April 14, 2020

Passover’s Call to Protect the Refugee and Immigrant

On March 25, the day Governor Evers’ Safer at Home order took effect, JSS staff contacted our refugee clients to assure they understood the order. One client wrote back, “What will happen if I go outside?” What memories of military lockdowns did this safer at home order elicit? How might these memories add to the anxiety that everyone is experiencing at this time?

The freedom and safety we take for granted in this country are not universal experiences. Passover commands us to acknowledge our freedom and empathize with the millions of people in our world fleeing their homes, escaping violence and seeking safety. Thus, on the eve of the seventh day of Passover, I call your attention to the situation facing refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants in general that has gotten more severe with the outbreak of the Coronavirus.

• The United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees has suspended nearly all refugee resettlement worldwide during the pandemic. Refugees are therefore stuck in crowded camps and closed borders where it is impossible to practice social distancing and challenging to remain hopeful about the future. Read more

• The newest resettled refugees may not be eligible for the Federal Government’s stimulus payment at a time when they would normally be starting jobs and increasing their self-sufficiency.

• President Trump has used emergency powers to suspend laws that protect minors and asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border. There is now a process of rapid expulsions at the border, sending migrants of all ages back to Mexico within an average of 96 minutes. Read more

• Asylum seekers who are already in detention are facing severe health risks in crowded facilities with inadequate hand washing supplies, despite the fact that there are safe and humane alternatives to detention. Read more

• Many immigrants who are in the process of becoming citizens will not be eligible to vote before the November election because U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is not scheduling interviews or oath ceremonies during the pandemic. Read more

Although some travel restrictions may be necessary to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, there is concern among immigration advocates that the pandemic is being used by the administration to apply the severe and draconian immigration lockdown the administration has long advocated. There is concern that the restrictions will not be lifted when the pandemic crisis has abated. It will be up to each of us to advocate to assure this does not happen. Many issues face us right now personally, communally and politically, but as Passover reminds it is a central Jewish command to care for the ‘stranger’.

Every day at JSS, staff provides this care as they continue to serve the local refugee and immigrant population. The refugee resettlement team welcomed a refugee family from Iraq just days before the Safer at Home Order took effect. They skillfully situated the family into their new home and community despite the restrictions in place. The needs of the immigrant communities JSS works with, mirroring the needs of the community at large, changed drastically and seemingly overnight. JSS resettlement staff adjusted and quickly started supporting clients in new ways, providing guidance and access to needed resources. Our legal services team continues, through video conferencing with clients and interpreters, to help those who are in the process of getting green cards during the pandemic and has received calls from new clients who need legal assistance at this time.

As we enter the sacred final days of Passover, eating the bread of affliction and looking forward to the bread of freedom that will return to our plates later this week, let each of us take action to advocate and help those who are still seeking freedom.

Next year may our borders be open and our communities filled with newcomers.

Happy Passover,

Rabbi Renee Bauer, JSS Community Chaplain