JCPA delegation bears witness on the border

When we bear witness to acts of injustice and inhumanity against our fellow human beings, we have a responsibility to tell their stories. When we bear witness to a system that criminalizes children, women and men fleeing violence, corruption and poverty, we have a responsibility to tell their stories. When we bear witness to those who respond to a crisis with acts of kindness, generosity and lifesaving actions, we have a responsibility to tell their stories. 

These stories are overwhelmingly ones of heartbreak. 

It is the story of a Venezuelan restaurant owner who had to flee with her husband and four children, including two infants, after she could no longer afford the exorbitant fees imposed by the cartel, and her father’s store was ransacked as a warning to her. 

It is the story of a 24-year-old university student and professional soccer player from Venezuela who reluctantly abandoned his home because his friends were being shot in the street for protesting the corrupt government, and he was afraid he might be next. 

It is the story of two young people from Mexico whose parents were assassinated by a family member, likely to take control of their property, and who saw no future for themselves where were.

It is the story of a woman from Bolivia who was trafficked across the border and told she would be working for six months for a family in California and would receive a good salary. She left her family temporarily on a tourist visa only to be abused and mistreated before learning that her promised return ticket was nonexistent. She went to authorities to ask for an extension of her tourist visa to coordinate her return trip and to file a complaint against her trafficker but was instead detained and jailed for working in the country without a proper visa. She was kept in prison for two years as she fought her case. 

It is the story of hundreds of people who traveled through unspeakable conditions to reach the Mexican border in order to apply for asylum in the United States, only to be told by U.S. Border Patrol agents that they needed to wait their turn. This extrajudicial process, called metering, is essentially a system of giving people numbers and sending them away until their number is called. If they are fortunate, these individuals are able to find space in a shelter as they await their turn, which could take anywhere from one to two months. This process is creating a humanitarian crisis on the Mexican border as thousands of people live in anxious anticipation of being called. 

We heard all of these stories during our three-day fact-finding mission sponsored by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella organization of local Jewish Community Relations Councils. The 23-person delegation included JCPA professionals, rabbis, JCRC directors, Jewish Federation board leaders and other volunteer leaders from across the country. Over the course of three days, we spent time in the sister cities of Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, fondly called ambos Nogales (both Nogales) by residents as a tribute to their joint history as cities that coexist and depend on one another for economic sustainment. 

Where one chooses to begin his or her story is also a part of the story. As we walked along the steel bollard border wall that separates the two Nogaleses, peering between the beams to watch Mexican children playing in schoolyards that felt as if they were just across the street, we spoke about earlier manifestations of the border wall and the 1990s U.S. Border Patrol strategy called Prevention Through Deterrence, which redirects migrant routes into the most inhospitable sections of the border, deploying the perilous desert as a tool to prevent entry into the United States. Thousands who have tried to cross the border have died in the process. 

In 1998, the Border Patrol implemented the Border Safety Initiative (BSI) with the goal of reducing injuries and preventing deaths in the Southwest border region. Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, which includes Nogales, boasts 210 EMTs who provide lifesaving emergency care to those found in the desert. 

We also think of the stories that were not told as we bore witness to Operation Streamline, expedited criminal court hearings and sentencing for migrants arrested between ports of entry and charged with entering the country illegally. It was overwhelming to sit in court and see rows and rows of mostly young men and a few young women, shackles clanking as they shuffled in their seats, called up seven or eight at a time to plead guilty to the charges. They had entered the country as recently as the day before and as much as 10 days earlier and were citizens of Mexico, Ecuador, Honduras and Guatemala. We saw about 60 people processed within 45 minutes. One at a time, going down the row, they said yes to pleading guilty and yes to the accusations against them and nothing more. We never learned what led them to try to enter the country illegally, and we never learned what happened to them after they left the courtroom.

Most of all, as we traveled, we carried with us our own stories. The stories of our families who escaped different but no less horrific circumstances and were fortunate enough to be able to build a better life in America. The stories of our history rife with tales of displacement and forced migration. The stories of our tradition, which commands us to love the stranger, because we ourselves know the experience of being the stranger.

Paul Kravitz is a board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis. Maharat Rori Picker Neiss is JCRC’s Executive Director. Karen Sher is Vice President, Community Engagement at Jewish Federation of St. Louis.