Jewish and Latino state lawmakers visit ICE detention center near San Diego

By Gabriel Greschler / Jewish News of Northern California

In a show of unity, 11 California lawmakers representing the Jewish and Latino legislative caucuses toured Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego on Aug. 9 after increasing scrutiny about conditions at the facility.

The legislators conducted interviews and met with detainees at the center, which is overseen by private prison company CoreCivic and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Visiting the Otay Mesa detention facility was powerful and profoundly sad,” said Assemblymember Marc Berman (D-Palo Alto), a member of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus. “We all have a responsibility to highlight what is going on at the border. But I do think Jews have a unique history and experience that allows us to empathize with today’s migrants that much more.”

Berman likened the conditions at the detention center to a prison. “I can say with certainty that I would go crazy if I were in their place, with little if any access to legal aid and unable to understand what was happening with my case.”

Multiple reports have detailed alleged mistreatment at Otay Mesa, where more than 900 migrants are being held. In August 2018, detainees made complaints to immigrant rights group Pueblo Sin Fronteras about uncomfortably high temperatures. Last April, 70 detainees signed a letter claiming medical neglect, safety issues and racism at the facility.

Members from both caucuses also visited the Jewish Family Service Migrant Family Shelter in San Diego. The shelter supports asylum-seeking families who are awaiting a court date after being released from centers such as Otay Mesa. They are provided with food, clothing, health services and legal aid. The center was established with the San Diego Rapid Response Network, a coalition of human rights organizations, attorneys and community leaders.

“Where the federal government is failing, JFS is stepping up,” said Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda).

Senior Director of Immigration Services Kate Clark of Jewish Family Services San Diego speaks with Jewish and Latino state lawmakers. (Photo/Courtesy California Legislative Jewish Caucus)

Bauer-Kahan said she had family members who were resettled by the Jewish immigrant group HIAS in the wake of the Holocaust, making last week’s visit especially personal. “The Jewish caucus has a tikkun olam mission,” she said. “This is part of that effort.”

The shelter visit also made an even “stronger connection” between the two caucuses, she said, pointing to public statements made by Latino caucus chair Lorena Gonzalez (D-Southern San Diego) after the shooting at Chabad of Poway synagogue north of San Diego.

“We know that the Jewish community put itself at risk by becoming undeniable partners in our attempt to welcome refugees from Central America,” Gonzalez said in a press conference after the April attack. “It’s the fact that they refuse to forget their own history of being refugees… that they were adding another layer for white extremists to hate them.”

The visit to Otay Mesa coincided with more than 50 protests around the country on Aug. 11 by progressive Jewish organizations condemning the government’s immigration policies. The national protests were held on Tisha B’Av, the Jewish holiday of public mourning.

On Monday, South Bay Jewish organizations gathered at the Santa Clara County government offices in San Jose to “share stories, sing lamentations, stand with those impacted, and call for a new vision of healing and justice,” according to the event’s Facebook page.

Bay Area Jewish groups and others have organized a monthlong, daily protest in August in front of the ICE field office in San Francisco’s Financial District.

“The Jewish experience is that of wanderers, of refugees in a foreign land,” said Berman, whose family members fled persecution during the Holocaust, “and we should be the first to welcome those that are fleeing persecution in their homelands.”