JTA / September 1, 2005
By Larry Luxner
NOGALES, Mexico — Mexican migrants fleeing economic hardship risk their lives every day to cross the harsh Sonoran Desert into the United States, where they hope to find jobs and prosperity.
But unlike the ancient Jews who wandered in the Sinai Desert for 40 years after fleeing Egypt, today’s Mexicans have no manna from heaven to sustain them.
That symbolism was very much in evidence earlier this week, when national Jewish leaders for the first time joined their Christian brethren on the heavily guarded U.S.-Mexico border to condemn what they called an unjust U.S. policy that leads to suffering and even death for illegal immigrants.
"There's been an explosion in human catastrophe," said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the New York-based Jewish Council for Public Affairs. "Between 300 and 400 people will die horrific deaths this year as a result of an immigration policy that’s in total failure."
Felson was part of a 30-member interfaith delegation that converged Monday on Tucson, and from there traveled south to the sprawling, dusty Mexican border town of Nogales.
There they visited a faith-based center that provides free lunches for hungry children, as well as a government shelter for 35 to 40 undocumented youths deported back to Mexico by the U.S. Border Patrol.
They also visited a remote water station in the Arizona desert set up by a nonprofit group called Humane Borders that works to prevent migrants from dying of thirst on their trek north.
The visit made a profound impression on Rabbi Bill Berk of Phoenix.
"We know what it feels like to be border crossers," said Berk, whose congregation, Temple Chai, is one of the largest in Arizona, with more than 1,100 families. "There's the issue of tzelem Elohim, the idea that all people are created in the image of God.
"The Talmud's take on this is that every human being has infinite worth," Berk said. "So to see human beings dying in the desert is an impossibility for a Jew of conscience."
According to the Tucson-based nonprofit group No More Deaths, 229 migrants have died in the Arizona desert so far this year — far more than the 200 men, women and children who died in Arizona in all of 2004 while trying to make the trek north. Nationwide, more than 2,600 migrants have perished along the entire U.S.-Mexico border since 1995.
The reason for the sudden jump in deaths, immigration activists say, is that the U.S. government has instituted an aggressive policy that has forced illegal migrants who might otherwise have been able to cross through urban areas like Nogales, Ariz.; El Paso, Tex., or San Diego into dangerous deserts.
Most of the migrants died of dehydration, a grave risk in the Sonoran desert, where summer temperatures routinely exceed 110 degrees and water is scarce.
"Water was also a huge issue for Jews during the exodus from Egypt," said Berk, the only rabbi on Monday's trip. "When I invoke the idea of ancient memories, we put ourselves in the shoes of desert crossers, as we were. These people are fleeing from economic oppression, so we have to identify with them."
José Garza, a spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol in the Tucson region, said that immigration-control policies were "working very well" in addressing a massive problem.
In the Tucson region alone, border patrol agents have apprehended more than 400,000 potential immigrants so far in 2005, and have saved 810 people suffering from severe dehydration, Garza said.
"What we're seeing here are ruthless smugglers motivated by greed," he said. "They're willing to move these illegal aliens to the harshest regions of our desert to get them into the U.S."
Before leaving Mexico, the Christian and Jewish leaders held a prayer service at the 14-foot-high wall in Nogales separating the two countries, then crossed the border and drove back north for a final gathering at El Tiradito, a Catholic shrine in downtown Tucson.
After various Christian leaders read passages from the Christian Bible and the sun began to sink over the distant mountains, Josh Protas, director of the local Jewish Community Relations Council, blew the shofar as a symbolic call to action as Catholics and Protestants from a half-dozen denominations looked on.
"Immigration should be an issue of Jewish concern because we’re only one or two generations removed from the immigrant experience," said David Elcott, director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee in New York. "As Jews, we need to identify with these undocumented migrant workers — those who are struggling to come over the border — because we too were once strangers in a strange land."
The unprecedented border visit was jointly conceived and organized by Elcott and Rick Ufford-Chase of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
The two met last October while discussing the politically divisive Israel divestment issue, and decided that immigration reform along the U.S.-Mexico border was one issue on which Presbyterians and Jews could agree.
"This joint effort probably wouldn’t have happened if it weren't for the divestment question," said Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches USA, an ecumenical partnership of Christian denominations.
A statement issued by the ad hoc Interfaith Immigration Working Group has been endorsed by dozens of national groups, ranging from B’nai B’rith International and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Women in Islam.
A long list of local organizations also has signed on, including the Baltimore Jewish Council, Catholic Charities Hawaii and the Chicago-based Organization for Latino Awareness.
"The U.S. border with Mexico has become a line of death as hundreds of men, women and children become stranded and die trying to cross into our country," the statement reads. "While we recognize that the United States must maintain a secure border and regulate immigration, as communities of faith we are deeply troubled by the suffering and death that is taking place daily."
The statement calls for elected officials to urgently enact legislation that includes:
• an opportunity for "hard-working immigrants who are already contributing to this country to come out of the shadows," regularize their legal status and, over time, become permanent residents or U.S. citizens.
• reform of immigration laws to "significantly reduce waiting times" for separated families who may wait years to be reunited.
• creation of legal avenues for workers and their families who wish to migrate to the United States and "work in a safe, legal and orderly manner," with their rights protected.
• border protection policies "that are consistent with humanitarian values and with the need to treat all individuals with respect, while allowing the authorities to carry out the critical task of identifying and preventing entry of terrorists and dangerous criminals."
Gideon Aronoff, vice president of government relations and public policy at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, said it's inconceivable that Mexicans escaping poverty by coming to the United States should have to worry that they or their children might die in the trackless desert.
"People are trying to create a false distinction between being pro-security and pro-immigrant," Aronoff said. "By addressing the needs of the immigrants coming across the border, we allow our immigrant enforcement officers to focus on real threats, criminals and terrorists, and not to spend their finite resources chasing after the parents of kids eating here today."
Visibly moved by the trip to Nogales, Berk said he's determined to bring members of his congregation — especially the temple's 80 or so high-school students — to the Mexican border town so they can see first-hand the effects of U.S. immigration policy.
"No matter what your problem is with immigration laws, people shouldn't be dying," he said. "That's too much. There ought to be ways to make sure people don't have to die."