Stella Jeruzalmi Stanway appeared overwhelmed with sadness when she recounted the story of a frightened and desperate man she met at a soup kitchen in Mexico, just across the border from Arizona.
The man told her he had operated fruit stands for many years in his home country in Central America, working hard to save enough money to finally purchase a plot of land to grow his own crops.
But gangs terrorizing the region had come to his farm and seized his land. They also killed his son.
He fled for his life, joining the thousands of migrants in Mexico hoping to be granted asylum in the United States.
Stanway, the religious school principal at Temple Beth Miriam in Elberon, went to the border region with a group of eight rabbis and another Jewish educator in mid-December. They went to experience the human side of what has become an explosive political issue surrounding the border wall President Donald Trump has vowed to erect.
The stories she heard were harrowing. “There were parents who told me gangs would go into schools and cut off the hair of children and then threaten to cut off their limbs next to extort money,” said Stanway.
“The police can’t or won’t help, so really what choice do they have but to go someplace where they feel safe?” she said. “They embark on this journey when they know their chances of succeeding are so minimal — but they are so desperate.”
At a shelter she met a young woman who had turned 18 while her family was waiting its turn to be interviewed by U.S. immigration officials. Her parents and siblings were processed through, but because she was now an adult, her case was handled separately from theirs, and she was rejected.
“She was sent to one of the camps, where, she said, it was very cold, they were mean to her, and the water had maggots in it,” said Stanway. “After her petition for asylum was turned down, she was deported to Mexico.” Stanway said the girl was only allowed to stay in that Mexican shelter for seven days, and she didn’t know what happened to her afterward.
“She is really just a little girl, a child, and doesn’t know where her family is, where to go, what to do,” Stanway said. “It broke my heart.”
Stanway’s group was sponsored by the Kino Border Initiative, a binational organization that works, according to its website, “to make humane, just, workable migration between the U.S. and Mexico a reality.” Founded by six Catholic organizations, it is located in Nogales, Ariz., directly across the border from Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora.
“I was curious to see what this whole immigration issue actually was about,” Stanway told NJJN in a phone interview. She said she found “compelling” the words Kino uses to describe its mission — “to humanize, to accompany, and to complicate.”
She said she came to realize as she interacted with migrants that “to complicate” means “to disrupt,” implying, “You go with one set of ideas and then you see a policy that doesn’t make sense, so you are going to go back and question it and disrupt” the status quo.
The group had sparse accommodations at a place called Casa Fata, which is operated by the Jesuits; Stanway said it was described as a youth hostel, and that sleeping arrangements were mattresses on the floor (some group members opted to stay at a nearby hotel).
Stanway chose to stay at the hostel, she said, “because I come from a privileged place, and I wanted to suspend that privilege as part of this experience.”
She also brought with her a knowledge of Latino culture and fluency in Spanish. Prior to becoming religious leader at Beth Miriam in 1998, her husband, Rabbi Cy Stanway, served for eight years at Temple Beth El in Las Cruces, N.M., about an hour from El Paso, Texas. While there, she taught at a school in Anthony, Texas, whose student population was 95 percent Hispanic.
Her group, which included Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative rabbis, walked across the unsecured border into Mexico. Upon returning, they had to show documentation.
The first day they went to a Jesuit-run “comedor,” which serves meals to migrants and homeless people twice daily — the group members helped serve food — and provides medical assistance, clothing, and legal advice to the Central and South American migrants, many of whom are waiting for immigration interviews.
“Most people in the comedor are hoping to get in [to the States] legally; others have been turned away and really don’t know what to do,” Stanway said.
The migrants they met came from a variety of places, Stanway said, but she was struck by the number fleeing Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and parts of Mexico, to escape crushing poverty and gang violence.
One day, the rabbis’ group was led by a priest along part of the the route used by migrants. As they walk through the arroyos — dry riverbeds — the migrants often encounter environmental dangers, including flash floods and the blazing desert sun. Along the way Stanway and her fellow group members saw items left behind that, she said, humanized the migrants: family photographs, a Bible, backpacks, and — what Stanway said she found most poignant of all — a baby bottle.
On their last day in the area, the group attended a court session in Tucson and watched as groups of shackled immigrants had hearings, after which they were deported.
In the months since returning to her comfortable suburban life, Stanway said, she has reflected on the suffering she encountered and how best to help the migrants in the current divisive political climate.
“It really put my life in perspective because I saw that there are people who work hard, and no matter how hard they work and no matter what they do, the deck is stacked against them,” said Stanway. She likened their situation to being in a burning building — they can’t get to an exit, but will die if they jump from a window.
“I think people need to learn a little more about these people and what they’re running away from,” she said. “I know it’s easy to say, ‘Put up a wall,’ and I know people feel very strongly about this issue, but they’re not really informed of the terrible situation these people come from.
“If there is any way to move this out of the geopolitical arena and look to ways to help improve their situation at home, maybe they won’t be as anxious to come here,” Stanway said. “I want to tell people to keep an open mind and not think of these people as ‘the Other.’”