On a warm spring day at the end of March, the building at 419 Emancipation Ave. in Houston, Texas, kept being passed by two dozen or so cars. For about an hour, the drivers slowly circled the block while honking their horns.
The address houses a detention center for unaccompanied migrant children, and the drivers were activists of the Houston chapter of Never Again Action, a nationwide Jewish effort to protest the Trump administration’s treatment of undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers.
As activists told Haaretz, they had come to the site many times in recent months, holding signs and standing outside the building. This time, with the coronavirus pandemic still sweeping the United States, they used their cars to maintain social distancing.
“Free the Children, Never Again Is Now,” a sign on a black SUV proclaimed. “ICE detainees can’t social distance, release them all now,” another read.
“We know that detention centers, migrant detention centers in particular, and also jails and prisons are potential breeding grounds for outbreaks, potentially really fatal outbreaks of the virus,” says David Smith, an organizer of the protest.
Smith says he and his group feel a great sense of urgency about freeing from the detention centers “people who are totally innocent of everything other than coming to this country seeking a better life.
“We don’t want to see hundreds and hundreds or thousands and thousands of detainees, or for that matter prisoners, die because of being in detention with inadequate health care,” he adds.
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Never Again Action was formed last June by a small group of Jewish activists angered by pictures of cramped immigrant facilities. It has since grown into a nationwide movement.
Last summer, thousands took to the streets in dozens of cities across the United States, blocking entrances to Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities, engaging in civil disobedience under the slogan “Never Again Is Now” – and often getting arrested in the process.
With the COVID-19 crisis, they are increasingly worried about the safety and health of detainees, so several chapters of the group have taken to their cars to keep the protest going.
As of Tuesday, ICE reported 606 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among its detainees. A breakdown of cases shows that some facilities, like the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, have up to 106 immigrants sick with the virus
The Richwood Correctional Center in Monroe, Los Angeles, comes in second at 61, followed by Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in New York at 49. Overall, 37 ICE detention centers have at least one case of the coronavirus among detainees.
In addition, ICE has reported that 39 of its employees working in immigrant detention facilities have tested positive for COVID-19.
Last year, several children also died of the flu in ICE custody after they did not receive proper medical care.
“As bad as detention of migrants is, I think there have probably been some unreported deaths in privately owned centers,” Smith says. “We know there have been reported deaths in ICE facilities over the last several years, but now with COVID-19, the prospect of more fatalities is unprecedented.”
Sophie Ellman-Golan is a member of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice. “A lot of the reason in terms of the urgency is just that [prisons and detention centers] are places where diseases will just spread like absolute wildfire and where also we know that there is no adequate health care setup,” she says.
“It’s a crisis for the people in there; it’s also a public health crisis because you have people who are coming in and out of these spaces.”
Protecting the homeless
The U.S. Jewish community has been at the forefront of the battle around immigrant rights since President Donald Trump restricted immigration and detained illegal immigrants including, in some cases, the separation of children from their parents at the southern border.
Even during the coronavirus pandemic and under social distancing guidelines, many Jewish groups remain active in the field.
Among them, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice’s “Let My People Go” campaign encourages people to donate to help bail detainees out of jails and immigration detention centers. It also asks them to demand that the authorities grant clemencies and make efforts to release people.
“When Andrew Cuomo, in his press briefings, talks about what they’re advising New Yorkers to do, he’s also not making it possible for incarcerated people to do that. And the thing is, he could let people go, he could grant clemencies, but he’s choosing not to do that,” Ellman-Golan says.
The progressive Jewish group Bend the Arc has been organizing car protests around the country, too, and making thousands of phone calls to pressure politicians to release detainees. In some states such as Minnesota, Bend the Arc and its partners at Jewish Community Action have helped significantly reduce jail populations in light of the coronavirus crisis.
The group also seeks protection for the homeless and tenants who fear evictions because they’ve been caught unable to pay the rent.
“You can’t stay home if you are homeless or you don’t have a safe place to stay,” Ellman-Golan says, noting that Jewish groups are also fighting to get hotels to house people during the pandemic.
Over the past year, Jewish congregations in New York have also signed up to be part of the New Sanctuary Coalition, a network of houses of worship helping undocumented immigrants. Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Manhattan, led by Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, is one of them.
