Opinion: A Call To Welcome Asylum Seekers From Central America

Opinion: A Call To Welcome Asylum Seekers From Central America

Immigration rights activists take part in a demonstration on Lafayete Square in front of the White House in Washington on January 15, 2015. The administration has been critized over a wave of arrests of Central American undocumented migrants as part of the administration's stepped-up deportation efforts.

(MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The following op-ed, written jointly by Mark Hetfield of HIAS and Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, appeared online in The Jewish Week on January 26, 2015. 

The Jewish people descended from Hebrew slaves who took refuge in the wilderness. We fled Europe during World War II. We know the heart of the refugee yearning to be free. And so our hearts are heavy that more than 120 people have been taken into custody in the last several weeks since the Department of Homeland Security announced its plan to deport families who had sought asylum from Central American countries, including Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

As leaders of Jewish organizations who take seriously the Torah’s commandment to welcome the stranger, we find these deportations troubling. Many of the families who have been ordered deported –often mothers with young children – came to the United States fleeing horrific threats and acts of violence. Even the administration has acknowledged the extent of the problem, announcing last week a plan to work with the UN refugee agency to process protection claims from people in the region. This is a welcome development. Yet they continue to insist on deporting those who already fled to the U.S., although the dangers they fled will be waiting for them upon their return home.

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson has stated that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids target people who have already appeared before an immigration court and been ordered to be deported. There is growing evidence, however, that a significant proportion of those targeted by the raids were denied due process when seeking asylum status in immigration courts. Some did not have attorneys, and without a lawyer, it is very challenging to make a successful asylum claim. Even those who did have counsel often were not permitted sufficient time to prepare their cases. Other asylum seekers were not advised of their court dates and were ordered deported when they failed to appear for hearings.

These widespread and serious due process issues have already led to temporary stays of deportation for 12 of the asylum seekers targeted by the raids. It is not difficult to imagine that many others swept up in these raids may have faced similar, but still unacknowledged, legal concerns. Until it can be established that those targeted by the raids did indeed receive adequate due process, this deportation program should be temporarily halted.

In addition to due process considerations, we are concerned that many families will be deported without any assurance that they will be able to live securely in their home countries.  Services that help individuals who are sent back are extremely limited, and rare is the safe neighborhood to which they can return. In fact, the pervasive violence and instability that these families fled has only grown worse since they left.

The stories from these families are harrowing. Asylum seekers have told refugee aid workers that in El Salvador pregnant women will leave their neighborhoods to give birth elsewhere because babies are claimed by gangs at birth. Boys as young as four are marked with gang-related stripes shaved into their hair. In Honduras, entire neighborhoods in San Pedro Sula have been abandoned because of rampant gang violence and extortion.

Confronted with the undeniable reality that life is unlivable for many in these Central American countries, the U.S government has sent mixed signals about whether it considers those fleeing the violence to be worthy of protection. In the summer of 2014, when increased numbers of Central Americans began arriving in the United States, DHS resumed the previously-abandoned practice of detaining families seeking asylum. Women and children were placed in remote facilities where access to counsel was limited and deportation hearings were conducted quickly. The current round of raids are an extension of this policy of prioritizing harsh immigration enforcement over humanitarian concern.

Jewish tradition calls on each of us to remember that we were once “strangers in the land of Egypt,” and thus to treat “strangers” as ourselves and to love them as ourselves (Leviticus 19:33-34). This principle, to welcome the stranger, is repeated 36 times in the Torah—more than any other commandment.

In this passage and others, the Torah uses the word ger, which can be alternatively translated as stranger, sojourner, immigrant or foreigner—generally understood as someone not born in the land where one lives, but living there now. Leviticus later commands, “You shall have one law, for the ger as for the native-born” (Leviticus 24:22). These teachings and our historical experience calls on us to advocate for justice and fairness in the treatment of all people seeking refuge in the United States, especially asylum seekers from Central America.

Raids and deportations will not solve the crisis in Central America that has led to such a rapid rise in migration. The appropriate response requires U.S. investment in the peace and stability of the region – something that has been neglected for far too long. More immediately, it requires a guarantee on the part of the U.S. government that families who may have a genuine fear of return are treated with compassion, provided due process and not deported directly into harm’s way.


Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner is the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Mark Hetfield is the President and CEO of HIAS.

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