Mothers feeding their babies behind barbed wire with hundreds of people, a line of cars stretching as far as the eye can see, waiting for hours to go back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border, and migrants from Africa, Mexico and Asia, including the Indian subcontinent, detained in cell blocks where they make $1 a day — just another day on the nation’s southern border.
Rabbi David Reiner, who leads Congregation Shir Shalom in Ridgefield, recently came back from a clergy trip to El Paso, Texas, and its twin city Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
The visit was organized by T’ruah, a human rights organization for Jewish clergy, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which was one of the groups cited by the man who opened fire in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Reiner’s group visited private, state and federal facilities to process migrants and border-crossers on the three-day trip, including a migrant center across the border in Mexico.
He said the moment that stood out for him was when the group crossed over from Mexico to the United States on foot.
“It was fascinating to see folks on their way to, from work, people wearing chef jackets, medical professionals in scrubs, tourists crossing with us — all sorts of people,” Reiner said.
For many, the crossing seemed to be a normal part of their day, but for others, it was anything but.
As Reiner’s group crossed the bridge over the Rio Grande, he looked down and could see hundreds of people — migrants seeking asylum from violence or persecution back home — behind chain link fencing and barbed wire beneath the bridge.
“It was a mix of men and women and children including babies and toddlers,” said Reiner. “Border Patrol agents were leading people out of the fenced area, single file, in groups of about fifteen. Most had no possessions except the clothes on their backs. Everyone was wearing yellow bracelets, like a hospital bracelet.”
As he walked across the bridge, Reiner said he was reminded of his great-grandparents, themselves refugees from Eastern Europe, who came to America by ship.
“I am not sure how the people we saw in detention/processing are significantly different,” he said.
The group also visited two detention centers for migrants — one for adults, the other for children — in the United States, and a third center across the border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
The adult facility in the United States, located about 26 miles away from El Paso in New Mexico, was technically over-capacity with migrants, most of whom were waiting to be deported, Reiner said.
“The distance is important because the facility has courtrooms on-site and deportation proceedings happen on-site. Lawyers representing detainees (often pro-bono) must travel quite a distance to meet with and represent their clients during deportation proceedings,” he said.
The detention center, or “processing facility,” as they are referred to by the government, resembled a medium security prison, Reiner said.
“People confined to the facility can earn $1 per day by working in the facility kitchen or barber shop or maintenance — we were told by the warden and ICE agents that this is the standard rate of pay for prisoners in federal custody,” he said, noting that none of the migrants in the facility had been charged with a crime.
He said nearly all of those there were people of color.
“About 10 percent were Mexican nationals and we saw people from Asia, India, and Africa,” he said. “The chaplain shared that people being held in the facility come from many different religious backgrounds, primarily Christian, but also Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, and more.”
The group also toured Casa Franklin, a processing facility for minors in downtown El Paso.
The building, built out of an old YMCA, held about 50 teenagers waiting for their asylum claims to be processed.
“Their freedom of movement is restricted. While they can technically leave at any time, ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] will be notified of their departure and they will be treated as fugitives,” said Reiner, noting that that would be held against them in their asylum case.
“Within the facility, they are accompanied by adults with walkie talkies at all times. Physical contact is not permitted. We were told of two cousins who ended up in the facility. One wanted to hug the other, but the staff had to make a special request for this to happen,” he added.
Reiner said he was able to speak to a handful of migrants during the trip.
One young woman from Honduras whom he spoke to at Casa del Migrante, a detention facility in Ciudad Juarez, told the rabbi that she had to flee after she witnessed a colleague at her government job doing something illegal.
“When she reported what she saw, her life and family were threatened and she had to flee at night. This was a family of some means that had to leave everything behind,” Reiner said.
The family was told to wait in Mexico while their asylum claim was processed.
“For this particular family, it may have been difficult to show that they were threatened, and so it may have made more sense for them to repeatedly apply for asylum from Mexico,” Reiner said; because if their claim was rejected after entering the U.S., they would be deported back to Honduras and would be unable to apply for asylum again for 10 years.
Since December, asylum-seekers who cross the border have been forced to wait in Mexico while their claims are processed, rather than being released into the United States, a directive put in place by the Trump administration.
A federal judge blocked the administration's directive to hold asylum-seekers in Mexico on Monday.
“Another person seeking asylum told us that a gang in Guatemala wanted his son to join. The teen could join the gang, be killed, or flee with his family,” Reiner said.
“The presence of a border wall did not change their outlook or deter them from seeking asylum,” he added.
Much of the El Paso-Juarez border was walled off, Reiner noted, with fencing that dates back to the Clinton and second Bush administrations.
But he said building a wall along the border, or closing it entirely, would be both “immoral and ineffective.”
“It will deny safety to people who are fleeing for their lives, divide families and negatively impact the economy,” Reiner said. “I was also able to appreciate that people seeking asylum and crossing the border is not a new issue — it has been around for many years.”