Two weeks ago, conditions at a migrant child detention center in Clint, Texas, made national headlines and inspired a ferocious public outcry. Children were living in reprehensible conditions — babies without diapers, older children without soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste. All of them were being denied time outside and decent nutrition. Amid public cries of shock and disgust, many of us are asking, “What can we do?”
It is a worthy question. However, we should be asking, “How did we allow this to happen?”
In Jewish tradition, we are commanded 36 times in the Torah (Pentateuch) to welcome the stranger in our midst and to love him or her as ourselves. Most often the rationale for treating the stranger fairly is because “you were strangers in Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21) Jews consider this requirement one of our most important commandments.
At Temple Emanuel, one of the oldest and largest Jewish congregations in North Carolina, we take this commandment so seriously that in August 2017 we passed a resolution to stand in solidarity with our immigrant neighbors. We resolved to support and aid families being torn apart by detention and deportation, which certainly applies to the children being detained in overcrowded camps near the southern border of the U.S.
For this reason, we speak out again today and implore others in our community to join us. These are the facts: Children in our government’s care are suffering neglect, living in unsanitary conditions and receiving insufficient medical care. PBS reports that at one time 300 children were confined in a cell meant to hold a handful of single, adult men.
The Talmud teaches, “By the breath of children, God sustains the world.” (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 119b). The sanctity and welfare of children is paramount in Jewish tradition.
Like all human beings, children — whether documented, undocumented or noncitizens — are created in the image of God. It is our obligation to protect and nurture the divine spark within them, enabling them to reach their fullest potential.
How did we Americans allow this situation to happen? We became desensitized to the plight of immigrants, migrants and asylum seekers. We became galvanized by reports of corrupt and degrading detainee treatment and family separation, but, once the administration claimed to “fix” the problem, we collectively turned our attention elsewhere. Nevertheless, the harrowing reports from Clint, Texas, the Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, and the Homestead Detention Center in South Florida demonstrate continued family separation. Parents and children alike suffer ever more dehumanizing treatment.
We allowed this situation to happen by operating private, for-profit detention centers with little to no congressional oversight or access by the news media. We allowed this situation by tacitly accepting the creation of a new, xenophobic status quo that inures us to the debasement of children and families. We allowed this situation by forgetting to treat the strangers among us as ourselves.
What should we do now? We should call and write our elected officials to tell them that this situation is unjust and un-American. We should demand more congressional oversight at immigrant detention centers and hold our representatives accountable for the treatment of detainees. We should insist on answers about where children are being held and what the conditions are in those places.
We should persist in these tasks, not only while detention centers dominate the headlines, but until something changes. We should ask ourselves, “Is this the America we want to live in?” If not, we should cry out tirelessly until our nation lives up to its ideals.
As Jews, we have fled persecution throughout our history. Indeed, not so long ago, Jews fleeing Nazi persecution were similarly turned away at American borders. Those Jews would have given their every possession to be granted access to the United States, because such freedom would have meant nothing less than saving their own lives.
These experiences compel us to extend a hand to others who are persecuted, regardless of their religion, skin color or immigration status.
That hand extends across borders, regardless of economics, and especially to children. Jewish teachings require us to speak out when asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants — when children— suffer inhumane treatment in our country, but we need more than our voices alone. We implore the entire community to stand with us as we call for action and for justice.
This situation is already a stain on the history of our great nation; if we do nothing, it risks becoming a national and global catastrophe.
At press time, CBS News was reporting that, based on a tour by journalists, conditions in Clint, Texas, had improved and that 117 children were housed in the facility.