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The Jewish Case for Refugees and Immigrant Peoples: A Community Conversation

Article and photos by Diane Joy Schmidt

 

The Jewish community in Albuquerque has reacted with concern to Donald Trump’s recent executive orders, which bring echoes of inhumane treatment to the Jewish people. He halted the refugee program and banned all visitors from seven countries in the Middle East (now with Iraqis allowed in, it’s down to six). Newly emboldened ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents have stepped up the arrest, detention, and deportation of undocumented immigrants here, and the administration has solicited immediate bids for building a wall on the U.S,-Mexico border. Trump’s first 40 days in office have been marked by an increase in hate crimes, especially a rise in anti-Semitic acts nationally. In February alone, Albuquerque had two bomb threats against the JCC, and hate mail targeting Jewish blogger Marc Yellin, of AbqJew.net. All these acts are of grave concern.

A record crowd filled the JCC auditorium on a wintry weekday night, February 23, to hear a panel of speakers introduced by Jewish Federation Director Zach Benjamin. Rabbi Paul Citrin, Professor Michael Nutkiewicz, an expert on refugee resettlement and professor of religious studies at UNM, Rachel LaZar, executive director of El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos (The Center of Equality and Rights), and Anti-Defamation League New Mexico Regional Director Suki Halevi each spoke, and then took questions.

Rabbi Citrin led off with a biblical admonition, which he noted is repeated 36 times in the Five Books of Moses: “You shall love the stranger, because you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.” Citron further said that we have to affirm our stance as Jews standing for justice and equality in recognition of our common humanity, and that Jewish tradition calls on us to undergo a lifelong process of looking at ourselves and our community. He asked significant questions that, while uncomfortable, are especially important right now to New Mexican citizens: “Is there a U.S. role in the impoverishment south of the border, and what can we do to repair this damage? Do we honor humans more than money? Why do we refuse to pay just wages?” Finally, he asked, “What can we do to support and advocate for laws that are humane?”

Citrin emphasized that our leaders need to hear constantly from us and that we can support organizations like HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (www.hias.org) and others. He called on the Federation and the Jewish community to organize support for refugee families here now from Syria and Iraq.

The most vetted immigrants in the world

“I stand before you as a son of immigrants who escaped from Hitler in 1939 into Soviet-occupied Poland,” said Professor Nutkiewicz, the next speaker. He reminded the audience that it was only because of a Japanese consul who defied his own country’s policies that his parents received visas and fled to Japan before Pearl Harbor. They came to Canada and then to the United States. “The refugee experience informs much of what I became and what I do.”

Nutkiewicz then described the millions of refugees around the world, the stringent process by which they are vetted, and the refugees now in New Mexico. “The current hotspots are the Central African Republic, Syria, Iraq, the South Sudan, and Yemen.” He continued: “Refugees are the most vetted immigrants in the world. The claim that we need some sort of hyper-vetting is meaningless.”

Nutkiewicz explained the process. “It’s intense—very few people end up even being vetted. First, the United Nations High Command for Refugees does the lion’s share. The refugee has to be registered, fingerprinted, and photographed. Then the UNHCR looks for countries that will take them. Then workers in the State Department have the major responsibility for the refugee program. Once refugees enter the U.S., the Department of Refugee Resettlement, under Health and Human Services, takes over, in what is conceived as a public-private contract. There are nine refugee resettlement agency areas. They contract with Catholic Charities and the Lutheran Immigrant Refugee Services in around 300 cities to integrate refugees, and those organizations depend on grants as well as private donations.”

He emphatically pointed out that of the millions of immigrants who have come into this country in the last 10 years, about 10% were refugees, and that they are the least likely group to commit crimes. “The charge that the U.S. refugee program is a conduit for state-sponsored terrorism isn’t substantiated.”

In New Mexico, he said, there are refugees from 25 countries. “Most are from Iraq, over 2,000. Four hundred are Cubans, and 290 are from the Central African Republic.” He recommended that people get involved with local agencies, educate themselves and others, and know the facts. He called it “important to counter the myths and the lies in the U.S. and from our own government.”

Nutkiewicz concluded with slow, careful emphasis, saying that one has to know what moral reasoning, feeling, and ethical behavior is, and that “One has to know the good, desire the good, do the good.”

An immigrant-friendly city?

A dynamic speaker, Rachel LaZar, of the Center for Equality and Rights, El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, focused on what is happening right now in our community. LaZar said that “Rabbi Citrin bat mitzvahed me, and I credit him and my mother, Doni Lazar, for my caring about families and social justice. Taking action requires taking action.”

