Summit County faith leaders speak out against conditions for refugees and asylum seekers at the border
FRISCO — Leaders in Summit County’s faith community are speaking out against conditions along the Mexican border after a pair of independent trips to the area in late October and earlier this month.
Rabbi Ruth Gelfarb of the Synagogue of the Summit and Pastor Liliana Stahlberg of Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church each recently completed a trip down to the border, taking the opportunity to assess the situation for themselves in Texas, New Mexico and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, just south of the border. Each went separately in groups set up by other faith- and human rights-based organizations — including the Cristo Rey Lutheran Church in El Paso, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and T’ruah, a Jewish human rights nonprofit — though both returned with similar messages.
“Our responsibility as rabbis isn’t to come up with policy solutions,” Gelfarb said. “Our job is to offer moral clarity and to be a call to collective consciousness when a system is unjust.
“What I saw was, in many respects, unjust, immoral and the desecration of the holiness of every individual. … I know people are always busy with their day-to-day realities — feeding their families, working, just getting by. But it’s important that we, as clergy, offer a voice to the voiceless. And the situation is getting worse in this country. Things are getting crueler and crueler.”
Perhaps the biggest impact from the trips came during visits to Ciudad Juárez and a detention center in New Mexico. In Mexico, both women described a scene of disarray with hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers — not just from Mexico but from Brazil, Venezuela, Honduras, Guatemala and around Central and South America — sleeping on the streets and in nearby parks awaiting a hearing to determine if they’ll be allowed into the United States.
The program, part of the Trump administration’s recently enacted Migrant Protection Protocols, requires asylum seekers arriving at ports of entry on the border to remain in Mexico for the duration of their immigration proceedings, a slow-moving process that kept some families camping on the border for months, according to Stahlberg and Gelfarb. Because of the new policy, immigrant hopefuls can no longer use facilities like the Annunciation House in El Paso, which provides short-term housing and hospitality to refugee families.
“There were about 800 people and families waiting in a park, waiting to be processed,” Stahlberg said. “They sleep and eat in the park. They could benefit from (the Annunciation House), but they have to remain in Mexico. So there’s a house that’s almost empty, while they’re doing their laundry in drinking fountains in the park.
“We talked with a woman and her kids who were from Brazil, and they were waiting to be processed. They waited for more than a month in the park. We talked with another woman from Honduras, who’s husband had been decapitated, and she ran away because of violence. Violence is what makes most people flee. It’s amazing how many of them there were.”
Back in the United States, Gelfarb said her group was allowed to visit the Otero Detention Center in the New Mexico desert. The group wasn’t allowed to take any photographs inside or speak to anyone being detained, an experience Gelfarb characterized as “positively Orwellian.”
The for-profit detention center has come under fire of late due to numerous allegations of inhumane conditions, abuse against members of the LGBTQ community, unjustified solitary confinement and more. Gelfarb said the center resembled a prison more than anything else, with inmates in orange jumpsuits taking on odd jobs for a dollar or two a day.
“There were marketing posters in the entrance when you came in that said, ‘Believe it or not I care,’” Gelfarb said. “When we went to solitary confinement, the ‘special housing unit,’ they closed all the little windows so we couldn’t see inside. We were told some people are in there because it was their preference to be alone. I found that hard to believe.
“The faces I saw were not happy. And it was only subsequently we learned there were hunger strikes at the facility, that they’d been charged with using solitary confinement as a punishment and that they’ve had people who tried to take their own lives because of the conditions. The human spirit can only take so much dehumanization and hopelessness. But the officials kept smiling and sticking to their script.”
Both Gelfarb and Stahlberg noted that they typically try to avoid politics, but said they felt compelled to share their experiences with the community, and to help spread awareness and educate others about the situation.
“There is no compassion,” Stahlberg said. “There is no humanity. I believe they are being dehumanized for the sake of political discourse. They live in constant fear, which is horrible.
“I’m an immigrant myself. I chose the United States for its values. The United States, as I understood from everything I’d heard, is a country that respects human life. In the Declaration of Independence, it talks about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all God’s children. I believe in the United States and its original values. My message is let’s go back to those values on which this country was formed. And let’s respect every human life. I believe that we can do that, and we can do it in our Summit County community. We can respect the migrants who live here, and we can work to help give them a better life without fear.”
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