A journey to the border

Newburgh rabbi gets first-hand look at refugee crisis

By Alberto Gilman
Posted 1/11/23

From December 11 to 14, Rabbi Douglas Kohn of Newburgh’s Temple Beth Jacob along with other rabbis from across the country and organizers traveled to bear witness and experience the current …

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A journey to the border

Newburgh rabbi gets first-hand look at refugee crisis


From December 11 to 14, Rabbi Douglas Kohn of Newburgh’s Temple Beth Jacob along with other rabbis from across the country and organizers traveled to bear witness and experience the current conditions of the asylum process at the United States Mexican border.

For nearly four decades, Kohn has been involved and worked on various social justice related issues. He has marched in Washington, D.C., met various world leaders and elected officials and is a current member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Kohn also serves as the President of the Greater Newburgh Interfaith Council and co-chair of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Orange County.

In early October, federally-chartered planes arrived at Orange County Airport in Montgomery and had transported several unaccompanied children from the United States Mexican border. Kohn inquired about the status of these children in hopes that his organizations could assist in this arrival process.

“When we learned of these airplane flights, these two organizations that I serve were concerned and curious, would we be, for whatever reason, a destination for some of these, these refugees, and if so, what do we, as clergy and as a Jewish community have to offer to make the lives of these people safer, more humane, welcome and just,” said Kohn. “We were unable to get answers to some questions that we learned later was because those who have flown here were largely minors, and thus, their privacy protections prevented local authorities from sharing more with us.”

During the period of time, Kohn had reached out to HIAS, which was established as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, to speak and seek aid on the situation. The continued communication between Kohn and HIAS representatives ultimately led to HIAS and another organization known as T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Right to form the delegation of rabbis to make the trip to the border. The main purpose of the delegation was to experience and witness the current conditions of the asylum process at the southern border and so for four days, the delegation spent time in El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez [City of Juárez].

Asylum, as defined by HIAS materials, “is a legal term in U.S. immigration law describing a form of protection given to those who have fled their countries in search of safety and are found to meet the refugee definition. Asylum seekers must prove to the U.S. government that they meet the stringent eligibility criteria to receive asylum. Once they are granted asylum, they are called ‘asylees’.”

According to the itinerary shared by Kohn, the varying members of the delegation and rabbis met in El Paso together on December 11 and went through an orientation process and various briefings for their trip prior to crossing into Mexico. On December 12, the delegation traveled across the border where they visited the HIAS Mexican affiliated office and visited Casa Romero, a migrant shelter, along with conducting group discussions once returning. On December 13, the group traveled to the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico, an ICE detention center and were provided tours of Immigration Court facilities that housed unaccompanied minors. The group also visited a memorial to the Walmart El Paso shooting victims from 2019. On the final day, a Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center panel was held for the delegation and the program concluded with each representative heading home to their respective communities.

“We visited shelters on both sides of the border sheltering people who are anticipating coming across the border and sheltering people who had crossed and had been detained and been released by CBP, the Customs and Border Patrol,” said Kohn. “We went to an ICE detainment center, which is truly a nice name for a windowless prison where people were warehoused between when they were detained and when they’re released, if they’re released or if they’re sent back. And it was a place where people were truly dehumanized and devalued. We also crossed the Rio Grande on foot on a border crossing bridge and looked down from the bridge which was 50 feet above the Rio Grande and saw people who just crossed the waters themselves.”

Kohn also shared his concerns of witnessing the behavior of the CPB officers at the border along with recently reported retention of Title 42 by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote back in late December.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website states under the ‘Obtaining Asylum in the United States’ section, the affirmative asylum process allows those seeking asylum to apply regardless of their immigration status or means of arrival. However, those applying must be physically present in the United States. Several other ways to seek asylum include an ‘asylum merits interview after a positive credible fear determination’ or ‘the defensive process’. Title 42, a public health law which dates back to the 1940s, went into effect during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic under the Trump administration. The order closed the U.S. borders in order to prevent any further spread of the disease, which limited entry for asylum seekers. Nearly three years later, the law remains a topic of national discussion as its status was delegated during the course of 2022. Conversations are anticipated to continue in the near future about Title 42 while reports continue to raise concerns over the anticipated surge of migrant entry if the law is to be lifted.

Rabbi Sarah Bassin, Director of Clergy and Congregations for HIAS joined Rabbi Kohn on the journey to the border and personally reflected on her time as a witness. “It’s been about two plus years since we’ve been able to do a delegation on account of the pandemic. And it just happens that as the timing emerged, that we were able to gather people and do this safely and with access to the shelters and the institutions that we needed in order to have a full trip. It also happened to be at this really transformative moment, where there’s this national conversation, not just about the border, but about the implications of Title 42,” said Bassin. “A really important piece for our policymakers to understand, which is the fact that people don’t make these decisions to risk death, unless they are absolutely compelled to, unless what they are fleeing is worse. I think the most important thing for people to remember right now is that behind the numbers that you are reading, these are human stories of suffering, and despair.”

Rebecca Kirzner, Senior Director of Grassroots Organizing and Advocacy at HIAS, also shared her personal reflections on the current state of the border and Title 42 retention. “One of the issues that speaks closest to my heart, is the treatment of refugees at the southern border of the United States because it’s about how our country responds when someone approaches our borders and says, if you turn me away, I will be in danger for my life,” said Kirzner. “We’re [HIAS] going to keep fighting the Title 42 policy. There are more refugees now than ever before and there are far too few countries who are welcoming them. There’s many doors slammed to refugees across the globe, ours is one of them. And it shouldn’t be.”

According to Kohn since his return home, he has sent communications to his varying organizations to raise awareness on the matter and to discuss what necessary steps of support can be done and has also discussed the issue with newly elected Congressman Pat Ryan. An op-ed has also been written which was intended to be submitted to national news outlets. Temple Beth Jacob discussions have also been conducted about sponsoring a refugee family according to Kohn. A Refugee Shabbat is also set to take place from February 3-4 which allows congregations around the world to join together in support of refugees. HIAS’s Welcome to Congress Campaign, which allows congregations to sign and ask for certain needs of the new Congress in February 2023 and the Welcome Circle Program, which allows congregation sponsorship of refugees, are set to take place following the shabbat this year.