They’re caging people down there.
At first, that was all I could take in. I had stopped on the Paso del Norte Bridge, walking from Ciudad Juarez into El Paso. The sun was bright on the heads and backs of people being herded into white vans with green Customs & Border Patrol (CBP) logos. It traced the thin metal of the fence that separated the waiting from those who’d been slated for removal. I realized, horrified, that there were hundreds of people inside that fence. I saw a baby on a mother’s shoulder as she shifted her weight slowly from foot to foot; a young man sleeping sitting up on the lap of an older man — his father? — who held him tenderly and draped a jacket over the young man’s torso; another man with a deep, hacking cough. A small shade tent stretched from the CBP building nearby, within the fencing. The air was heavy with dust and sorrow.
It was Wednesday, March 27th. I was one of 20 rabbis and cantors, assembled by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, to witness and report on the border. A few hours earlier, CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan (now ICE’s acting director) had held a press conference at the same spot. Photographer Justin Hamel told us that when protesters held up signs and yelled to the migrants, “No son solos” — “You are not alone” — the crowd had erupted, shouting defiance and strength.
In his press conference, McAleenan had repeated the trope of “illegal immigration” which this administration has weaponized. But the migrants I saw on this trip — detained here, and in Otero County Processing Center, and in Mexico with numbers on their wrists, waiting the 45 days to cross the border for a hearing — were enacting their legal right to seek safety for themselves and their families. There is no illegal way to seek asylum.
Nobody walks for six months through cartel-controlled Central American territories for fun or profit. Families are fleeing terror and persecution. As McAleenan spoke to the cameras, not the humans yards away, I locked eyes in Ciudad Juarez’s migrant shelter Casa del Migrante with Sofia, a Jewish Honduran nurse who’d come to the border with her 13-year-old son. She asked who we were, and in my passable Spanish I explained. “Shalom!” she smiled. Expensive medical equipment had been stolen from the government hospital where she worked; she’d reported it, and the Honduran government had persecuted her. She’d taken her boy and run. “He’ll miss his bar mitzvah,” she said ruefully. Two older sons remained behind. I asked her if she’d crossed the border yet. No, she said. She had a number. She was waiting.
A single streetcar line, a social and economic artery, connected the El Paso/Ciudad Juarez metropolis until 1974. Now the area is drawn and quartered by the border wall and the bridges. As I stood looking down at the mass of people below, my hands hooked in the grating in unconscious imitation of theirs, I thought of water. The way it stills, like souls, when contained, and flows, when it can, through time-worn channels. The El Paso border needs flows of people the way it needs the flow of water. Workers used to come up for a short time, then return home; cross-border family visits which took just hours, now require days. In the desert, hope, like water, is precious — and is most plentiful when sourced in diversity.
The Jewish holiday of Passover begins on April 20. At our seder tables, we’ll tell the story of the Israelites’ hasty flight from Mitzrayim, the narrow land of their confinement. In our story, the walls of water part, and the Israelites cross the Red Sea to freedom. The Rio Grande was a narrow trickle in a concrete ditch beneath the bridge on which I stood. I took a deep breath. Achingly conscious of my privilege to do so, I stepped back from the grating. I turned away and started to walk towards the customs building, where my U.S. passport would speed me through. And as I walked, I prayed, with all my heart, that our walls will part, and that like water, hope will flow back through them.
Published in Sojourners, April 17th 2019