ICE: Brutal and Brittle

Can We Melt it Down?

Let me invite you first to watch two different 3-minute videos of how The Shalom Center and I joined in the effort to heal the bodies and souls wounded by the Trumpist policy of ripping apart families at the US_Mexico border.  Then I will share with you the story of why we did this.

At you can see and hear the video of my briefly speaking to the police officers who were about to arrest us for blocking the entrance to the ICE office in Philadelphia..

 At <> you can see and hear my speaking in a vigil at the Berks County PA prison where fathers and children who had legally applied for asylum have been sent to rot their lives away.

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The Shalom Center and I continue to see the climate crisis as the most profoundly important issue facing the human species. We believe that Jewish wisdom –-  especially in the Hebrew Bible, the spiritual teachings of an indigenous people – bears vital wisdom for healing Earth today. And we believe that the American religious communities are the sleepy, yawning giant that could – if awakened – transform US policy toward healing our badly wounded planet.

So why did we, and I, take a serious chunk of time during June and July away from working on the climate crisis --  time to address the brutal and sadistic child-kidnapping policy of the present US government?

Three reasons:

  • Because there was no time to lose to free those children from their trauma that worsened every day, every hour,  they were still ripped away from their families;
  • Because in my assessment the cruelty was a deliberate effort to dehumanize brown-skinned Spanish-speaking people – the  “Kristalnacht” step on a path that points toward genocide;
  • Because the same arrogant cruelty that was at the heart of this kidnapping was at the heart of subjugating Mother Earth and tormenting us all – first and worst the poor -- with droughts,  famines, fires, floods.  

So on June 27, half a dozen rabbis, including two from The Shalom Center, joined teachers, clergy, labor leaders, and others at a children’s prison on the US-Mexico border.  Children in cages. After all, these brown kids were not really human: Cages like the zoo. Why not?

We brought Spanish-language children’s books, teddy bears, ourselves  –- for us to share with the kids. “No visits,” said the guards.   “All right, will you guards deliver these?”  “No gifts,” said the guards.  For these “baby animals” -- mere animals in the Trumpist worldview, even though that could talk, weep, wail ---- there were to be no instruments of learning. Or of yearning. No teddy bears for comfort. Only cages.

The leaders of the trip decided against a sit-down right then and there. So we returned to Philadelphia, burning with sorrow and anger.

We helped bring together a pick-up team of veteran activists that challenged ICE – the increasingly brutal enforcers of Trumpist policy to deport immigrants and refugees, and along with the Border Patrol responsible to carry out orders to kidnap children from their families.

Why do I say “kidnap”?  Because we know now they did not bother to take information on the children’s identities. The plan was never to reunite them with their parents. Even under a court-ordered deadline, they “could not” reunify some of the families.

This kidnap was not a mistake, any more than Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, shattered synagogues, murdered and bloodied Jews in Nazi-controlled Germany in 1938 was a mistake. Kristallnacht  was the act and the signal to say that Jews were not human beings. In the same vein,  to kidnap kids and shatter families was such a violation of human feelings that it was intended to signal that Spanish-speaking brown-skinned people were not human.

If it had worked, anything could have happened from then on. Immigrants who for decades had been welcomed into the US armed forces could be summarily discharged for no reason. (That is actually happening.) They could be told that even formal naturalization as citizens could be reversed. (Proposals on the table, but not yet.)  Prison camps for thousands could be set up on military bases. (Already under way.)

But unlike Germans in 1938, millions of American resisted--  Anglos and Latinos, brown and white and black.

What is more, we are winning victories. Here in Philadelphia, some important victories

Back home, we met with our dedicated, joyful pick-up band of 60 nonviolent protesters. Two days later, on June 29, we blocked the ICE office in Philadelphia for two hours. Then six of us were arrested. All of us more than 70 years old. The police were polite.

 At you can see and hear the video of my brief speaking to the police officers who were about to arrest us.

A week later a larger band actually occupied the ICE offices. When they were dispersed, the police acted much rougher.  The occupation sit-in moved to City Hall, adding protests at the rough dispersal to protest of the city’s assistance to ICE.

What assistance? Access, till then unknown to most of the public, to Philadelphia’s data base of people arrested or arraigned for minor offenses – data that ICE then used to deport them.

The drumbeat of resistance grew. And finally, Philadelphia’s Mayor Kenney announced that the city will not renew its contract with ICE when it expires at the end of this August. That is an important victory for human decency. It happened only because dozens of us risked arrest, sat in, sat down --

The target broadened. In Berks County PA, only 70 miles from Philadelphia, is a former welfare center for family healing that has been turned into a prison for asylum-seeking fathers and kids.

At <> you can see and hear my speaking in a vigil at the Berks County PA prison for fathers and children who had legally applied for asylum. I was among five rabbis who were there among a large band of protesters to call for the refugee-family prison there to be turned into a family-support healing center, and for the imprisoned families to be released while their applications for asylum were assessed.

The Governor of Pennsylvania could end the imprisonment of refugees and immigrants in Berks County. So far, he has failed to do so.

 U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw, who issued the court order that all the kidnapped children be reunited with their parents by a date now past, could hold in contempt the high officials who failed to obey the order.  So far, he has failed to do so.

 The House of Representatives could impeach the key actors in this cruel parade of “high crimes and misdemeanors”: White House chief of staff John Kelly, close presidential aide Stephen Miller, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Attorney-General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions. So far, the House has failed to explore this possibility. (The Constitution specifies that “all Civil Officers of the United States” can be impeached.  This includes White House assistants. See <>.  There may be a majority of the House that, while unwilling to impeach the President, might be willing to focus on the specific officials who carried out this cruelty.)

A swiftly growing network of activists and Congressmembers are calling for the “abolition” of ICE.  The campaign to do this goes to the heart of what US immigration and refugee policy should be.  There is a serious danger that as the orders ICE is given become more cruel, people with a strong bent toward cruel behavior are attracted to become ICE officers, and people who feel a much stronger tug toward compassion than toward cruelty leave in disgust. If this is already happening, abolishing ICE and starting over would make sense.

The demand to do that may help focus immigration activism and lead to broader change. But that demand really needs to be matched with proposals for a whole new system of compassionate immigration law.

Torah’s law of refugees and asylum is this (Deut, 23: 15-16):

You are not to hand over to their masters
A serf [slave or indentured servant] who has sought asylum with you
From their master.

"Let them dwell beside you,
Among you,
In the place that they choose
Within your gates
That seems good to them.

"Do not mistreat them!”

What if it were adopted by American society  -- not because  it is Torah but because it accords with our sense of justice and compassion?


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