I was in a meeting yesterday with two dozen rabbis when I received an email that six immigrants started a hunger strike ("huelga de hambre" in Spanish) because their loved ones were detained. I rushed immediately to downtown Phoenix, where these humble individuals were camped out in front of the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) Unit of the Department of Homeland Security.
I went to hear their stories. The hunger strikers were gentle, kind and humble. They were also tired and hungry, since this was the third day of their hunger strike, which is scheduled to last from February 17-March 3, under the slogan, "Not 1 More Deportation." José's son has been held in detention for a year at the Eloy detention center near Phoenix in Arizona, while Hermina's husband, daughter and sister-in-law have at one time all been detained or deported. In all, they estimate that about 45,000 human beings are currently being held in various ICE detention facilities in preparation for their deportation, which will separate them from their families for years, or forever. Their last hope is to join with their detained relatives and community members in a hunger strike. They have also started a petition to free six of their relatives.
The ICE deportations have proceeded at an alarming rate. The number of the "total removals" ("Immigrant Fugitives," "Repeat Immigration Violators," "Border Removals" and "Other Removable Aliens") by ICE for the following fiscal years has ranged from 175,000-255,000 a year.
Many of these people are held in ICE detention facilities throughout the country (for example, 12 in Texas, five in Arizona, eight in California, five in Florida, six in New Jersey), a network that would probably shock most Americans.
Tragically, these hunger strikers are being humiliated, as anti-immigrant forces have tormented them by showing up routinely to come and eat lunch in front of them. Others have thrown burritos at them (with hate speech messages written on them).
In the face of such hatred, these individuals remain camped out day in and day out, starving and exhausted, in the hope that their loved ones will return to them. I told them they were my heroes, as they modeled the merciful virtues of G-d, and we prayed together. A few cried while I led a prayer of hope for them. Afterward, I asked why they had cried, and I was told that after three days I was the first clergy person to visit them.
The Jewish tradition teaches that at special moments in life the gates of heavens are open. I felt standing among these vulnerable, powerless immigrants crying for their daughters, husbands and sisters that the gates of heaven were open to their prayers.
As a Jew, my ancestors have been eternal immigrants from Abraham to Ellis Island. They were my heroes as are the modern immigrants striving to survive and thrive in a challenging world. May the day come soon when our society sees the immigrants among us not as scoundrels but as heroes who are willing to make courageous treks from familiar homes to support their families and contribute to society in new, dangerous and uncertain environments. May the Merciful One (and our fellow citizens) hear our prayers for compassion and justice.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder &President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of four books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."