To Respond to the Crackdown on Immigrants, Start by Listening to Immigrant Leaders

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By Rabbi Michael Ramberg

Jews everywhere, myself included, have been horrified to see the beginnings of a crackdown on undocumented immigrants, which threatens to shatter families and communities and send people back to dangerous circumstances they fled.

This was happening under President Obama and now President Trump has set in motion a massive expansion of the deportation machine, including greatly expanding the definition of who will be targeted for deportation — effectively including anyone without proper authorization to be in the U.S.

Already, one deported man has committed suicide, and an undocumented immigrant receiving treatment for a brain tumor was removed from the hospital and detained in a for-profit facility (she was later released). A “DREAMER” was detained and faces immediate deportation after Immigrants and Customs Enforcement agents followed her from a press conference where she was protesting the imminent deportation of her father and brother.

In our distress, and haunted by ominous echoes of past experiences, many Jewish congregations and private individuals have been quick to suggest providing physical sanctuary to undocumented immigrants.

Forward Editor Jane Eisner expressed concerns about synagogues (and churches) offering sanctuary because, she fears, the civil disobedience sanctuary entails might encourage conservative religious organizations to increase their own civil disobedience to achieve ends with which people like Eisner and myself deeply disagree.

I seriously doubt this, though. These conservative religious organizations already have all of the (alternative) facts they need, not to mention a divine mandate based on their interpretation of the Bible, to justify the actions they want to take.

I am proud of the Jewish community for the genuine concern and desire to help expressed in our rush to offer sanctuary. As co-chair of the board of the New Sanctuary Movement of Phila-delphia, I have a sense both of what it takes to provide long-term physical sanctuary — extensive volunteer work, significant financial resources, organizing savvy, intercultural competencies and a network of relationships with allied institutions — and also the best way to mobilize these resources, by working to support immigrants in less intense but no less necessary ways.

The first step for anyone seeking to offer support to immigrants is to find out what immigrants themselves need.

For instance, the support that immigrant leaders in my organizations are asking for now is for people to volunteer in a grassroots rapid response to immigration raids, for congregations to join and thereby increase its influence on all levels of government, for tzedakah that will enable us to hire sufficient staff to meet the exponentially increasing needs of this moment, and to continue to support and or/pressure officials to maintain sanctuary city status and change policies to improve living conditions for immigrants and other marginalized groups. (We are not requesting long-term physical sanctuary.)

T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights has also compiled a handy resource for congregations seeking to support immigrants at sanctuarynotdeportation.org.

If we are responding to immigrant leaders’ requests now, we will be better equipped in the event that they do ask for long-term physical sanctuary. What’s perhaps more important is that we will be strengthening these immigrant-led organizations, increasing their abilities to protect themselves and also the power they can bring to the collective movement on behalf of all groups targeted in Trump’s America.

Rabbi Michael Ramberg is the co-chair of the board of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia.