the situation is worse than we hear about on the news.
A little explanation of this moment for context: Recently, our country implemented a policy called MPP—Migrant Protection Protocols, or what has been called simply “Remain in Mexico,” as well as a system of metering. This means that a person seeking asylum first approaches a recognized port of entry, and is given a number. They will then return to Mexico for between 6-9 months, waiting for their number to be called. There are currently 20,000 people with numbers and 15 might be called on a single day. When their number is called, they come and show their number to an ICE official, who takes them, detains them, and processes them. If they are deemed to have a credible fear of returning home, they are assigned a court date, and then they are sent back to Mexico for many more months. When they do finally go before a judge, more often than not, they are told something is filled out wrong or they are missing a document and they have to come back—a later court date is set. There are currently 50,000 people in Mexico awaiting their court date. This reflects an enormous policy shift from people being able to seek asylum from US soil. The Department of Homeland Security explains that MPP will help restore a safe and orderly immigration process…while ensuring that vulnerable populations receive the protections they need. I want to assure you that from all that we saw, that is not the case—for sure not the way it’s been implemented.
We went to a shelter which houses folks stuck in Mexico. There were only 250 beds for the 650 people staying there. 40% of those people are children. It is loud. It looks like a giant warehouse. There are chairs lining the walls in the front. In the chairs were mostly women, about a third of whom were nursing their babies. A few kids stayed close to our group, some of them finding a rabbi to hug. The man running this shelter is working hard for them and treats them with dignity. Many come to the shelter after a couple of days in US detention. He says they are often disoriented, hungry, exhausted, and sad. He gets them food, a change of clothes, a place to sleep. And they know they are lucky to be there. Later, we saw the alternative to this: tent cities full of families.
When it hailed on us in El Paso, it was also hailing on them in their tents, on the gravel upon which they sleep, little kids bared to the elements for months. The shelter is not easy, but there is a roof. And food. And even a growing daycare system for the littlest kids.
One woman told us that she had left Honduras, fleeing the gangs who threatened her for her work with USAID. They grabbed her 15 year old daughter and marked her and said you have 4 days to leave. So they ran. They were kidnapped in Mexico and thrown in a freezer truck, but escaped and made it to this shelter where she is now awaiting her court date. The Honduran cartel members followed her there and hang out outside the shelter, waiting for her to come out. She is terrified to leave. Every time she goes across the border for a court date, she is returned for some little reason. And every night they are returned, her daughter cries all night long. She is afraid, too.
About three weeks ago, the director told us, a feeling of hopelessness settled on the shelter. People started seeing others go to their second or third hearing and nothing was changing. So far, only three families have been granted asylum. There is one judge in El Paso that has a 100% denial rate. He lets in no one, even though they have credible claims, because that is what he is instructed to do. There is deep trauma in the hearts of those in this shelter and living in tents, having fled terrifying violence and persecution, now just waiting to cross a border to safety.
El Paso and Juarez were long considered to be a binational city, sharing culture, labor, and commerce—tens of thousands of people crossing the border daily in rich community. We were told by El Paso Council Member Peter Svarzbein that El Paso and Juarez have a “border crossing identity.”
This resonated, because we have it, too. These first Torah portions of the book of Genesis have us witnessing our ancestors learning how the world works and their role in it. In B’reishit we saw the first murder. In Noach, the first genocide, in the form of a flood. And in parshat lech l’cha this week, we encounter the first border crossing. God identifies a man named Avram to be the father of a new people, the Hebrew people. God instructs him to leave the place he was born, his father’s house. God’s first words to Avram make him a migrant. The text then says: vayehi ra’av ba’aretz vayeired Avram Mitzrayma lagor sham ki chaved ha’ra’av ba’aretz. There was a famine in the land and so Avram went down to Egypt to dwell there because the famine was so severe in the land.
So what do we see here? A man whose family was hungry because a famine came over his land. Who saw there could be safety and sustenance in another land and so traveled there, crossing the border into Egypt to do so. One minute God is talking to him and the next there is great urgency in his leaving. He is out of options. The famine is chaved—severe—and his family will starve.
We know he is afraid to cross over because we read next that he tells his wife Sarai, soon to be Sarah, to pretend she is his sister, because he is afraid that the people of Egypt will kill him. But he takes his family anyway, because he is out of options.
Avram crosses over into Egypt to save his family’s life. Much later, our whole people cross a border out of Egypt toward freedom, to save their lives. Later still, our people will try to cross a border on the St. Louis, into America, to save their lives. And so many other times our wandering people crossed over or tried to. The Hebrew word for Hebrews, Avram’s new people, is Ivri’im and it translates to “those who cross over.” We have a border crossing identity.
When we make it across, we live, our children live, our story has a next chapter. And when we are not permitted to cross, like with the St. Louis in 1939, our fate is different. That is what is at stake with being permitted to cross a border.
This trip had us asking why our Avram makes it across, but all of the Avrams that we met—who are also out of options, also fleeing their own severe famine or severe something terrible, who are also just someone’s mom or dad or grandmother or kid or uncle, who have also crossed deserts with nothing, are being turned away. The Avram who was the woman from Honduras. The Avrams nursing their babies. The Avrams who needed a hug. Just seeking safety and protection. We know the value of being able to cross a border when you are out of options.
When we returned from Juarez, we did so on foot—it’s a few hundred feet across, 30 cents in a turn style, and a flash of my Passport. Countless Avrams sit feet from that border and would give anything, have given everything, to cross that bridge. That few hundred feet is a terrifying eternity. So really, to cross our border right now costs 30 cents and an eternity.
There are more stories—of the ICE detention center we visited, the court proceedings we watched, the raw dehumanization, the Walmart shooting memorial—some much worse stories. But there are also great stories, heroic stories of people caring for the stranger, fighting back against hate, seeing humanity in one another. And then there is our story, which we will need to write together. How do we want to have an impact? Who do we want to be in this moment in history? For now, we sit with parshat Lech L’cha, the story of the world’s very first border crossing. And we pray that it lifts us up and reminds us of each person’s worth and humanity. Stirs in us outrage at such cruelty, but also profound hope because our origin story is one of crossing over and of welcoming. And we feel empathy become action as our arms and legs and hearts start to move toward the change that we want to be part of. Shabbat shalom.
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