The stories of detainees at the El Paso-Juarez border resonate deeply with Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, whose father, as well as three of his grandparents, were immigrants to the United States.
“Immigration is an important part of not just my story, but our story as Jews,” explained Markiz, director of Derekh and youth tefillah at Congregation Beth Shalom.
Having been an outspoken advocate for asylum seekers in the age of Trump, Markiz was invited to join other Jewish clergy from around the country on a trip to the border sponsored by HIAS and T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. The group of 23 clergy and staff headed down to El Paso-Juarez on Nov. 3 for a three-day journey to explore and witness the conditions challenging masses of migrants trying to enter the United States, most of them desperately trying to find better lives for themselves and for their children.
Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas, form “basically one community and one city separated by a border,” Markiz noted. The area, with a combined total population of about 2.5 million people, has served for centuries as a “pathway to the north,” because the area sits within a break in the mountains.
The clergy heard from HIAS attorneys and local government officials about the history of the region as well the complex laws governing immigration and asylum.
A recently enacted U.S. policy called the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), has created a difficult situation for many asylum seekers, Markiz learned. Now, those from Central America wishing to find asylum in the U.S. must remain in Mexico until their legal proceedings have concluded, which can take months.
The clergy visited a migrant shelter in Juarez which housed people from countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, many of whom were “escaping for their lives from gangs, drug cartels, climate change in some cases,” Markiz said. “These are people who don’t have somewhere to go back to.”
After trekking “all the way up to the border,” Markiz explained, instead of being admitted into the U.S. and getting an asylum hearing, they encounter border patrol, which prohibits them from entering the country.
“They have to take like a deli counter number in a process called ‘metering,’” said Markiz. “This metering list has tens of thousands of people on it.”
The asylum seekers, with no resources, are then “stuck, waiting to be processed in Mexico,” said Markiz. “Many of them are just on the streets, in tents, in shelters. There is a population of people from southern Mexico who are also in this category of people trying to get across the border, seeking asylum from the Mexican government.”
Once the migrants do get called for processing, “they are brought into ICE custody,” Markiz explained. “The pictures we see on TV of those chain link fences and the Mylar blankets, and people sleeping on the floor, those are the processing centers. They are not supposed to be there for more than 72 hours, but of course we know for a fact that many people are staying there for weeks on end.”
Once the people are processed by ICE, because of the MPP, they are sent back into Mexico to wait for their court hearing, where they are held in shelters by the Mexican government.
“The very first shelter we went to on that first morning, there were the people who were waiting for their court date,” he said. “There were 250 beds and 651 people staying there. The Mexican government had sort of a disaster kitchen from the military there providing thousands of meals every day. People there were profoundly friendly and they wanted to tell us their stories.”
While there, Markiz heard the story of Giselle, a Honduran who had worked on a military base and who escaped her country along with her 16-year-old daughter after her life was threatened.
“She is afraid to leave the shelter because the gangs are not that far outside the shelter,” said Markiz.
Another woman in the shelter was a professional soccer player, who, after fouling an opponent during a game, was threatened by that person’s sibling, a gang member.
“These people are fleeing for their lives,” Markiz said. “They are literally going to be murdered.”
The group of clergy also visited the Otero detention center.
“It was a show prison,” said Markiz. “They cleaned it up, and it was antiseptic by the time they showed it to us.”
Nonetheless, he said, “it was a prison. These people are in civil detention. They are not criminals. The majority of these people have not committed a crime. And yet they are being held in barracks. We saw these people waiting to be processed into this place and you could see the desperation in their eyes. They are afraid. And it was hard for us to figure out how to communicate that we are their allies, that we are not enjoying this experience of seeing them in prison, which was challenging.”
Otero, he said, has a “particular history of misusing solitary confinement,” and although signs throughout the facility boast the tagline BIONIC (“Believe It Or Not I Care”), Markiz was convinced “you only say that when it is not possible to believe it.”
“We were told they never have more than a few people in solitary and for the most part it is something they are choosing for themselves,” said Markiz. “ But every lawyer we met told us they use it in a punitive way — again, these people are not criminals — to inflict pain and suffering on these people.”
There were only a few telephones in the hall for detainees to use, and just four computers — with no internet — in the facility’s “law library,” according to Markiz.
“It’s hard to sit with the attempt for gaslighting here, for the cognitive dissonance with these people who are trying to show this humane prison while not seeing the profound inhumanity they are treating these people with,” he said. “They once used the language of ‘bodies’ for people. That says something. It is profoundly dehumanizing.”
The majority of the people in the detention centers are “trying to find safe places in the United States to live, just like you and I,” Markiz stressed. “They want what we have. And that is reasonable. These people are not different from us. That’s the most important thing. Their story is exactly the same story. Swap out gangs and drug cartels with Cossacks, it’s the same story.”
The rabbi also visited the memorial in El Paso for the victims of the Walmart shooting.
“As I walked along the memorial, I remembered how profoundly hard this past year has been in Pittsburgh and recognized how much more healing we have to do,” he wrote on Facebook. “El Paso and Juarez are just starting that process and I feel connected to them. There is something that connects all of us who deal with mass shootings.
“With tears in my eyes, I encountered the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh’s banner and I broke down completely,” Markiz continued. “I sobbed standing there. Holding my own pain and sorrow with that of El Paso’s was profound.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at