Immigration has been a hotly debated issue for the past three years. During Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, he said he would build a wall at the country’s southern border and force Mexico to pay for it. In addition, this past spring, the federal government announced a “zero tolerance” policy against first-time illegal immigrants, resulting in more than 1,900 children being separated from their parents at the border in April and May. The separation horrified many Hoboken residents, who held a protest rally in June.
Trump has also said illegal immigrants “infest our country,” the type of language that some say stirs fear among legal immigrants as well, making them subject to tirades, hatred, and feeling like outsiders.
Last week, Scheinberg said immigration and refugees have been at the forefront of discussions in society and that it’s his job as a rabbi to “communicate about the ways that traditional texts and values and Jewish tradition interact with the modern world.”
“I feel it is important as a communicator to be able to really know more about the issue,” Scheinberg said.
Scheinberg said that many of his friends, family members, and members of the Jewish faith know what it’s like to try and seek asylum in another country. Similarly, some of the families separated at the border came to seek asylum. There are two types of asylum in America -- affirmative asylum seekers and defensive asylum seekers. Affirmative asylum applicants may apply at a port of entry or begin an application for asylum within a year of arrival to the U.S., even if they have entered the country illegally. Defensive asylum applicants apply when they are apprehended for crossing the border illegally or are already in the deportation process. Defensive asylum applicants go through a court hearing.
“It’s our historical experience, that of my own family and families in the United Synagogue’s community, that either migrated or sought asylum fleeing danger by moving from place to place,” Scheinberg said, citing World War I and World War II.
He said that this historical experience, and traditional Jewish text and values, motivated him to learn more.
“Many religious texts and ancient societies have laws commanding protection for vulnerable people -- including orphans, widows, and the poor -- but the Jews notably single out the concern for a stranger,” said Scheinberg. “It is referenced 36 times, more than any other commandment in the Torah.”
During the trip to Texas, he attended immigration court hearings in Laredo, saw the largest family detention center in the U.S. in Dilly, and took part in a meeting of religious leaders, border officers, and immigration advocates.
Trial and ‘family residential’
“We saw rows of people, dozens, probably 70 people, some in prison garb, some in street cloths, some chained in handcuffs, others weren’t, in this mass trial basically for crossing the border,” he said.
He said the hearing was a source of “great discomfort” to him because he couldn’t be certain they were being well represented in the judicial system.
“There was no possibility that anyone was getting individualized attention from the attorneys,” said Scheinberg. “If they met with each one individually they would have had less than two minutes with each person.”
He noted that the majority of the people on trial were from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and that although the court provided headsets that translated the court hearing into Spanish, not all of them were fluent or competent in Spanish as some spoke regional languages.
“I was disturbed by this scene. It seemed so different from what I expect from our judicial system,” he said.
He also saw the outside of the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Tex.
This is the largest family detention center in the country and has room for roughly 2,400 detainees.
An immigration attorney explained to them that “family residential” basically stood for the detention of women and children who are awaiting asylum hearings. Asylum hearings are for those who are fleeing some sort of civil unrest in their country.
“The attorney in our group said that these hearings take place by video, with the asylum seeker in the detention center, the judge in another location, the attorneys in anther location, and translators over the phone.,” said Scheinberg. “She suggested that the overall effect of this is that the hearings are chaotic, and as a result, people who meet the criteria for asylum are less likely to be successful in their hearings.”
“The stories that get lost are the people who are fleeing their country due to fear for their safety.” –Rabbi Robert Scheinberg
Scheinberg said one important moment for him was attending a community stakeholders meeting of religious leaders, DACA recipients, border protection officers, and local activists for immigrants.
DACA is an immigration policy established by the Obama administration in June 2012 which protects children of undocumented immigrants from deportation.
“We had a fairly frank discussion about immigration in the Laredo area, and one common thing is that everyone seemed to have a desire to be seen beyond their stereotypes,” he said. “The people in border patrol wanted everyone to know that there are people beneath those uniforms whose job it is carry out the laws.”
He said some of the border patrol agents agreed that the immigration laws that are being enforced “sometimes operates cross purposefully [against] promoting safety and security.”
This is because undocumented immigrants are often fearful of authority and are less likely to report crimes or seek medical care.
He said border agents have to be vigilant because of illegal drug trafficking in the area.
“I also spoke with straightforward immigration advocates who said there is a huge amount of illegal drugs crossing border into the U.S. at Laredo, so supply and demand is a problem that needs to be solved on both sides of the border,” he said. “But the stories that get lost are the people who are fleeing their country due to fear for their safety.”
He said he hopes telling people about his experience helps redouble local efforts to help immigrants and refugees, including preventing discrimination.
Marilyn Baer can be reached at email@example.com.