Man looks through hole in a wall
Rabbi Jeremy Simons of Congregation Bet Haverim in Davis looks through the southern border wall near San Ysidro, California, during a recent HIAS-organized clergy delegation visit to the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo/Joe Goldman)

Our history and values compel us to speak out for asylum seekers

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“No one leaves home

Unless home is the mouth of a shark”

These words, from the poem “Home” by British-Somali poet Warsan Shire, speak to the many stories we witnessed during our visit to the U.S.-Mexico border earlier this year. We participated in a HIAS-organized delegation of clergy to the southern border with the goals of witnessing, experiencing and learning about the complex and complicated policies that define our immigration system.

We toured shelters on both sides of the border, participated in a border crossing, visited an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center and met some of the individuals doing heroic work to support refugees and asylum seekers and to provide a sense of humanity to the individuals maneuvering this impersonal and often inhumane process.

We heard from a 25-year-old mother of three, ages 9, 6 and 3, who trekked to Tijuana from Honduras. On the journey, her husband was shot and killed by gang members demanding money to cross a certain area. Even though he was killed months ago, she found out that his body was recovered and buried just 10 days before our meeting. She has been waiting for three months for an appointment to cross the border. As she shared with us through tears, she pushes on because she knows this is her one option for herself and her children. Home is the mouth of a shark — she can only move forward.

During our shelter visit, we learned that a dozen individuals left the shelter the previous evening with a coyote, an individual or group promising border passage and/or guidance on the journey to the border in exchange for exorbitant fees and often abuse and inhumane treatment on the journey. Some political leaders say that asylum seekers need more patience, but how much patience can one have when they have already been waiting months or years, experienced a harrowing journey, and believe that safety is just on the other side of a wall? They are willing to risk everything for this slim chance of a better life in our country. Keeping the border closed to asylum seekers has devastating human consequences.

Much of the rhetoric around immigration policy uses language of xenophobia, hatred and fear.

This Honduran mother represents one of millions of stories. Unfortunately, under current policies, she and her children are highly unlikely to gain entry into the United States. Her family, alongside the many, many others who seek to enter the United States through the southern border, find themselves in a difficult-to-navigate system that unfortunately has not changed significantly even when the leaders of our government change. We sat in immigration court listening to a judge spend 45 minutes explaining forms and deadlines to an asylum seeker from the Middle East. Even with our own English skills and education, we were incredibly confused. We can only imagine the experience of the young man attempting to navigate this system largely on his own.

While the Biden administration utilizes gentler language, many of this administration’s policies, as well as many proposals currently being discussed in Congress, do not expand or simplify pathways for being granted asylum or entering this country safely. As one of the HIAS staff members expressed to us, the immigration system should be orderly and predictable. The United States is capable of processing the asylum claims of individuals arriving at our border in a just, compassionate manner. We just need to decide it is our priority.

Much of the rhetoric around immigration policy uses language of xenophobia, hatred and fear. It forgets the individuals at the core of the story. It forgets that so many of us in America once were these migrants who are yearning for freedom. It forgets that our country is better not in spite of our immigrant history, but because of it. There’s no reason for us to politicize and demonize those fleeing for their lives when they enrich our communities.

Asylum is a Jewish issue, and not just because of deeply held values and millennia of historical displacement. Millions of Jews thrive today across the U.S., Israel and beyond because of the 1951 U.N. framework establishing the right to seek asylum (among other pathways) in direct response to what happened to Jews in the Holocaust.

Exodus 22:20, in addition to many other places in Torah, reminds us, “You shall not wrong nor oppress the ger, stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” We know what it means to be the ger — the stranger, the foreigner, the outsider — and we know what it means both when we feel welcomed and when we feel ostracized.

May our history and our present compel us to remember the humanity of all those who seek to cross the border, especially asylum seekers who particularly need our voices and our protection now. It is our story — we cannot sit this issue out.

Rabbi Mona Alfi (Congregation B’nai Israel, Sacramento)

Rabbi Julie Bressler (Temple Sinai, Oakland)

Rabbi Chaim Koritzinsky (Congregation Etz Chayim, Palo Alto)

Rabbi Jill Perlman (Temple Isaiah, Lafayette)

Rabbi Jeremy Simons (Congregation Bet Haverim, Davis)

This piece expresses the personal opinion of the authors, not of their congregations.

Rabbi Mona Alfi

Rabbi Mona Alfi serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento.

Rabbi Julie Bressler

Rabbi Julie Bressler serves as the associate rabbi and educator at Temple Sinai in Oakland.

Rabbi Chaim Koritzinsky

Rabbi Chaim Koritzinsky serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto.

Rabbi Jill Perlman

Rabbi Jill Perlman serves as the senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette.

Rabbi Jeremy Simons

Rabbi Jeremy Simons serves as co-rabbi of Congregation Bet Haverim in Davis.