While Mexican children are deported immediately, there is a strong push among some advocates and organizations to declare some people from these Central American countries refugees. In the spring, the U.N. Refugee Agency suggested that many of the children traveling north from these troubled countries could and should be seen as and treated as refugees and offered asylum. Earlier this month, Pope Francis insisted that the children fleeing Central American countries on their own “be welcomed and protected,” while Jewish organizations such as the National Council of Jewish Women, HIAS and the Jewish Federations of North America issued a joint statement urging President Barack Obama to pursue “measures to ensure that all migrants in danger of persecution have access to a meaningful opportunity to seek asylum,” citing the Torah’s instruction to “welcome the stranger.”
For Rabbi Larry Karol of Temple Beth-El in Las Cruces, N.M., the idea of welcoming the stranger resonates particularly strongly.
“We were strangers in Egypt,” said Karol of his Jewish heritage.
Comparing some of the stories in the Torah to the stories of these immigrants, he added, “It really brings the text to life.”
Hearing about the problems these immigrants face at home and the challenges they face trying to make a better life in America has led Karol to think about his own family’s immigration story. Like some of the teens fleeing from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, Karol’s grandfather fled Russia to avoid being forced into the Russian army. After living in South Africa for a decade, he eventually moved to the United States, something Karol doubts would have been possible in the current immigration climate.
Using a website called EntryDenied.org, a project by Bend the Arc, a Jewish group with a mission to promote social justice, Karol determined that his family would likely be denied if they were trying to enter the U.S. today. The website asks users to answer a series of questions about any one of their ancestors and then uses those answers to compare with current immigration laws to ultimately give the user a notice of either denial or acceptation into America.
“There were Jews who left Europe — Eastern Europe, especially — for some of the same reasons that these families are leaving the Central American countries, because of the threat of violence,” said Karol, who disclosed that there are a mix of opinions on the topic within even his own congregation. “I think that there is, in many cases, a similarity between the Jewish immigration story [and that of the Central American immigrants].”
“There are other people who don’t apply it that way, and that’s up to them, but for me, personally, verses like that really resonate on this issue, whether it’s the general immigration reform issue or whether it’s this particular case, where you have people who really could be accepted for seeking asylum because of the situation in their home country,” he said, “or just basic persecution as many of the Jews [faced] in the 1800s and 1900s and therefore came to the United States or went to other places to escape persecution and have a better life.”
While the much larger Catholic diocese is leading most of the effort to aid the newcomers, Karol knows of multiple members of his congregation who have gotten involved in groups providing help to the Central American immigrants and has even helped deliver water to the center where many of the people are being detained while they wait for processing and release to join relatives.
In Yuma, Ariz., a small city situated in the southwestern corner of the state, less than 10 miles from the Mexican border, Burton Schapiro has seen the crisis firsthand.
A member of Congregation Beth HaMidbar, Schapiro is an active member of the Yuma County Interfaith Sponsoring Committee. For months, the situation along the border had been a topic of conversation among committee members and they debated how to get involved. In early July the group found its answer.
For months, the local bus terminal had been a launching point for immigrants processed by the Border Patrol and permitted to travel to family members inside the country with whom they could stay. One day, a pastor on the committee got a call from a manager of a nearby Wal-Mart looking for help for a group of people who had been dropped at the store. The group included two pregnant women and a 3-year-old. One of the women was from El Salvador and the other from Honduras, and they had befriended each other on the journey through Mexico. Between the pair they had the equivalent of just $28 in American money and needed to get to family in Atlanta.
“The story that we’re hearing on their journey from Central America is just scary,” said Schapiro. “When they get up here, they’re tired, they’re dirty, they’re hungry and they’re scared.”
The interfaith committee fundraised to purchase the tickets the women and child needed to make their trip, passing around collection plates at local services at one of the Yuma churches, and the women were able to make it to Atlanta, said Schapiro. Since then, the group has helped two more groups in the past couple weeks, offering people showers, food, clothes and help deciphering the bus system.
In an effort to not alienate some members of their congregations or become entangled in a web of political controversy, the group tries to stay as below-the-radar as possible, Schapiro said. But he doesn’t shy from speaking up when he feels a line has been crossed, once standing up at a conference he was attending where the keynote speaker was one of the architects of Arizona’s controversial law requiring police officers to stop and question anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally. He compared the practice to Nazis stopping Jews on the streets of Germany. He received some boos from the crowd, but it didn’t bother him. For him and his fellow congregants, helping immigrants is a form of tzedakah, he said..
“We just want to help people finally get on their way and wish them the best,” said Schapiro.
“The thing that gets me is that they’re really just children,” he added.
Proposed Maryland Shelters Raise Concern
As discussion has shifted to where to house the thousands of unaccompanied minors, states hundreds of miles from the border have been pulled to the forefront of the debate on the children’s fate.
In Maryland, more than five sites have been discussed for temporary housing. As of publication, four locations had fallen through, including a site in Carroll County Gov. Martin O’Malley reportedly sparred with the White House over after anti-immigration graffiti appeared on the walls of the building in question early last week.
As of late last week officials had confirmed that there was an effort being made to find a location to temporarily house some of the immigrants in Maryland, but a rumored Catholic Charities proposal to use one of its Timonium buildings was being met with opposition by members of the Baltimore County Council who expressed concern over the organization taking in the children rather than assisting the local community.