By Rebecca Nathanson
On June 30, about 200 Jewish activists and other allies crossed the Hudson River from New York City and found their way to the Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey, intending to protest the treatment of migrants by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The facility houses about 300 people, and the activists waited until visiting hours were over, not wishing to prevent any detainees from seeing family members or other visitors.
Then they made their move, by blockading the exit and making it impossible for employees to leave. The protesters themselves only left when the police arrived and arrested 36 people.
“We had no idea how many people were going to come,” says Sophie Ellman-Golan, an organizer with Never Again Action, which called for the protest. “Someone came from Seattle. People came from all over. But most impressively, New Yorkers even came to New Jersey on a Sunday. That was the kickoff action and we shut it down.”
So far, Never Again Action has shut down ICE facilities in Washington DC, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee. In Boca Raton, Florida, it protested outside the GEO Group International Headquarters, which operates over 130 detention centers and prisons and is now ICE’s single largest contractor. In New York City, over 1,000 activists from a variety of organizations, including Never Again Action, occupied the Amazon bookstore, demanding that Amazon end its contract with ICE. And in Rhode Island on August 14, activists risked pepper spray and other intimidation tactics by guards and police at the for-profit Wyatt Detention Center; per accounts, five activists were hospitalized.
When reached for comment, ICE spokesperson Shawn Neudauer told MTV News, "U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) fully respects the Constitutional rights of all people to peacefully express their opinions. That being said, ICE remains committed to performing its immigration enforcement mission consistent with federal law and agency policy." A further statement alleged that "ICE officers put their lives on the line each and every day to keep our communities safe. This disturbing public discourse shrouds our critical law enforcement function and unnecessarily puts our officers’ safety at risk."
The enthusiasm for an action protesting ICE should not come as a surprise: For months now, tales and images from immigrant detention centers on the southern border between the U.S. and Mexico have spread around the country, eliciting horror and outrage. Reports detail squalid conditions with overcrowded cells and people without access to showers, hot meals, laundry, spare clothes, life-saving medications, or medical records. That this is happening to children, some of whom have been tasked with looking after one another, has particularly horrified the broader public. At a Border Control facility in Clint, Texas, near El Paso, there were outbreaks of scabies, shingles, chickenpox, and lice. Some people have been forced to sleep on nothing but the floor itself, for weeks at a time. Many of these migrants and asylum-seekers are fleeing violence and poverty in Central America, only to arrive in the U.S. after an often treacherous journey to face more violence.
But the situation did not materialize this summer, or even with the current president. “Border militarization is this huge machine that has been well funded, well-staffed for much longer than the Trump administration,” says Johana Bencomo, an organizer with the Southern Border Communities Coalition and New Mexico Comunidades en Acción y de Fé (CAFé) in Las Cruces, New Mexico. “For a lot of us who live on the border and do this work on the border, it's like, well, what did we expect?” she asks. “The reality is that people have been dying at the southern border for decades. It's just that now I think people are more aware because of the children that have died at the hands of CBP [Customs and Border Protection] agents.”
On June 24, soon after Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez faced both backlash and a considerable amount of support for referring to the detention centers as concentration camps, a Jewish woman named Serena Adlerstein posted on Facebook about the situation in the detention centers. Adlerstein, who has activist experience and has been involved with Movimiento Cosecha, a decentralized movement for and by immigrants, wondered aloud about fellow Jews who might want to take action around the crisis.
That post inadvertently launched Never Again Action, which calls on Jewish people to shut down ICE facilities that is led largely by young people. It aims to illustrate that the problem is not only hundreds or thousands of miles away — but also at the many detention centers spread throughout the U.S. Since its initial protest in New Jersey less than a week later, Never Again Action has organized over 20 actions around the country. The strong response makes evident the appetite people have for solidarity actions that make their disapproval heard.
Never Again Action remains in close contact with Movimiento Cosecha, and such collaborative work has illuminated ties between the Jewish and immigrant communities. “Our communities are not distinct, right? So while the majority of Jews are white and Jews are often thought of as white, there are immigrant Jews, including Latinx Jews whose relatives are actually experiencing this crisis,” Ellman-Golan says. “But also, I mean, the history of the Jewish people is first of all just being kicked out of every single country we've ever been in. So, fleeing violence, I think, is something that definitely hits home for us.”
Juan Pablo Orjuela, an organizer with Movimiento Cosecha in Elizabeth, New Jersey, echoes the sentiment: “As a person organizing in immigrant rights through the Obama presidency, there wasn't really that huge need of allyship, but now during the Trump presidency, there is this huge shift in immigrant organizing that has a lot to do with allies,” he tells MTV News.
He cites the ability to access resources and get arrested for civil disobedience without threat of deportation as two of the ways that Never Again Action and other allies are proving important in the immigrant rights movement, taking on risks that undocumented people often cannot shoulder. In return, Movimiento Cosecha provides years of experience in immigrant rights organizing, lending Never Again Action “a lens to help the story go along,” as Orjuela puts it.
“So we were able to support this, like, this is what you want to say about the border and this is what you want to say about these things and this is how you can connect it to your own story that you want to tell,” he adds.
Those working on the ground at the border insist that there are myriad ways to take action from afar, whether protesting at the many ICE facilities around the country or, as Bencomo suggests, looking not to the southern border but to one’s own neighborhood and to the politicians who should respond to local needs. “Organize within your communities, no matter if you're in Colorado or Minnesota or Kansas. It doesn't matter where,” she says. “And then you're organizing your communities around this issue, going to your members of Congress, sitting down with them. So I think that's where the most critical action still needs to happen right now.”
As both Bencomo’s advice and Never Again Action’s widespread protests make clear, what the U.S. government does in the name of its citizens impacts and implicates everyone, regardless of location or connection to immigration. Bencomo says she has a colleague who refers to the border as a “laboratory of injustice.”
“Things get tested in border communities and then expanded to the rest of the country,” she explains, drawing a line between what’s happening now in detention facilities and what could eventually happen elsewhere.
Beyond that, organizers from all of these groups agree that it is also a simple matter of having a say over where tax dollars go and voicing your opinion if you don’t agree with those choices. “I think it's just a very quick question of, are we going to go about our lives as if these abuses are not happening on our watch or are we going to say we did everything we could?” Ellman-Golan says. “I remember when I first read about FDR's policy of interning Japanese-Americans and Japanese communities and families and just thinking, oh my God, how could people have allowed that to happen? And now I know exactly how people allowed that to happen because people are allowing it to happen now.”