As a rabbi, my job is to see and appreciate other human beings, their uniqueness, and their stories. I always thought that the United States promoted a vision of humanity that aligns with this work and my belief that all are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights, and that no country’s citizenship but rather the “Creator” provides this to all. But my personal experience with our immigration system these past eight months has revealed that there is a hidden part of our country where these truths are violated daily.
Armando Rojas, the custodian at the congregation where I am a rabbi in Westchester County, New York, and a 20-year member of our communal family, was taken from us suddenly in February by ICE and deported back to a country he had not lived in for decades. Left behind were his two sons, his wife, and hundreds of families who have grown to love him in our community.
For months we have been trying to tell his story to an immigration-enforcement system and asylum process not interested in hearing it. His family is being broken apart, his fears are going unheard, and he has spent months in detention. All of this has happened with grudging responsiveness and a stunning lack of transparency from our government.
One of the reasons we as humans fear a flood is that it is thoughtless and indiscriminate as it uproots. Washed out to sea, we have worked persistently to coax the current to bring Armando back to shore with little sense that the waters that grip him know the preciousness of what they hold.
In contrast to that indifference, our community of more than 500 families responded with love by bringing Armando’s family weekly meals, hiring an attorney, and calling the family daily. We didn’t hesitate to send two delegations to the border to walk Armando to a port of entry so he could seek asylum. We didn’t think twice about driving his teenage son to visit him in detention, where he has been for the past five months.
What none of us were prepared for was the peek behind the curtain we have gotten of a callous immigration system that disregarded Armando’s 30 years in this country with no criminal record, that deported him knowing we had filed for a stay of deportation, and that shrugged after the stay was granted one day too late. We were in shock to hear that ICE officers left him on the other side of the border with no ID, no cash, no bank card, and no cellphone, saying to those he was dropped off with, “You’ll all probably get kidnapped.”
We were not prepared for the up-close view of the way our country now processes asylum cases, from the initial attempt by Border Patrol to deter Armando from seeking asylum by claiming it had “no capacity” to the months he has spent in detention with no sense of when it would hear his story. While he was in detention, the definition of asylum was significantly narrowed by the attorney general of the United States. When Armando finally received an interview, allowing him to explain why he is afraid to return to Mexico, our attorney described a hopeful conversation with the ICE asylum officer only to have those hopes dashed when a supervisor denied that Armando had a fear of return. They denied any fear with no explanation or justification even though two of his relatives had been killed and he received threatening phone calls upon return to the village where he grew up.
But it was our trip to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Buffalo Detention Facility, and our attempt to simply observe Armando’s final appeal before an immigration judge, that truly revealed how hidden our broken immigration system is from public view.
Nine members of our community, including Armando’s wife and son, drove six hours north so we could be present at his hearing in Batavia, New York. We drove in to an office park with no signage at the entrance identifying the fact that tucked away at the end of the road and out of sight was the ICE Buffalo Detention Facility. When we arrived at the security gate, the officer took our IDs, made a phone call, and came back saying, “Sorry, you can’t go in.” When he saw our shock, he added, “There is nothing to see. It’s all by video.” When we insisted we just wanted to be there for support, he said, “Sorry, you can’t go in.” We hadn’t said whom we were there to see or what case we were interested in. But somehow he knew to turn us away.
I called our attorney, who was inside the facility, and he spoke to the court clerk. After a number of minutes the attorney called and said he had worked it out and we could come in. The guard made another call and raised the gate to let us in.
Once inside, the clerk of the court said, “Oh, you are the letter people.” She acknowledged receiving the hundreds of letters our community had sent that now sat in a box in the office. She apologized that there was no way to enter them into the case proceedings. We asked if we could sit and observe the proceedings so at least Armando would see us there, but we were told that we could not.
Eventually Armando’s case was called and the detention officer opened a door to a small hallway where there were courtrooms and our attorney disappeared inside. He reappeared 15 minutes later and described the exchange as terse, tightly controlled, and with little opportunity for him to speak in order to make the case. The judge said he had not read the attorney’s brief but doubted that it could even be entered into the record. The attorney for the government questioned whether our attorney could even be there. Our attorney argued that he had a right to be there and submit a brief. The judge ultimately allowed for both. Armando was there by video and the judge asked him a couple questions. It was over before it really started.
The next day, the judge issued a decision by checking off boxes on a form ruling that Armando does not have a fear of return to his country and concluding that “the case is returned to the DHS for removal of the alien.” Months of waiting and building a case to present a fully formed human being to the government and, in the end, a government form dismisses his story and the very essence of his humanity. From the perspective of the government, all that was left to do was remove the “alien.”
The detention facility is one of the most mechanized forms of processing human beings and their stories I have ever encountered. Everything about it is meant to insulate the people who work there, the judges, and even those of us visiting from seeing human beings. Intimidation is rampant, from the officer at the front gate who didn’t want to let us in at all to the judge and government attorney questioning and limiting the role our attorney could play, and of course refusing our presence in the room to observe.
We entered a part of our country that is hidden away. When people function knowing they are not being observed, it becomes much easier not to see but to simply process human beings. To devalue their lives, constrain their liberty and ignore their happiness by taking away that which should be unalienable and simply calling them “alien.” Out of sight, it also becomes easy to avoid seeing the consequences our immigration policy visits upon broken families.
Earlier, we held a rally at our synagogue where hundreds gathered in support of Armando. Beforehand, a teen in our community said about him, “He knew my name.” After the rally, Armando’s teenage son said, “I didn’t realize how many people loved my dad.” That is exactly what we hope to teach our kids—how to see and appreciate people.
Because our immigration system is hidden from view, it makes it easier for those working within it to not feel public shame for not seeing the people whose lives they hold in their hands. To not seem to care at all as we stand on the shore watching Armando carried out to sea.