On a Sunday night in February I got an urgent email. It was from a cantor in Haverill, Vera Broekhuysen asking for religious folks to show up at the ICE office in Burlington. We were needed to stand in solidarity with a man named Jacob from the Caribbean island country of St. Lucia, who was in danger of being deported after almost 20 years of living in this country.
Now Monday is my day off, so I wasn’t exactly thrilled about the idea. But I got up early on Monday, grabbed my tallis, and went.
It’s been hard to process what I saw on that Monday morning — sitting in a nondescript office in a building behind the mall, near the Panera Bread — with a kind, law-abiding, hardworking man, his two beautiful sons, waiting to see if ICE would take him away from his family.
It was an awful experience to witness. The ICE office is the epitome of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” Soulless bureaucracy, functionaries surrounded by shelf after shelf of overflowing file folders, making life and death decisions.
Jacob came with his pastor and two children, a 2nd and 3rd grader. Regular American kids. One with a Justice League hat, the other with a Star Wars hat, listening to music on his smartphone.
His name is Jediya. A Hebrew name, by coincidence, Yediyah.
It means, “God knows.”
I asked Jediya what he was listening to. He took out the earbuds and smiled up at Jacob. The Caribbean gospel came pouring out of the tiny speakers. “You know what it is, Dad. It’s your favorite song!”
We waited for hours. There were hundreds of people there. Jacob told me how he entered the system because, as a black man in New Hampshire, he had been racially profiled for a crime that he didn’t commit. But once he was arrested, New Hampshire reported him to ICE.
He also told me that, for him, deportation was simply not an option.
"No one can take care of my sons like I can."
He further told me how numerous lawyers had failed him in the past.
In keeping with that track record of failure, Jacob's current lawyer (hired by Jacob’s employer) acknowledged that he has no immigration experience.
Sitting there helplessly, I texted my friend Matt Cameron. I met Matt at a number of immigration rallies. You may remember him from the papers as Francisco Rodriguez’s lawyer, the MIT janitor who was released from ICE custody, albeit with an ankle monitor. It turned out Matt was in Burlington, in that same office, with another client. Matt came over to us, and gave Jacob’s lawyer an impromptu crash-course on Immigration 101.
While Matt is obviously a mensh, this didn’t exactly inspire confidence.
We continued to wait. By the end of hour two, Jediya was in tears. As we sat together, a news alert appeared on my phone, saying our government was ending temporary protected status for 200,000 Salvadorans.
I can’t adequately express what it was like to start processing that news while sitting in an ICE office.
Two days later we would hear of mass immigration raids at 7-11 stores across the country.
And the next day the President would scrap a bipartisan immigration deal and utter his now infamous expletive statements about African and Carribean countries.
Another hour of waiting. Jacob’s name was called. I came with him. Jacob was asked who I was. I quickly interrupted, “I’m his rabbi!”
It wasn’t NOT true.
But it didn’t matter. They didn’t even bring him and the lawyer into the office. The ICE agent peeked his head out through a door, in front of the waiting room — his UnderArmor polo short revealing a sleeve tattoo, and ICE badge on his hip and a gun in his holster. He told Jacob he was being deported to St. Lucia on February 5th. He seemed happy to say it, though maybe that was his way of protecting his soul from the awful words that were coming out of his mouth.
Jacob protested that he had two kids. The ICE agent said, "This administration is prioritizing removal. Everybody's got circumstances. Everybody's got kids. They used to take that into consideration. Those days are over."
And then he was gone.
Matt was eavesdropping. He said that this was actually nicer than some of what he’s heard at these “hearings.”
I asked him what else we should do. He said, “There is no question that your presence makes a difference. Just keep doing this. Be a witness, and let them know you’re watching."
Matt wrote me a message later in the week. “It is too easy for even the most humane and empathetic practitioners to lose perspective as the water slowly heats to boiling around us, and these accounts from thoughtful outsiders coming in from the cold are so important…”
He continued: “I have also had many hours in Burlington to consider the operating psychology of ICE's ground forces, and where this country might be going if Trump is able to meet his goal of tripling [deportations]. There is a certain kind of person who is perfectly content to do injustice in the name of ‘the rule of law,’ ‘this comes from the top,’ and ‘this is out of my hands.’”
He concluded, “fascism is only a theory without them.”
It wasn’t a theory for Jacob. He was deported on February 5th.
This week’s Torah reading includes parashat Kedoshim. From kadosh — holy. “Be holy, for I YHVH Am Holy.”
And what does holiness mean? Cloistering yourself on a mountain in chant and meditation? Well, sometimes, maybe. But that’s not what Kedoshim says. It talks about people, people interacting with each other, in sacred and holy ways. Holy commerce, holy labor, holy relationship.
To land-owners, it says not to harvest your entire field… but to leave a corner for the poor. And the immigrant.
But if our land continues on its path, we will not only fail to leave a corner of produce for the immigrant. We will take away every corner, every scrap of land, every shred of dignity from our immigrant neighbors. And we will continue to take away parents from children.
And, in doing so, we will snuff out the light of holiness from house after house after house.
As a people, we know this terror. We’ve known it since the days of Pharaoh, the days of oppression at the hands of a force greater than us. But we also know the power of redemption, the Liberating Spirit that courses through this Universe, a Force more powerful than any Pharaoh.
The Force that frees the Israelites so that they can build holy community.
But we need to activate that Force. Just like in the days of Egyptian bondage. The Israelites only begin to get free when they cry out. Liberation only happens because, as God says (Exodus 6:5) Ani Shamati. “I’ve heard. I’ve heard the moaning of the Israelites.”
We’ve heard the moaning of young boys threatened with the loss of their parents. Young boys like Jediya.
The only question is, do we hear their moans? And, if so, what then?