From March 27 to April 1, 2017, fifteen high school students from Beth Emet The Free Synagogue, Evanston, IL traveled to the U.S./Mexico border, spending six days at Cristo Rey Lutheran Church, an organization that runs a Border Immersion Experience. The following are reflections from two teen participants, written during the trip. To learn more, visit Fronteras: Beth Emet’s Teen Immigration Trip blog.
Close Encounters of the Legal Kind
By Ruthie Caro and Eytan Kaplan, NFTY Chicago Area (CAR)
Break of dawn, several alarms sounding at five minute intervals, and come on – you *just want to go back to sleep*. At 6am we were to wake up, though a solid 100% of us who could, did sleep in the extra 15 minutes before breakfast. We had to leave by 7am to make our way down to New Mexico and go to the U.S. District Courthouse, which was over an hour away.
We saw both arraignment and sentencing hearings, and it was surreal. People, one at a time, were standing in chains while their attorneys spoke for them. They were very seldom able to answer questions themselves, aside from the occasional affirming of a judge’s statement. Someone’s life was flashing before their eyes, finding out the consequences of what they were charged for and trying as hard as possible to change the outcome in a 5 or 10 minute time slot, one of many the judge would see that day. These cases are called “operation streamline,” as they are meant to go quickly, most having to do with unlawful border crossing and crimes associated with this. Undocumented people were given much harsher sentences, as it was thought to deter them from unlawfully returning to America again.
At sentencing court, people received the sentence for the crimes they committed. This was a slightly longer process, as it entailed paying more attention to individual circumstances and cases. One of the cases we saw was a man who, in his youth, had come over illegally and was sent back without major problems, but recently came back into to the U.S. to see his daughter’s wedding. Because this was done illegally, and he had previous criminal offenses, he was sentenced to 12 months in prison, after which he will be deported to Mexico and will never be able to return to the U.S. again. We all felt some brand of horror, as this seemed to happen incredibly nonchalantly for something that will impact people and their families for the rest of their lives. Later in the day, we met a woman who works with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Center for Border Rights, who discussed with us how the law treats cases of deportation and immigration. We learned how flawed the border patrol system is – from racial profiling, to the unfair impact of private prisons on communities and economies.
At night, we heard firsthand stories from a few immigrants at the church. One father and his 5-year-old son had just arrived at El Paso today, after being released from a detention facility and traveling, mostly by foot, from El Salvador, through Guatemala and Mexico, and eventually crossing the Rio Grande into the U.S. It’s quite late as of now, to the point at which it’d be inaccurate to refer to this as today, but in conclusion, it was an amazing start to a hopefully even more amazing rest of a trip.
This Is What I Felt While Being in an Immigration Program on the Mexico Border
By Alyssa Coffey NFTY Chicago Area (CAR)
Today, it occurred to me why this program with Cristo Rey is called “Border Immersion.” While we are here only for a week, the community of this church and those who assist at the programs and agencies that we have visited, are living this reality every day of their lives. I have been reminding myself over the past few days of the idea that all people were created B’tzelem Elohim, or “in the image of God.” Perhaps this is just a biblical metaphor, but it is meaningful to view each person we encounter that way. This extends beyond personal religious affiliation, immigration status, race, and age. It extends to the judges in Las Cruces and to the border patrol officers. It extends to those killed in Central American civil wars in the 1980s and to those killed while crossing the southern border, whose names are all scrawled on the walls at Casa Vides. It extends to the “desconocidos,” the names unknown.
While feeling such joy, comfort, and an outpouring of compassion and love from some of the individuals we met, I have spent many hours on the bus or sitting in the church these past few days feeling exquisitely angry. This isn’t the typical thrashing anger we often think of – it is a subtle, quiet anger that slowly works its way from the area between my lungs and rib cage, out towards my hands. It is transferred out of my body and into the ground as I walk. Considering that we come from a religious community and are guests in a religious community, I have been asking myself if this type of anger is a morally appropriate response. I would say that it is – and not on the condition that it will drive me to action – right now, feeling angry is okay simply by virtue of being an emotional response. To be entirely logical is to surrender half of the picture, half of the evidence, and half of the available next steps. The only time it would be wrong is if anger drove me to a point where I was unwilling to listen to the voices of those around me. What I know for sure is that I am certainly not at that point.
As we complied our reflections together tonight, Abby came to us with bad news. Within the past few hours, Pastora Rose Mary received a phone call from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) informing her that two of the refugees Cristo Rey had taken in for the night – people who we ate and prayed with – had unknowingly signed their own deportation orders at the Detention Center this morning. Tomorrow, we will cross the border into Juarez with nothing but our American passports. It is striking that we can so easily be in and out without a second thought from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers, yet Latin American nationals need to jump through so many hoops to do the same. And for them, it frequently amounts to nothing.