Refugees & Asylum-Seekers at the Border:

Rabbi Douglas Kohn in El Paso & Juarez

Sunday, December 11, 2022


Dear Friends,


Today, I am in El Paso, Texas, beginning a four-day program as part of a small delegation of American rabbis assembled by HIAS to visit the Mexican/American border, and endeavor to see and understand some of the complexities currently experienced here.


I was honored to be invited to participate in this delegation – the fourth such team that HIAS has assembled in the last decade, but the first since the pandemic. We are 13 rabbis, including Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox colleagues, from California to New York and in-between, and we have come with open minds to inquire and to learn, and then to speak to you about what we experience. I am here representing our Temple Beth Jacob family, our Jewish Federation of Greater Orange County and its Community Relations Council, and the rabbis of the Reform Movement.


This border is the largest border facility in the world. It follows the meandering Rio Grande as it bifurcates this major metropolis of twin cities – El Paso and Ciudad Juarez – where daily some 3,000-4,000 persons cross towards America seeking asylum or refuge in our nation. Scores of thousands of others – citizens bearing legal documents – also cross, to work, shop, visit with family. They pass on bridges at the normal border crossings; the refugees and asylum seekers wade in the waters, huddle under bridges, cower from fear of authorities and violence along their journey.


And, it is complicated. The poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus’s ‘The Great Colossus,’ states, “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Yet, US and international laws govern how immigrants may legally enter another nation, and offer opportunities for asylum to refugee seekers who rightfully fear terror, violence and death in their home nations. Balancing the yearning of the fearful with the statutes of a nation is at best difficult, more likely, impossible. It puts the fearful and the citizen, either face to face, or back to back. We are here to be eye to eye.


So, the tired and poor keep coming, from Latin America, from Afghanistan, from Ukraine. HIAS, the world’s oldest refugee resettlement organization, formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society formed in the 1880’s to assist Eastern European Jews flooding into America’s eastern seaboard cities, now estimates that there are 140,000,000 refugees worldwide, more than at any other time in world history, each individual forcibly displaced by violence, political turmoil and war. It is a massive, global calamity.


Our Jewish value system, based in the Torah’s teaching that we know the heart of the stranger because we were once strangers in Egypt, compels HIAS, and all of us, to respond to the crisis. So, our delegation is here in Texas, and tomorrow in Mexico, to learn and to teach. I hope to send a message each day, to keep you updated on our experiences, and to encourage you to learn, as well. In the meantime, please go to to learn more about HIAS. 


Thank you for participating in, and supporting the important work which we do, together!


With Shalom, Rabbi Douglas Kohn

On The Rio Grande

Rabbi Douglas Kohn in El Paso & Juarez

Monday, December 12, 2022


Dear Friends,

This morning we crossed the border from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez, and we learned about, experienced and witnessed the plight of those who come, seeking refuge in the United States.


We began at the head office of HIAS Mexico.  The offices in the two story, modern office building were largely empty. The staff, we learned, were circulating among the shelters, trying to disseminate helpful information, and dispel rumors and misinformation.  Apparently, if one person gets through to the US via the refugee system (97% get turned away) rumors fly, and everyone tries to emulate the strategy that worked for that family.  And, HIAS has 15 offices in Mexico, from the south to the north, trying to assist the tens of thousands who pass from Colombia, Venezuela, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Haiti, Mexico, and more, in any given month. They are tireless advocates, legal experts, mental health workers, health care workers, and more. 


I've hardly been more impressed… until we went to the shelter for asylum seekers, waiting their turns for their hearings. It was a small shelter – 76 persons in residence this morning – families, single mothers, single women.  The men were out at work, the kids hanging out till the school bus arrived, and lines and lines of clothing hanging in the halls, as the clothes dryer was not working. And, there were fourteen beds and four families per room, which in an American family home world sleep one or two.  


