What We Saw at the US-Mexico Border

By Lisa Friedman, Sharyn Goodson, and Tzivia Schwartz Getzug

On June 2–4, Jewish Funders Network and HIAS brought a delegation of funders and foundation professionals to bear witness to the situation, deepen our knowledge, sharpen our analysis of the issues, and strategize Jewish communal responses. Below, JFN members Lisa Friedman (Founding Director, Lisa and Maury Friedman Foundation) and Sharyn Goodson (Vice President, Philanthropy & Organizational Development, Leichtag Foundation), along with JFN West Coast Director Tzivia Schwartz Getzug, share what they saw.

Many American Jews, awakened to the current refugee crisis and moved to do more, are becoming part of the Jewish response to refugees. HIAS has a Take Action for Asylum Seekers page which gives people different ways to advocate, donate, volunteer, and learn more.

Lisa Friedman:

We met in San Diego, eyes wide open, to experience firsthand the “migrant crisis” amassing daily at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in Tijuana to San Diego.

During the two days we spent together, we would learn the numbers and facts beneath that story—more than 100,000 migrants per month presenting themselves at the border without authorization, and a system way beyond capacity and at its breaking point—and we would see for ourselves the places, and faces, behind the facts.

Sitting in the magnificent property of the Leichtag Foundation over dinner the first night, we knew we were coming, as one speaker put it, as philanthropic tourists. He was right, of course. We came from the safety and security of our education, our privilege, our affluence, for a temporary visit in an air conditioned bus. But we also came with open hearts and open minds, to see how we could help. After all, who among our Jewish delegation didn’t have a relative (or even themselves) that once stood before an American official in a uniform who, at that moment, held their fate in his hands?

So the next morning, we began. Before getting on the bus, we were briefed by HIAS and the ACLU. Melanie Nezer, Senior Vice President for Public Affairs at HIAS, shared with us the simple truth she knew from her years of immigration law and policy experience: What we need is to stop defining asylum seekers as criminals. Once we see them that way, we will treat them that way. Nezer also noted how U.S. and international law do not require people to apply for asylum on the road to safety; they are allowed to apply for asylum in the country where they feel they will be safe. For many fleeing Central America and elsewhere, that place is the United States, and the U.S. must hold its doors open for people who are asking for help.

Norma Chavez-Peterson, the ACLU Executive Director of San Diego and Imperial Counties, described her fight to push back on policies limiting immigration judges’ and asylum officers discretion and independence, reducing admissions down to lowest possible number, slowing the lawful immigration process down to a crawl, illegally turning asylum seekers away at checkpoints, making it almost impossible for people fleeing domestic and gang violence to find haven in the U.S., limiting due process, and reopening thousands of low priority deportation cases. Moves like this, such as the “Zero Tolerance” policy and “Operation Streamline” are legal and humanitarian disasters.

Then it was time to cross the border.

In Tijuana, we got a tiny glimpse of the overflow of migrants left to wait in Mexico during their immigration processing. At the Instituto Madre Asunta, a shelter for mothers and children, migrants are treated with love and dignity, comfort and caring, by big-hearted nuns serving as missionaries.

Sharyn Goodson:

Migrant shelters in Tijuana provide hope and a critically-needed respite for those running from violence and poverty. The shelters provide constant services, including meals, accommodations, and legal advice. They are filled beyond capacity and there are days when people are turned away because of the shortage of beds and supplies. Our group visited Casa del Migrante, which serves mostly male migrants over 18 years of age, sometimes fathers traveling alone with children.

Tzivia Schwartz Getzug:

Visiting the men’s shelter in Tijuana turned out to be particularly sad for me. The shelter was clean and orderly. There was a TV and a computer in the main room, as well offices and a classroom. We did not meet any of the occupants. And yet, when the shelter’s director began to share all of the services provided to the guests, it broke my heart. Psychological services are provided because many of the men are suffering from depression, having been separated from their families. A social worker provides training in how to “parent from afar.” Many left families behind in the U.S. and some of those men do not speak Spanish, so language lessons are provided. The tearing apart of families felt very real there.

Sharyn Goodson:

Instituto Madre Asunta, a sister organization, shelters women and children. It has 44 beds for the 130 women and children on site. Everyone who arrives is carrying everything they own on their backs. Mostly they are single mothers with one to three children. Upstairs at the shelter is a classroom where, by day children are taught basic subjects, a practice that offers a much-needed sense of normalcy and routine during a chaotic time. By night, the classroom is converted to sleeping quarters. Both shelters are in constant need of supplies.

Lisa Friedman:

Unlike the many would-be immigrants we saw in Tijuana, we re-crossed the U.S. border easily — a reminder, again, of our privileged position as Americans viewing this situation as funders. Back in San Diego, we met with Veronika Lopez-Mendez, Principal of Rosa Parks Elementary School, a community of many immigrant families. She told us that family separations are happening daily as parents of her students are picked up by Immigration Custom Enforcement (ICE) agents. In every child’s folder is an emergency plan for what to do if that should happen. Heartbreaking. How can a child possibly learn the language of love and creativity and imagination when they see how terrified the adults are around them?

Many of us can empathize. Reflecting on the day back at our hotel, some of us discussed how a whole generation of our cohort is still reliving the Holocaust years in our nightmares, after hearing the stories of what it was like to be a child during the war years. While this crisis does not, thankfully, rise to nearly the level of the Holocaust, to think about the children who are being traumatized every day by the deportation of their parents is grim and haunting.