Last May, the congregation also launched a weekly immigration legal clinic, where volunteers help people complete asylum applications and navigate the system. Some volunteers offer legal experience, others come to assist with translation or simply show support. During the pandemic, they have moved the clinic online to Zoom.
“It doesn’t work with every one of the immigrants we work with; not all of them have access [to the internet], and it has slowed everything down. And the courts have been really difficult to deal with,” Kleinbaum says.
Noemi Masliah, who has been an immigration attorney for around 40 years and offers legal advice at the clinic, says that while the United States is still receiving applications for asylum, immigration courts are slowed by a backlog.
“The first step in even starting to adjudicate [an asylum application] is the biometrics appointment,” where fingerprints are taken and interviews are conducted, she says. “And of course, they’re not scheduling interviews right now. They’re not opening until about June 4 or 5. In New York state, it may even be extended further.”
Before the coronavirus, these appointments took about a month to be scheduled.
As volunteers file asylum applications for visitors to the clinic – referred to as friends – the synagogue has been using its funds to help immigrants with their basic needs.
“I mean, how are you going to get food if you can’t work at all and it’s very hard to move around the city because of transportation issues?” Kleinbaum asks. “So we have a fund now and the clinic has a group of volunteers who are calling every single one of our immigrants and figuring out what people’s food needs are, if they need some cash, if they need some concrete help.”
In the name of Jewish values
For Ellman-Golan, fighting for the most vulnerable in the current crisis is a matter of Jewish values. This feeling became even clearer to her during Passover last month.
“I think it was impossible to go through the Haggadah and recount this story of being trapped, of needing to flee, of being afraid, and not feel that deeply,” she says. “The value of every life in terms of just fighting for each other and showing up for our communities – that feels definitely important.”
As Kleinbaum puts it, caring for others at a time when everyone is suffering themselves is a real test of one’s Jewish values.
“We always have to remember what those values are, no matter what the situation. We have to live our Jewish values, and we just have to adapt to the current realities,” she says. “If they could do it in the Warsaw Ghetto, we could be doing it here.”
The coronavirus pandemic isn’t the first health crisis Kleinbaum has seen up close. When she arrived at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, an LGBT synagogue, in August 1992, the AIDS epidemic was at its peak. Forty percent of the congregation died from AIDS in the coming years.
“We have to always remember that God put us here for a reason,” she says. “If I am only for myself, what am I?” she adds in Hebrew. “I don’t see there being a division between what we do for ourselves and what we do for others who have been created by God.”
The future of social justice organizing
Organizing the car protests in Houston involved “a lot less work” than organizing a traditional demonstration, says Smith of Never Again Action.
“You put out a call on Facebook and you make some phone calls and you do some emails. But you don’t have to get a sound permit, you don’t have to haul sound equipment up to the site,” he says.
“On the other hand, your numbers are going to be inevitably smaller and there is nothing like an in-person demonstration. It’s harder to get people out in a pandemic even when you’re doing car-only actions – and you can’t criticize people because safety and health really is the order of the day.”
With social distancing guidelines altering ways of life across the globe, and talk of a new normal after the pandemic, activists are also worried about the implications for social justice organizing.
“I don’t think we really know yet, and I hope it only expands us,” Kleinbaum says. “We will make the changes, I’m completely confident.”
Ellman-Golan says, “Organizers have always had to get creative with tactics. At a certain point, any tactic that is done over and over again over a period of time begins to fall flat, so we always have to keep innovating and imagining a new and creative way to engage.”
She adds that it has been “very hard to break through, because everything is so focused right now on this epidemic.” However, she believes the current situation can also inspire new volunteers.
“I think the work of our movements is to ask: How can we actually bring in as many people who feel impacted, who are coming to the realization about why this is happening? What about our country has allowed this pandemic to be such an incredible unmanaged crisis here?”
Ellman-Golan says the many local initiatives, filled with activists striving to help their neighbors and the most vulnerable, shows that people “instinctively understand each other’s humanity.”
“A lot of the reason that’s able to happen is because of organizing and community development that built up to this moment. Our organizing wouldn’t be able to pivot so quickly if we didn’t have that deep trust and relationships with all the communities that are impacted,” she says.
“We’re not going to believe and regurgitate the lies we’re being told that we’re the ones posing a danger to each other. We’re going to band together and fight for the government assistant that we need”