Austin Community Responds to National Immigration Policy: Organizations Advocate for Immigration, Refugee Policy Reform

Austin Community Responds to National Immigration Policy: Organizations Advocate for Immigration, Refugee Policy Reform

A demonstrator against the U.S. policy separating immigrant children from their families stands in front of the Texas State Capitol holding a sign that reads, "Never Again is Now," drawing a parallel to the post-Holocaust sentiment. Credit: Julie Zweig

By Tonyia Cone

Welcoming the stranger is an idea familiar to most Jews. Mentioned 36 times in the Torah, what is seen by many to be a value central to Judaism drove members of some Jewish congregations and organizations to take action around recent immigration policy.

For many years, federal policy in regards to immigrants and refugees has been a topic of debate.

As tension has risen over the issue, the federal government has toughened its stance toward those entering the country without documentation. A federal “zero-tolerance” policy was implemented in April toward undocumented and attempted undocumented entry into the United States.

“The Department of Homeland Security is now referring 100 percent of illegal Southwest border crossings to the Department of Justice for prosecution. And the Department of Justice will take up those cases,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated on May 7.

“If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” he also said.

Around 2,500 children were separated from family members who were apprehended and charged for illegally entering the United States. After being transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Refugee Resettlement, the children are placed in the care of a sponsor in the U.S., foster care or a temporary detention center.

In response to public outcry and political pressure, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to reverse the policy June 20.

Several local Jewish organizations and congregations participated in efforts to push back against the administration’s actions toward immigrants and refugees.

National Council of Jewish Woman co-president Amy Webberman said, “I and the NCJW members I have spoken with find the family separation policy horrifying and completely anathema to our values. We feel the cruelty and immorality of this policy and are outraged that our government has done this and that the family separations continue.”

Immigration policy was one of three issues a group of about 10 NCJW discussed during visits to the offices of Senator Ted Cruz, Senator John Cornyn and Representative Michael McCaul in February.  

“There are two talking points that I feel it is uniquely important to make as NCJW and as Jewish women—first that this issue is very close to our hearts because for most of us, our families are recent immigrants to this country and so we know both the difficulties and contributions of recent immigrants and are deeply disturbed by these current policies, and second, that Jewish values require us to welcome the stranger and treat the stranger well and so these actions run deeply counter to our religious values as Jews,” Webberman said.

NCJW members also participated in a June 21 meeting at McCaul’s office that focused primarily on the family separation issue.  

“The meeting itself was polite but frustrating because the group was deeply disturbed by the family separation policy but the thoughts of the group are conveyed from the (very polite) staffer  to McCaul and the staffer cannot provide much in the way of information or explanation,” said Webberman.  

In response to members feeling a need to do something with local immigrants, NCJW Communications Chair Bettie Forman explained, the organization has worked with Refugee Services of Texas for the last two years to help settle two young immigrant families. The effort included setting up their apartments, greeting them at the airport and taking them in their new home, transporting them to appointments and being available for other needs.

The group also had a baby shower for four refugee mothers-to-be, providing them with all the things they needed for their news babies; has a tutoring program for refugee students in schools where refugee students need extra help; and held collections for gift cards and other items for refugee families.  

NCJW member, Kim Kahn, said, "Meeting and engaging with refugee family members has helped personalize the refugee crisis for me. They have such a positive outlook and immense gratitude for our assistance.”

Groups from Temple Beth Shalom and Congregation Beth Israel also host refugees through Refugee Services of Texas.

The 16 people who make up CBI’s Welcome Team have helped two families —one from Afghanistan and the other from the Democratic Republic of the Congo —settle in Austin in the last two years. They helped furnish their apartment; picked them up from the airport; helped them get social security cards; food stamps and Woman, Infant and Children benefits; and helped with shopping, doctor and immunization appointments and getting their driver's licenses.

Rabbi Amy Cohen explained that as a rabbi, she is proud of the community and TBS’s Refugee Task Force for mobilizing around these issues.

“As Jews, we have a moral obligation to speak up when the fabric that keeps our communities together is being torn apart. Family values are Jewish values. The safety and security of all human beings, as we were all created in the image of God, are Jewish imperatives. And as our Refugee Task Force has consistently reminded us, our ancestors were refugees, fleeing for their lives and seeking a safe and secure home in the United States,” she said. “How can we, as their inheritors, deny those right to others fleeing for their lives today?”

NCJW, Temple Beth Shalom and Congregation Beth Israel Sisterhood members have joined rallies, including the June 30 Families Belong Together rally at the Texas State Capitol, one of many around the country hosted by MoveOn.org. NCJW was one of the Austin rally’s partners.

CBI member Lisa Meng explained that Jewish values motivated her to attend the rally.

“The quote from Exodus 22:20, ‘And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,’ speaks to a lot of us. No one knows better than a Jew what it's like to be a stranger in a strange land. It would be un-Jewish to lack empathy for others in the same situation,” she said, adding that supporting immigrants at the rally showed the tradition of tikkun olam, repairing the world.

“I like to think of us as ‘God's boots on the ground,’ she said. “We went to the rally on Shabbat, to pray with our feet.”

A small group in South Austin that gets together for Jewish holidays, Firepit Minyan members did not go to the rally together, but the group’s founder, Robin Chotzinoff, said almost everyone from the minyan was at the rally.

“We didn’t see each other there but we started texting. We have decided that immigration is our theme for the current year. What that means, exactly, I’m not yet sure, but we’re getting on it,”

Chotzinoff said. “Like most other Jews in the U.S., we are descended from recent immigrants. Like some, we have a very low tolerance for bullshit surrounding the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

IfNotNow, which describes itself as “an American Jewish progressive activist group opposing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” had a very visible presence with a booth at the rally.

Since the rally, Austin’s Jewish community has continued to work on issues around immigrants and refugees.

CBI’s Rabbi Steven Folberg reported in a weekly congregation e-newsletter that CBI partnered with its McAllen, Texas, sister congregation, Temple Emanuel. Temple Emanuel is working with the Humanitarian Respite Center of Catholic Charities to aid families separated at the border. Because of ever-changing situations and needs, they requested cash donations.

He also encouraged people to follow recommendations from The Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism and to donate to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.

Congregation Agudas Achim held a community-wide Tisha B'Av gathering July 22. Community members were invited to come together in reflection upon the historic trauma experienced by the Jewish people, marked by Tisha B'Av, as well as the current pain resulting from the family separation policy, experienced by many children and adults.

Participants chanted selections from Eicha and read some contemporary readings, including letters from parents separated from their children. The service concluded with an opportunity to express personal messages to elected officials and lawmakers via postcard writing and learn about other ways to get involved.

Over the summer, a number of Jewish leaders and community members who have been involved in immigration organizations to discuss a communal response and future action. ■

For more information and to get involved, contact Cathy Schechter at cathy.schechter@shalomaustin.org.

Am Yisrael Chai!

Am Yisrael Chai!

“This Cannot Be Our Legacy”: Congregation Agudas Achim Group Witnesses Immigration Crisis Firsthand

“This Cannot Be Our Legacy”: Congregation Agudas Achim Group Witnesses Immigration Crisis Firsthand