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Opinion | Seth Winberg

A justice system that creates orphans

Ingrid Yanet Lopez Hernandez, 32, center back, with her children Jazmine, 7, Christian, 5, and Cristle Ordonez, 2, and pregnant mother Meregilda Mejilla, 27, and her daughter Maricelda Mejilla, 6, wait after being processed by the US Border Patrol and then dropped off at the Central Station bus terminal in downtown McAllen, Texas, on June 24.Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP/The Dallas Morning News via AP

Last week, after seeing reports of families being separated at the US-Mexico border, I felt called to go to the border myself. I traveled to McAllen, Texas, to a respite center of the Rio Grande Valley’s Catholic Charities.

As many as 200 immigrants come daily to this respite center. They are the so-called lucky ones because they are not being held in detention centers. They come for a shower, fresh clothes, and a hot meal as they await court hearings to defend their request for asylum and refuge in the United States. The center is led by Sister Norma Pimentel, known as Pope Francis’ “favorite nun” for her service to some of our country’s most helpless residents.


I went to McAllen because these asylum seekers are vulnerable people. I wanted them to know that many of us welcome them to our country and that we do not want them to suffer. Expressing solidarity through words and physical presence can be powerful. Part of me felt a civic duty to visit the Southern border because my own experience immigrating to the United States from Canada was – let’s just say – radically different. I also hoped that hearing their stories directly, not only from the news, would help me be a voice for immigrants. For me, the zero tolerance policy, whether tearing families apart or detaining them together indefinitely, is a spiritual and moral crisis.

I spoke with a young father who had left his wife behind and promised he’d keep their daughter safe. I heard a mother tell me that she was able to stay with her two little girls but had been separated from her husband at the border. There were overwhelming patterns: fleeing dangerous situations with no belongings; worrying about what you’ll feed your kids along the way; leaving family behind; no access to doctors or medicine. Volunteers were still talking about a mom who came with a 10-day-old baby that she had delivered by herself before crossing the border. We tried to help a father agonizing over how to get his son to a hospital for suspected pneumonia without calling an ambulance and while worrying about catching their bus to another city. I left with stories of courage that were familiar to me as a North American Jew, raised with an awareness of being a descendant of people who came here for a more secure life.


I noticed that many children at the respite center became visibly anxious when their parents got up to get more food or use the bathroom. A psychiatrist who was there to volunteer explained to me that some had not seen their parents for days, even though they were in the same holding center at the border. Technically this counts as keeping them “together.”

Accompanying Sister Norma to a faith vigil in the town square, I thought about Psalm 68’s description of God as “Father of orphans” and, in the continuation of the verse, that “God makes a home for the lonely.” A great medieval Jewish Bible commentator interpreted this phrase in connection with the next phrase, “[God] sets free the imprisoned, safe and sound.” This means that God takes care of children who are treated as if they are orphans, and restores them to their parents, not leaving them stuck in prison.


While I am a person of faith, I’m certain we cannot leave it to God to reunite families separated by our own government.

According to Jewish law, it has always been the duty of judges and rabbis, as representatives of the public, either to care for orphans themselves or, failing that, to appoint a guardian to protect their interests. The ancient rabbis creatively imagined ethical dilemmas and how the Torah would apply in hypothetical situations. But they never imagined the possibility that the judiciary itself would be the cause of kids becoming orphans.

As the attorney general has shown us, using religious texts to determine contemporary public policy is fraught and sometimes dangerous. I’m not suggesting we use the Bible or Talmud to derive US immigration policies and procedures. However, it is undeniable that traditional Jewish texts are pro-immigrant and pro-family, which explains why hundreds of Jewish organizations from every denomination opposed the government’s zero tolerance policy.

In the opening chapters of Exodus, baby Moses’ mother, Egyptian midwives, and even Pharaoh’s own daughter stand up to an anti-immigrant Pharaoh. We need to address the profound spiritual and moral implications that our government has separated families and that there is apparently no plan to reunite them. For our personal and collective spiritual and moral integrity, we need to keep families together and protect their dignity.

Rabbi Seth Winberg is executive director of Brandeis Hillel and is the university’s senior Jewish chaplain. The views expressed here are his own.