Jewish Leaders on HIAS-ADL Trip Witness Border Crisis Up Close

By Sharon Samber and Bill Swersey,

Sometimes you have to see things for yourself.

That is just what 27 leaders from 17 national Jewish organizations did this week as part of a delegation led by HIAS and the Anti-Defamation League to view firsthand the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

On Tuesday Jewish leaders from across the nation convened in San Diego, CA and set out for a series of meetings and visits on the U.S. side of the border. The group met with immigration attorneys and humanitarian workers who work with migrants and asylum seekers. Observing Federal immigration hearings inside a huge high-security detention center, they saw how some struggle to comprehend a complex system, often without legal representation. Others visited a shelter for unaccompanied minors and gained a deeper understanding of how U.S. policies impact real people.

“It’s heartbreaking to see the way the United States is treating immigrants” said Mark Hetfield, HIAS’ President and CEO. “The system does nothing to ensure due process, it’s not treating them like human beings,” he added.

On Wednesday the group crossed the Mexican border and visited two facilities in Tijuana. At the crowded Instituto Madre Asunta shelter, the delegation heard how many women fleeing gang violence in Central America end up in limbo with few options. At a men’s shelter nearby they spoke with a pair of migrants who had been deported from the U.S. overnight — men members of the delegation had seen just the day before in an “Operation Streamline” criminal court hearing.

“Being there rehumanized the border crisis for us,” said Mark Hetfield, HIAS’ President and CEO. “We sat with people, heard their stories, it was difficult for everyone, even those of us just listening.”

After returning to the U.S. Wednesday afternoon, delegation members pledged to work together to educate their constituents, advocate for refugees and asylum seekers, and to call on elected officials to do more to protect them.  

“Our Jewish tradition teaches us the importance of bearing witness, the importance of being present, of observing,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. “Now we have to be accountable for what we saw and to share that not only with our constituents inside our respective organizations, but with the broader community.”

Hetfield said he was hopeful because there is so much interest on the part of the American Jewish community, but noted the need for depoliticization of the issue as well as real systemic change.

“We have a lot of work to do,” he said.

The delegation included leaders and representatives of the following national Jewish organizations:

  • American Jewish World Service

  • Anti-Defamation League

  • Avodah

  • HIAS

  • Jewish Family Service of San Diego

  • Jewish Council for Public Affairs

  • Jewish Funders Network

  • J Street

  • National Council of Jewish Women

  • Rabbinical Assembly

  • Reconstructing Judaism

  • Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association

  • Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

  • Repair the World

  • Righteous Persons Foundation

  • United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism

  • Union for Reform Judaism

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