The newly announced mayoral candidate, Brian Colón, was in the audience. He later provided this comment via email: “Rachel continues to be one of the most well-informed and articulate advocates for immigrants’ rights in our community. I’m confident her work and the work of others on the panel will be outcome determinative so the City of Albuquerque can move forward in a positive way that supports all our families.”

How El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos is making a difference

LaZar’s organization, with only 3 full-time and 4 part-time staff members, has suddenly gotten extremely busy protecting immigrants in Albuquerque. She said, “We are dealing with a community in crisis.” She asked for volunteers to take the training her organization is holding so they can be trained as legal observers and become part of rapid response teams, to accompany to court people who have been targeted, so they will have “equal access to justice, to protect their fundamental rights.”

What to do when ICE agents come calling? Fact sheets in Spanish about immigrant rights are prominently displayed on her organization’s website at www.elcentronm.org. The membership of supporters has recently grown rapidly, and is now up to 4,000.

“What are our values?” LaZar asked the audience. “Our immigration system does not reflect our values.” Some of the many words the audience called out were, “Family, fairness, equality, honesty.” She pointed out that corporations are benefiting from a broken immigration system. Indeed, a quick look at the stocks of private prison companies shows they have just made huge jumps in valuation since Trump was elected, and again when his immigration ban was announced.

“Criminalizing entire communities”

Seeing first-hand the actions of the newly emboldened ICE agents, Lazar says their presence is fomenting pretexts by local police to arrest people. She criticized Mayor Barry for welcoming ICE to check the immigration status of suspects, saying this is “criminalizing entire communities.” She said that ICE is showing up at metro court and in one recent instance she knew of, had as a result kept a witness in a domestic violence case from appearing. The day before, she said, “A woman with a minor traffic infraction showed up at our office sobbing,” afraid to appear in court. “I never thought I would see the day. Over a hundred people in the past two to three days have come in seeking power of attorney and emergency plans for their children if they are taken. I see children of four or five who understand what’s going on, what undocumented means, often in families of mixed status.”

She pointed out the seriousness of the situation, saying, “These are now mandatory detentions. In the past people were allowed to post bond.” She also said that the county is providing an airtight pipeline into the prison system.

New Mexico, under Governor Tony Anaya, was the first state in the country to declare itself a sanctuary state. Although the Albuquerque City Council passed a memorial on February 15th reaffirming that Albuquerque is an immigrant-friendly city, this doesn’t prevent arrests. She said, “When families are being targeted, we need safe sanctuary spaces.” LaZar explained that they will be pursuing a stronger resolution later and that the reason they chose not to pursue that resolution right now was because “we knew it would be vetoed, and that would rescind what was passed before.”

Rachel LaZar
Rachel LaZar

She said they now will be working to require ICE to have warrants, to stop raids, to stop the inter-agency sharing where ICE is notified of someone appearing at metro court and then that person can be taken. “We have a whole list of demands, we have candidates’ forums, we will be putting current city councilors on the record on their positions. We have seven months until the next (mayoral) election.”

The Anti-Defamation League faces anti-Semitic acts here

Suki Halevi, regional ADL director, then spoke about the historic role that the ADL has played in establishing hate crime laws, and how the ADL’s efforts have suddenly taken on a very serious importance here. The Jewish Community Center in Albuquerque, which includes a daycare center, was the target of bomb threats twice in February and had to be evacuated.

When Marc Yellin, who maintains the website and blog AbqJew.net, was targeted by disturbing hate mail, he immediately contacted Halevi, who reported it to the FBI and the Albuquerque police. The incident is now under investigation. Yellin then chose to publicly write about the hate mail on his blog, and his courageous efforts did not go unnoticed; both he and Halevi were featured in the New York Times (“Hateful threats against a Jewish blogger,” Feb. 9, 2017 by Anna North). Yellin then explained in a second blog, “Documenting Hate,” why and how he decided to report the incident, and where he said, “‘I’m a victim & I want to TELL MY STORY.’”

Halevi said that the last national ADL report shows Jews still hold the distinction of receiving the most religiously biased hate crimes. Since the panel discussion, a March 3 news report from Bloomberg News, with the headline “NYPD Links Hate Crimes Increase to 2016 Presidential Election leads off with “Hate crimes in New York City, particularly against Jews, have spiked in the past 100 days, a trend police officials say is probably connected to ethnic bias and xenophobia that emerged during the 2016 election campaign.”

At the close of the evening, Nutkiewicz added that there is no excuse to use immigrants and refugees as propaganda tools to create fear and divide people, and that a more effective action to stop terrorism would be to deal with the gun laws in this country.

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