La Frontera: When “I’m Sorry” isn’t Enough

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Standing along the border in Agua Prieta, Sonora looking into the US

I’ve spent the last few weeks wrestling with the realities of America’s current policies and attitudes towards immigrants. In my first article, La Frontera: Real Stories from the US/Mexico Border, I provided a glimpse into my experiences volunteering in Agua Prieta, Sonora with families and individuals attempting to legally seek asylum in the US. Most importantly, I spoke of the lasting power of the stories I heard, the conversations I had, and the people I met. All of this continues to swirl around inside my head, making it difficult to fall asleep some nights.

Although I was only there for two weeks, the circumstances created an ideal environment in which to establish deep connections within a short amount of time. I’m still in contact with a few families whom send me occasional updates on their progress towards crossing the border. It’s difficult to explain, but I feel the need to make sure they reach the end of their journey safely; a deep desire to make sure they understand that I want them in the United States. The fact is that some families will encounter few barriers in our complicated immigration system, however, the majority with face seemingly insurmountable challenges.

According to the National Immigration Forum, the asylum process lasts on average between six months and several years. Unfortunately, more and more asylum seekers are spending this time in detention centers, or being sent back to Mexico to wait until their court appearance; the most critical step in the process where they present their asylum case in front of a judge. In FY 2016, only 28% of asylum cases were approved, which means most families and individuals risked their lives and livelihoods just to be turned away.

For over three weeks I’ve been waiting to hear from four people I met in Agua Prieta; a young couple and two young men, who all legally crossed the border seeking asylum from oppressive governments. Based on information provided by earlier asylum seekers, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was only holding people in a Tucson, Arizona detention center for 3–5 days as long as they had a sponsor; a US citizen or Green Card holder who is able to financially support and vouch for the asylum seeker until they themselves become a citizen or Green Card holder. This information led us all to believe that within a week everyone would be at their final destinations.

But my text messages have been met with radio silence, and WhatsApp continues to show their phones are off. While there is a chance that all four are now with their families simply ignoring me, the most likely conclusion is that they are all still in a detention center. Individuals are not allowed to have their phones with them in detention, just like prison, which is also why we have such little visual evidence of the conditions inside.

So if I do ever hear from them, what do I say?

This is the question that has been plaguing me because the most obvious response of “I’m sorry” falls miles short. What I want to convey are my deepest apologies for what my government has put them through, but in order to do this I must come to terms with the shame I feel for being a citizen of a country that continues to dehumanize the “other”. Whether I agree with the policies or not, I am still American.

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It also isn’t lost on me that as a Jew, this is an especially salient time of year to be contemplating forgiveness. In just a few short weeks Jewish communities around the world will celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement respectively. During the ten days separating these two High Holy Days, we are asked to reflect on our misgivings and sins both as individuals and as a community. I’de be lying if I told you I look forward to these two days each year. I’ve always struggled with finding a deeper meaning beyond just saying I’m sorry for the past year’s mistakes, but perhaps this year will be different.

For the first time in a lifetime of High Holy Day religious services and rituals I may finally have a better sense of what it means to atone as a community; the importance of the “we” even when I may not have been directly responsible for a given action. The Viddui, the confessional prays of the Yom Kippur service, are a listing of wrong doings that are sung aloud as a congregation. While each person may not have committed every action on the list, there is a deep understanding that within a community everyone’s choices are connected. In other words, it is my responsibility to atone for the actions of my government, even if I didn’t agree with the decisions in the first place.

The deepest feelings of shame, hurt, and disappointment rush over me when I consider that I am forever tied to this era in American history, but perhaps this is the point of the collective apology. I’m still not convinced that “I’m sorry” will ever come close to conveying my feelings to those trying to seek a better life in the US for what they have to endure, so I’m going to continue searching for a better response. However, I have some hope that the force of a collective apology is better place to start. So for anyone else celebrating Yom Kippur this year, I hope that we can all find new meaning in the collective “we”, and that our reflections truly ignite change.

Public health professional living out my dreams of travel and adventure in Mexico City, Mexico.

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