It was concerning… until we crossed the actual border, walking across from Juarez to El Paso. We had traveled along the new Wall, erected by our former President, from which those who try to climb it, fall and suffer terrible injuries. And, it was an encounter with barbed wire, armed US Border guards, and a walkway across the Rio Grande. Looking shiny, the water flowed directly below us.  Then, from the exact middle of the river to the north, the American side, there was a concrete incline, ending, again, at the wall.  It was the goal, the American side! And, as we strolled leisurely and securely across the bridge – American citizens bearing US passports – there down below us some 50 feet, walking urgently on the inclined concrete berm, were newly arrived persons, on US soil, having finished a months-long trek, having avoided the piracy of traffickers and gangs (we hoped), and evaded the US Border guards whose single task is to turn people back. There they were, walking to their future.


How odd, I thought, that the sole job of our US Border patrol is to turn people away.  Did they not know that there is a statue in New York Harbor, and a history of welcoming asylum seekers? Was this the America I knew? Was this the same place to which my ancestors crossed the ocean to call a new home? One with barbed wires to enforce a political optic, while maintaining a befuddled oppressive policy?

There is much more. I will be sharing it in further posts, and on my return.  But for now, this place ebbs from despair to hope, to despair.  It is hungering for a new ethic, and an ancient value. 


With Shalom,  Rabbi Douglas Kohn

Hope Can Follow Despair
Rabbi Douglas Kohn in El Paso & Juarez


Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Dear Friends,

Despair, hope, despair, and then hope again. Today began much more painfully than even yesterday, and continued to spiral through anger, shame, disbelief, and agitation, and then finished on an unexpected and vital, triumphant high note.

We departed for the Otero County Processing Center, an ICE Detention Center in Chaparral, New Mexico, just north of El Paso. We had to leave phones and wallets on the bus. Inside, the Warden and Deputy Warden took us on “tours” of their facility, extolling their efforts to repaint the walls from institutional yellow to white and grey, adding plants to the “female dorms,” the ping pong tables in the indoor rec room, and three outside recreation yards – topped with barbed wire. 580 detainees are housed in the windowless building, each getting up to four hours of rec time a day, 520 minutes of phone a month (calls are recorded by ICE), are known by the numbers on their badges, whose showers only have plexiglass dividers and no dividers or doors on the toilet stalls, and where huge, metal doors close and lock the halls, dorms, “chow halls” and medical wings. This is how recent arrivals to the US experience our welcoming nation? Being dehumanized, devalued, warehoused? Some of the young men looked like zombies – staring into the void from their bunks, resenting the privilege which allowed me to come and visit. At least some young women were doing crafts and puzzles together, socializing, supporting each other, and waving to us. I felt ashamed, angry, bitter, shocked. “Detainee” was a gruesome euphemism.

Afternoon included the further frustration of attending Immigration court, where tedium, frustration and the teasing intermingling of hope and hopelessness washed over the “respondents,” those in hearings over their status. We learned that we were sitting in the courtroom of the most benevolent judge in El Paso, who sports a rejection rate of only 78%. Others reject as many as 99%. Capricious “justice,” at best.

Then, after a poignant stop at the memorial to the 23, mostly Mexicans who were murdered in a mass shooting at El Paso’s Walmart on August 3, 2019, where a local pastor whose daughter was injured in the shooting waxed eloquently to our group on recognizing people for the content of their character, we finished our day at Annunciation House, a magnificent shelter in downtown El Paso.

Annunciation House takes in anyone: the sick and those recently released by ICE, those waiting for a bus ticket to family in the Midwest, and those with broken legs from falling off the Border Wall. Supported by donations, its walls were freshly painted, its guests were cooking dinner and doing laundry, and because 1000 unexpected Nicaraguans had arrived the day before, today it accepted more than its max, putting cots in the chapel and doubling up on its beds with new, clean sheets. Our group of rabbis were so moved that we initiated a fundraising drive right there (and I emailed our TBJ knitters for a load of hats for Texas), that we raised thousands of dollars, rented a vehicle, and will do a late-night shopping run to Walmart to stock them with winter coats, underwear and fresh food.

This week in the Torah Joseph dreamed his dreams, and was rewarded for his dreams by being sent south of the border to Egypt. Such can be the reward of those who dare to dream. But, not all...

Yes, some days are days of despair. And, some days end in hope. 

With Shalom, Rabbi Douglas Kohn