Undocumented Immigrants Are Being Accompanied In Court By Special, Quiet Guests

“Immigration and refugee rights are an issue that hits very deep for the Jewish community."

Across New York City, undocumented immigrants are being accompanied to court hearings by members of the Jewish community.

Historically speaking, it makes sense members of the Jewish community would feel a natural connection to these people. From Biblical times to the present, Jews have been ostracized, stereotyped, broad brushed and persecuted, much like undocumented immigrants feel they are being persecuted today.

"Immigration and refugee rights are an issue that hits very deep for the Jewish community," Jill Jacobs, the executive director of T'ruah, a nonprofit organization of rabbis across the globe who engage in human rights issues, told A Plus. "Most members of our community came here as immigrants. We also know that most members of our community who came here mostly either came before 1924 or after World War II … the reason for that is in 1924 the law effectively shut the border to Jews and a few other people that were not desired."

Courtesy of Joshua Stanton
Courtesy of Joshua Stanton

That law, the Johnson-Reed Immigration Actwas signed by President Calvin Coolidge and was one of the strictest immigration laws ever signed by a president. The legislation completely excluded immigrants from Asia and was mostly aimed at decreasing Jewish, Arab and Catholic immigrant populations. Jacobs noted that Jews also felt American exclusion during World War II when many fled from Nazi Germany only to be turned away at American ports of entry. 

That history, according to Jacobs, has guided the contemporary Jewish thought about standing up for undocumented immigrants across the country.

"Much of what's being said about current immigrants — that they are bringing a different culture, the fear of crime and disease — that's all the same language that was used to shut out Jews," Jacobs said.

Jacobs is not alone.

Joshua Stanton, a rabbi at the East End Temple in the Gramercy neighborhood of New York City, has been helping organize accompaniment training for his congregationNew Sanctuary Coalition, a local branch of a national organization that opposes detentions and deportations, has been offering training to the East End Temple congregation on how to be advocates for undocumented immigrants. One of the most popular parts of their training in the Jewish community is accompaniment, the act of going to court hearings with undocumented immigrants to bear witness.

"What the training teaches us to do is to join them at their darkest day and to sit quietly in solidarity with them, making clear that whatever legal proceedings are happening are not happening in the dark and that we are there and that we care," Rabbi Stanton told A Plus. "We're not there protesting the hearings per se, we're there learning how to support and accompany, and be a quiet supportive presence for people who need us very badly."

A New Sanctuary Coalition training at East End Temple. 
A New Sanctuary Coalition training at East End Temple.  Joshua Stanton

The New Sanctuary Coalition made waves when its leader, Ravi Ragbir, avoided his own deportation last year. East End Temple participated in protests to support Ragbir, including a protest Passover Seder outside a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency office. 

Stanton says the New Sanctuary Coalition training teaches members of the congregation what will happen at an ICE hearing, how to support people whose status is in jeopardy and how to understand systemic issues at play in hearings and beyond. Stanton, like Jacobs, emphasized the obvious connection Jews should feel towards the undocumented immigrants across the country, citing the Babylonian Talmud, which talks about the need to pursue the rights of those who are held captive.

"We are told 36 different times in the Torah to care for the person who is made to be or made to feel like a stranger among us," Stanton said. "If that's not a call for immigrant rights, then I don't know what is."

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