Opinion

At an ICE Detention Center, We Rabbis Saw the Horrors the American State Tries to Hide

The ICE propaganda machine kept telling us how humanely detainees were treated, even that inmates 'chose' solitary confinement. But we know what we saw

Honduran migrant Leticia Nunes holds her daughter Mailyn amid a group of migrants trying to make their way to the U.S. Tijuana, Mexico. Nov. 22, 2018
Rodrigo Abd,AP

The taste of state-sponsored propaganda was gut-wrenching.

Cameras weren’t allowed in the Otero ICE Detention Camp in New Mexico. And without cameras, no one really sees what the conditions are. Not when it is 45 minutes from a border crossing. Not when it is inaccessible by public transportation. Not when it is in the middle of the desert, surrounded by mountains.

In the middle of the desert, if no one is around to hear the cries for justice, what sound do they make? Who sees these huddled masses yearning to breathe free? We did.

I spent last week at the U.S.-Mexico border with a group of rabbis and cantors on a delegation organized by the Jewish immigrant rights organization HIAS and the rabbinic human rights organization T’ruah. We were a group of clergy concerned with the humanitarian crisis on America's southern border.

ICE agreed to have their public relations department and the facility’s warden meet with us and give us a tour. No matter how they tried to spin it, this was a prison.

Civil detention, where asylum seekers and those who’ve entered this country irregularly are detained, is supposed to look different than a criminal correctional facility. But these detainees, these asylum seekers, these souls who sought a safe haven, are being treated as criminals, as something less than human. And the propaganda machine was in full effect.

In June 1964, a group of 17 rabbis were arrested in St. Augustine, Florida for integrating a segregated restaurant with civil rights leaders. They explained their reasoning in a letter signed by all the participants:

"We came because we could not stand quietly by our brother’s blood. We had done that too many times before. We have been vocal in our exhortation of others but the idleness of our hands too often revealed an inner silence; silence at a time when silence has become the unpardonable sin of our time…"

We came to the border last week because we could not stay silent. We could not ignore this humanitarian crisis. And we came to this isolated Otero ICE detention facility because we wanted the detainees to know that we hear their cries.

They were hungry for human connection and relationship. They were hungry for acknowledgement. In a facility that prevents physical contact with visitors, detainees are divided by glass windows when meeting with family and lawyers. We tried time and time again to silently communicate our compassion.

With each sacred soul we saw, I gently put my hand to my heart - the unspoken sign acknowledging that I saw them, that I heard their cries, that I cried with them. I wanted to remind them that they were human. We stared into each other’s eyes. I search deep into their pupils for hope, but all I saw was the weight of despair on their eyelids, as if the divine spark within them was extinguished.

Approaching the wing of the facility labeled "Restrictive Housing Unit," the propaganda machine told us that solitary confinement wasn’t practiced there. The officials tried to convince us that some detainees preferred to be alone. But as we walked down the narrow corridor, an ICE officer shuttered the small slit windows in each door, preventing anyone from peeking in, preventing any human contact.

And as the ICE officials were assuring us that the detainees were treated with dignity, one of those held in solitary confinement began banging on the door as we walked by. He wanted to feel heard. He wanted to make sure we had not forgotten about him.

As we left, I bumped into a group of pro bono lawyers from the non-profit organization, Catholic Charities. One explained that the most frequent complaint at this detention camp: the too frequent use of solitary confinement.

We had seen it being used as punishment and torture, right in front of us, even as the propaganda machine assured us that couldn’t be true. They hoped that their smiles would hide their lies, as if their pleasantries could mask the horrors of the detention camp.

Legal advocates at the border organization Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, told us that the use of solitary confinement and mistreatment of detainees at this facility have pushed asylum seekers to go on hunger strikes, and in some cases attempt suicide. One detainee was sentenced to an entire month in solitary confinement.

They fled their homes because they feared for their safety. And here, when they speak out to these officers about how they are treated, they are punished with solitary confinement. These asylum seekers have had their humanity stripped away from them. And it has happened on our collective watch.

Faith leaders and members of human rights groups wearing a life vests march outside of the U.S. Capitol to protest Trump administration plans to end the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Oct. 15, 2019
Jose Luis Magana,AP

I can quote infinite verses of Torah or numerous Talmudic teachings about our divine mandate to love the stranger, to welcome the stranger, and to protect the stranger. But I shouldn’t have to.

I shouldn’t have to prove why we must care for the vulnerable. I shouldn’t have to prove why we must care for the migrant. If I have to prove through biblical verses why the treatment of these human beings is immoral and unjust, then it’s not only these conditions and facilities that need to change. Our moral compass needs to change as well.

We shouldn’t need to justify why we went. We shouldn’t need to pen a letter like the 17 rabbis did in Florida 55 years ago. We went to bear witness to what we saw and share that with our communities, so that the hidden atrocities of a facility hidden in the desert are exposed. 

Our responsibility as rabbis is not to come up with policy solutions. Our job is to offer moral clarity and be a call to our collective conscience when a system is unjust.

The propaganda machine kept reminding us of how just they were. They kept telling us how humanely detainees were treated. But we know what we saw.

They think that in the middle of the desert, no one can see that these detainees are beings treated like less than human beings. They think that without cameras, no one can document the hopelessness in the eyes of these migrants, or these horrific conditions. But I know what I saw.

The officials can keep smiling and sticking to their script. But don’t tell me I am lying. Don’t tell me my eyes and ears are lying to me. I know what I saw.

And what I saw was immoral, unjust, and a desecration of the holiness of every individual in that facility – a desecration to which we are all accomplices, if we don't speak out.

Jesse M. Olitzky is the rabbi at Congregation Beth El, New Jersey. Twitter: @JMOlitzky