Sharyn Goodson:

On the U.S. side of the border, San Diego Rapid Response Network is a coalition of human rights, service and faith-based organizations, attorneys, and community leaders dedicated to aiding immigrants and their families. The Network was activated to respond to increased immigration enforcement activities within San Diego County and humanitarian issues arising at the border, including widespread family separation and unjust deportation of asylum seekers presenting at the Port-of-Entry. 

Led by Jewish Family Service San Diego, a HIAS affiliate, the Network opened a migrant shelter in late October 2018, as the US began releasing hundreds of migrant families on to San Diego's streets without following the usual protocol that ensures asylum seekers have travel plans and the means to join relatives and friends elsewhere in the country. Upon release these families, who do not speak English, have no money, no cellphones and no tickets to travel. Many are also sick and dehydrated.  Without the shelter and its services, they are at great risk of becoming victims of human trafficking, or ending up on the street. 

The shelter provides meals, medical care, legal services, and travel aid to 300 individuals; nearly 60-70 families a day. A total of over 16,000 people have been served to date.  Most people stay 24 to 48 hours before leaving for their final destinations, where they will pursue the legal process required for asylum.  While the shelter receives state funding for operations, additional support is needed to provide free legal representation and to fund bond fees for these families, as well as basic necessities, such as food, blankets and bedding, portable showers, baby/children needs, and toiletries. The shelter’s Amazon wish list includes specific, needed items.


In addition to its work in leading migrant shelter operations, Jewish Family Service offers an array of refugee resettlement services, working in partnership with HIAS for many years to ensure the safety and successful resettlement of refugees referred to San Diego County. The agency also provides comprehensive legal services for immigrants and their families. Services are provided for free or at low-cost and include answering questions about legal status, translating and submitting paperwork, and assisting with removal defense.  The team includes immigration attorneys and Department of Justice accredited representatives dedicated to educating and advocating on behalf of immigrants and refugees.

Tzivia Schwartz Getzug:

It was incredibly moving to see the leading role that the Jewish community is taking on these issues, both nationally and locally. That was very evident during our visit as we learned from experts at HIAS and saw the work that Jewish Family Services of San Diego is doing on the ground, taking the lead with the ACLU in the establishment and direction of their impressive Rapid Response Network. The JFS shelter in San Diego was professional, responsive and well-organized, while also providing its temporary residents with a kind and caring environment. Even so, seeing every adult that passed through the shelter wearing an electronic ankle bracelet — like those worn by criminal parolees — was a shocking reminder that the current U.S. system treats migrants as criminals, not as people with a legitimate human right under international law, to ask for asylum at a port of entry. 

Lisa Friedman:

The next day, we visited a Migrant Family Shelter run by Jewish Family Services. The visit was uplifting and inspiring. Michael Hopkins, the CEO , a man of boundless energy and enthusiasm, stepped up to coordinate the opening in October 2018 to provide shelter and travel coordination for asylum seekers after they have been vetted by federal agents at the border, including providing them legal services. The need arose when the San Diego Rapid Response Network realized that these families and individuals were being dropped off at Greyhound Bus Stations at all hours of the day or night, disoriented and lost, with no direction or resources to help them on their way, vulnerable to traffickers, predators and worse.

Sharyn Goodson:

In addition to learning from direct service providers, the JFN delegation also received a briefing from Andrea Guerrero, executive director of Alliance San Diego and a leader in the Southern Border Communities Coalition.  The Coalition is a group of more than 60 organizations from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas, that work to promote policies and solutions that improve the quality of life of border residents. The Coalition just released A New Border Vision, a comprehensive plan promoting systems change in response to decades of border policies that have cast aside human rights, criminalized migrants and engaged in deadly and unaccountable border enforcement, undermining public safety for all.  In a manner consistent with national values and global best practices, the plan seeks to expand public safety, protect human rights, and welcome residents and newcomers. 

As the experience revealed, there are many philanthropic opportunities to address this issue. Primarily, these involve intervening to support direct services to asylum seekers requiring immediate help and include emergency shelter, legal services, food, medical aid, and clothing.  There are also opportunities to support system change by funding efforts to advocate for improvement to current systems, laws and policies. 

Lisa Friedman:

We ended our tour at the OTAY Mesa Detention Center. ICE is not authorized to hold people as punishment. They detain people waiting for immigration hearings if they believe they won’t show up to court or are dangerous. The majority have no criminal convictions. For those that do, DUI and illegal entry are the most common. Few have access to an attorney; fewer still have the language or legal skills to represent themselves when their court date does come up.

The women’s quarters we observed were clean, open rooms with no doors. It felt strange, yet fitting to end our tour at this facility which was sterile and professional, and yet, for all that, remains an impenetrable prison, where detainees can do nothing but wait.

Tzivia Schwartz Getzug:

Visiting the ICE detention center was a bit surreal. This detention center is a new, privately owned prison. It was clean and shiny, with amenities that included a new medical bay, a library, a chapel, and a large eating area.  Some of the detainees/prisoners live in open rooms without being locked into cells. Immigration hearings take place within the building and the overwhelming majority of the detainees lose their cases and are deported. The juxtaposition of this quiet, orderly detention center with the photographs and footage of the overcrowded cages in which detainees are being held in other locations was striking. We knew we were seeing the “best of the best,” but that made it feel even more sinister on some level.

Lisa Friedman:

I left San Diego knowing that for the vast numbers of migrants, what they want from life in the U.S. is not a bit as complicated as the politics of immigration and asylum have made it out to be. Their dreams and expectations are for a safe life for themselves and their family, a school for their children, medical care, a job, and community leaders that care. For the vast majority, they want just what all of us would if we found ourselves as strangers in a strange land.

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[UPDATE: A New York Times report on a drop in migrant arrivals features several of the facilities mentioned above.]