Members of the Pittsburgh Jewish community have mobilized in opposition to the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents when detained at the southern border, a practice that is drawing widespread criticism from political and religious groups across the country.
The policy, an outgrowth of the “zero-tolerance” approach on immigration Trump’s administration implemented in April, led to the removal of over 2,300 migrant children from their parents.
On Wednesday afternoon, President Trump signed an executive order ending the separation of families and requiring instead that parents and children be detained together indefinitely. The order, though, could violate the 1997 Flores Settlement prohibiting federal authorities from detaining children for longer than 20 days, raising the prospect of legal challenges to the new policy.
At an interfaith rally on Wednesday evening, hundreds of people gathered at Sixth Presbyterian Church in Squirrel Hill to show solidarity with the recently detained children, whose fate remains unclear.
With members of the crowd holding signs reading “children belong with their parents” and “reunite the families,” rabbis, pastors and immigrants spoke in a defiant tone about the state of immigration law in the country.
“Our hearts are broken to see our fellow human beings treated with cruelty,” said Rabbi Seth Adelson of Congregation Beth Shalom. “Our hearts are broken when we hear of small children being torn from their mothers’ arms.”
Rabbi Jamie Gibson of Temple Sinai echoed those sentiments.
“It says in our holiest book, the Torah: ‘Don’t eat certain animals.’ It says it twice,” Gibson told the crowd. “It says to take care of the…stranger in your midst 36 times.”
After the event, attendees lit candles and headed outside — braving wind and torrential rains — to hold a vigil for the migrant children who had been separated from their parents.
The decision by Trump to reverse course — after multiple days of claiming he had no power to stop family separations — came after hundreds of national and local Jewish organizations sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen calling for the policy to be rescinded. The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council and the Jewish Family and Community Services of Pittsburgh both signed onto the letter.
“As Jews, we understand the plight of being an immigrant fleeing violence and oppression,” the letter reads. “We believe that the United States is a nation of immigrants and how we treat the stranger reflects on the moral values and ideals of this nation.
“Taking children away from their families is unconscionable,” the letter continues. “Such practices inflict unnecessary trauma on parents and children, many of whom have already suffered traumatic experiences.”
Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Erika Strassburger, who represents Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, Oakland, and Point Breeze, called the family separation policy “heartless.”
“People deserve an opportunity to make lives for themselves and don’t deserve to be treated like criminals. They’re human beings,” she said in an interview. “We need to understand that and address it with empathy.”
Jon Tucker, a member of the leadership council of the local chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition, expressed similarly strident opposition to the family separation policy, saying it was “appalling.” He placed the blame squarely on what he called “chaos” within the executive branch.
“I think it was poorly conceived, poorly executed and politically…poison[ous],” Tucker told the Chronicle. “At the end of the day, I don’t think most people wanted it. And they got it because there’s a lack of cohesiveness and a lack of communication between the different agencies.”
Jordan Golin, president and CEO of JFCS, urged attendees of Wednesday’s vigil to consider their shared humanity.
“We should look long and deep at the suffering of our distant cousins from a different country who speak a different language, practice a different religion, and yet share the same powerful desire to provide their children with safety and security,” Golin said. “Who among us would not do the same for our own children?”
The executive order signed by Trump on Wednesday did not appear to quell the concerns of local leaders about the treatment of immigrants at the border.
Tucker argued that the “zero tolerance” policy that Sessions implemented last year — which the president reaffirmed on Wednesday — remained troublesome.
“‘Zero tolerance’ works really well with drug interdiction,” Tucker said. “Here, you’re talking about people. You can’t just run around warehousing people indefinitely.”
Strassburger said she believed immigrants — including refugees — could provide an economic boost to the region.
“We know that to create and maintain a workforce in Pittsburgh and in the Pittsburgh region overall, we are going to need to welcome in new people,” she said. “Whether they’re refugees or whether they’re foreign students who we can get to stay here, they’re all important to building Pittsburgh so that we don’t lose population like we have been for the last 40 years.”
At Wednesday’s vigil, when Pastor Dave Swanson of the Pittsburgh Mennonite Church announced an upcoming protest on the Hot Metal Bridge against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the crowd erupted in applause. When one audience member yelled “shut it down,” referring to closing down the bridge, hundreds repeated the call. For nearly 15 seconds, the crowd clapped, hollered, and chanted, perhaps a sign that Pittsburgh activists won’t be easily placated. PJC
Jonah Berger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.