In the past nine months, more than 50,000 children have entered the United States illegally, many of them fleeing violence and gangs in Central American countries. While Congress and the White House have argued over how to deal with the flood of undocumented immigrants, many in the Jewish community have taken action.
In Tucson, Ariz., Anne Lowe makes regular trips into the desert to fill tanks of water for those traveling through the desert to use.
“I realize it’s an illegal thing to cross the border without proper documentation,” said Lowe. “On the other hand, should they have a death sentence for this?”
Once a week, groups of two to four volunteers from Humane Borders, a faith-based humanitarian organization, travel into the desert at the break of dawn in trucks carrying dozens of gallons of water. They follow a designated route, filling the tanks at the stations located close to known trails migrants follow through the desert and checking for vandalism (in the past, there have been incidents of tanks being riddled with bullet holes and contaminated with chemicals) in addition to measuring water levels — proof, Lowe said, that what they’re doing is really helping.
“I firmly believe what the Torah teaches us, what the Talmud teaches us: that to save one life is to save the world,” said Lowe. “I’m hoping that somewhere along the line the things we’re doing are making a difference and helping to save somebody’s life.”
Lowe describes her involvement with the organization — and the organization itself — as “purely humanitarian.” Regardless of a person’s stance on immigration law or the need for reform, she said, no one wants these people to perish in the Southern Arizona desert heat.
Like many Jewish activists along the border — Humane Borders has about four or five Jewish volunteers in all — Lowe said she was inspired to get involved through her own Jewish heritage.
“No one helped the Jews during the Holocaust; very, very few nations helped the Jews. Our own America didn’t,” she said. “I don’t think, as Jews, we can turn our backs on people who are looking for a better life or trying to escape violence in their home countries.”
“We have to remember history,” she added.
As director of Northwest Outreach at the Tucson Jewish Federation, Lowe has also volunteered with other federation staff to assist people at the bus stations, once even volunteering alongside a Native American man from a nearby reservation to help women and children purchase bus tickets. Water deliveries, though, have become her calling in the current immigration crisis.
“There has been a beautiful community response,” said Bryan Davis, JCRC director and Holocaust education coordinator at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. Davis and the JCRC in Tucson have joined forces with the local Catholic service organization to offer assistance to the women and children who were released to family members in the U.S. after meeting with Border Patrol.
While the Tucson Jewish community is split on how to proceed with the sudden influx of immigrants from Central America, the JCRC sees its mission clearly, said Davis.
After hearing about unaccompanied minors and women traveling with children being left at bus stations near Tucson at a June interfaith meeting organized by the local Catholic diocese, Davis and other faith leaders determined that they had to do something and were in a good position to respond to the needs of the newcomers.
In the 1980s, churches, synagogues and other houses of worship were central in the immigration crisis plaguing the border at that time. Then, the people crossing the border were fleeing their Central American home countries to escape civil war and political turmoil. The immigrants at the heart of today’s debates originate from many of the same Central American countries, but instead of warfare, they are fleeing high crime rates and gang problems. In the 1980s, Congress eventually passed legislation allowing certain groups temporary protected status, but today the crisis is far murkier.
A 2008 law signed by then-President George W. Bush forbids the immediate deportation ofunaccompanied minors arriving from Central American countries, instead allowing them to stay in the U.S. legally until they are given a court hearing to determine whether they are permitted to stay or are deported.
Data collected by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security shows that the majority of unaccompanied minors entering the country illegally from January through mid-May came from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Those coming from Guatemala, DHS research shows, hail largely from rural areas, leading experts to believe many of the Guatemalan children are coming to the U.S. in pursuit of economic opportunity. Conversely, research shows many of the children arriving from El Salvador and Honduras come from regions plagued by violence, such as San Pedro Sula, the Honduran city deemed the murder capital of the world, where an average of four murders — many gang-related — take place every day.
While Maryland is some 1,700 miles north of the nearest U.S.-Mexico border crossing, the problem has ripple effects in almost every state. Most recently, news has spread of a rift between Gov. Martin O’Malley and the administration of longtime ally President Barack Obama over where to house some of the children while they await their hearing.
O’Malley has spoken out against mass deportations, describing such actions as sending the children “back to certain death,” but opposed a rumored plan to house some of the unaccompanied minors at a site in Carroll County, where anti-immigration graffiti appeared earlier in July.
Arthur Abramson, president of the Baltimore Jewish Council, sympathizes with O’Malley about the danger in sending the children back to their home countries.
“In my view these children are victims,” said Abramson. He pointed to immigration laws passed in the U.S. before and during World War II that made it difficult for Jews in Europe to seek safety in America as effectively sentencing them to death in concentration camps and insisted officials look at the current situation in the context of history.