“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

The group from Congregation Aguas Achim met with Bishop James Tamayo during their stop at one of the immigrant detention centers.

By Tonyia Cone

In July, a group of about 25 people, mostly from Congregation Agudas Achim, went to Sutherland Springs, Pearsall, Dilley and Laredo. The purpose of the trip was to bear witness, first to the First Baptist Church, where 26 people were killed in a mass shooting last November, then to two immigration detention centers, and life along the Rio Grande, or Rio Bravo, River.

"I think it is important that we see what is happening at our border, as we experience together as a community.  The stories that have been reported about separating families and putting children at risk, have been profoundly disheartening,” said CAA Rabbi Neil Blumofe.

“To be informed, we must, with our presence, engage those who we will encounter, as we share some time and learn people's personal stories. This community trip of Agudas Achim is to deepen connection and to provide a basis on which those interested can offer further work, with more information, closer to home, as we deepen and expand our role and responsibility as citizens of this great country," he added.

The following Shabbat morning, Richard Merren, Bella Muntz Kirchner, Avi Hurewitz and Deborah Beck shared their experiences and observations of what they witnessed and encouraged others to think about how to engage and consider putting Torah into practice.

Kirchner said, “When I first heard about the trip—this idea of bearing witness—I didn’t quite know what it meant. My initial reaction was that I didn’t want to just observe – I wanted to do. But now that I’ve had some time to reflect on the experience and let what we saw sink in a little, I now understand the important act of witnessing, of being there to see what is happening, to look people in the eye, to hear their voices, and most importantly to share what I’ve seen and learned about.”

On the way to Laredo, the group stopped to witness the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall and the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, the largest immigrant detention center in the United States. The group was only able to see the outside of the privately operated facilities. At the South Texas Detention Complex —a concrete structure surrounded by razor wire and without windows—a GEO Group security guard immediately pulled up in a car and told the group not to take photos. The South Texas Family Residential Center looked like a collection of tan mobile units surrounded by a high cement wall. Both are in very rural areas.

One of the first people the group spoke with, Bishop James Tamayo of the Catholic Charities - Diocese of Laredo, said the most important thing those on the trip could do is to tell others what they witnessed, and to change immigration and refugee law.

Tamayo explained that most people entering the United States without documentation are looking for a safe, better life and are “good people.” In order to stop those involved in criminal activity from coming into the country, he said, Americans must stop consuming their illegal drugs, guns and sex trafficking.

The next morning the group went to U.S. District Court to witness a judge process people who had crossed the border illegally, Kirchner said.

“Dressed in the long-sleeved dark clothes they crossed over in, many of them were also in chains.

While we were there, the court processed two very large groups (over 140 people) – lining the men and women up four rows deep on two sides of the court. Many of them were in their late teens, 20s, and 30s – young men and women,” she said.

“These men and women are trying to escape whatever desperate situations—violence, governments, cartels, gangs, poverty, corruption, trauma—that caused them to leave everything and everyone behind and cross a border. And to cross this border knowing they might be caught, killed, deported, raped, enslaved, or at best reunited with friends and family but with an unknown and insecure future. And as I watched them all, each one individually admit they were guilty of crossing a river by swimming,walking,boat,raft, I thought of their families who have no idea where they are,” Kirchner explained.

The group next visited the former colonia El Cenizo. Harvey Raben, director of congregational learning at CAA, wrote of the visit, “Many of the homes had been built by the hands of the people. This was not a planned subdivision built by corporate builders. Far from my bubble of white privilege I could have responded with –“oh these poor people”. But I listened and I observed as members of the Mission in El Cenizo spoke about their slow but continuing efforts to bring running water, electricity, paved roads and a sewage system to everyone in their neighborhood.”

Raben explained that in the peaceful neighborhood, he observed an organic community.

“People are living their lives, with a minimum of things, yet striving to live good lives with meaningful relationships. There are no strangers in El Cenizo. Nearly half of the people living  there are undocumented. That’s why only certain documented people will guide us to the river.

It’s also why the playground is empty as parents fear to accompany their children,” he wrote.

The group’s last formal meeting was with Jason Owens, head of the Border Patrol in Laredo, and representatives from community groups.

Beck told of hearing repeatedly from people in Laredo, “It means a lot to us that you care, that you want to learn and to talk with us.” She said, like Tamayo, Owens asked the group to tell of what they learned on the trip. He also emphasized the humanity of those in uniform.

“We saw a warm friendship between the Border Patrol and the Sisters of Mercy who hosted our dialogue with the border patrol, as well as substantial disagreements on policy. They treat each other as people, and they disagree, and they see no contradiction between the two,” Beck said.

“What I took away from this is that the people who are in the thick of the immigration problem, no matter what their own opinions and professional responsibilities may be, unanimously see dialogue and friendship as the key to getting us out.”

Merren was reminded of his master’s thesis, which explored Mexico’s reactions and responses to the Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. He explained it was a time when many Jews were desperately trying to escape Nazi Germany and into places like Mexico and the United States.

“Can we really compare this situation with anything related to Nazi Germany? We have kids behind barbed wire, families separated, pro forma trials where large groups of people are herded in and out of courtrooms and declared to be criminals en masse. And we certainly have racism and xenophobia at work,” he said. “But there are no death camps, no ovens, no cattle cars, no government-sanctioned slave labor, no piles of hair and shoes, no horrific medical experiments.

We are not seeing the depths of Nazi depravity going on, so how can this compare?”

Merren asked if that, however, is really the threshold for action.

“Is 1943 Germany what we have to compare everything to before our saying of ‘never again’ can apply? No—that is simply too high a bar,” he said.

Today’s situation is “not a rerun of Nazi Germany,” Merren said, “But the lesson we can take from the Nazi era is that people will be watching where we stood.”  

While he did not witness anyone in Laredo individually taking overtly evil, cruel, illegal or sadistic action, he explained, “They were all just making small and relatively benign contributions to an overall system that adds up to produce a cruel result.”

“We didn’t really have to choose a side in the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s. It chose us. For us, today’s situation is different. Today we are not the ones who were chosen—instead, we must choose,” he said.

Merren explained that the legacy from the Nazi era, the promise to never forget, does not mean Jews only need to stand up only when injustice is extreme enough or when it affects the community personally.

“Our people were murdered by the millions because people failed to stand up for us, and in some fantastic cases they were saved by the thousands or the hundreds or even in handfuls or sometimes even just one life by people who saw great and small wrongs being done and stood against them in great and small ways. We owe it to those who were lost and to those who survived and to those that refused to stand idly by to involve ourselves directly and overtly against the injustice we see today,” Merren said.

“We need to stand up today not because there are things that are the same as what happened to our people, but because what is happening is wrong and immoral. Our refrain of 'never again' tells us that we should never again let a situation get so bad that in hindsight people are asking why nobody stood up and stopped it. We cannot be a part of that great machine of indifference that I saw in the judges and court officials and border patrol agents and private detention center guards who are doing nothing in particular that is really wrong, but are making small and relatively benign contributions to an overall system that adds up to produce a cruel result. This cannot be our legacy.”

As a sacred community, CAA would like to continue to model and offer opportunities to discover and consider for the larger community. ■

For more information and to get involved in CAA’s ongoing efforts around immigration and refugee issues, contact Cathy Schechter at cathy.schechter@shalomaustin.org or Virginia Raymond at virginiaraymond@icloud.com.

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