SEATTLE — As the founder of Casa Latina, a Seattle-based nonprofit that connects Latino immigrants to employment opportunities, Hillary Stern witnesses the parallels between yesterday’s Jews and today’s migrants firsthand.
Stern’s grandmother came to Seattle from Wales as a young girl in the 1920s, traveling with her two brothers, aged 14 and 15.
By today’s definition, Stern argues, the three siblings were “unaccompanied minors,” the term used to describe the tens of thousands of children and teenagers who have fled violence in Central America over the last several years and landed on the US-Mexico border.
Many of these youth have been placed in immigration detention centers while the US Immigration and Naturalization Services processes their applications for asylum.
“When I see them, I see my four grandparents and all of my great aunts and uncles who came as immigrants to escape anti-Semitism, violence and abject poverty in Europe,” Stern told The Times of Israel.
“As American Jews whose ancestors were forced to flee countries where they had lived for generations, and who found refuge and opportunity in the US, we have a special responsibility to undo unjust policies and laws that increase human suffering of immigrants who come to our shores,” she said.
That historical link is part of what prompted Stern’s synagogue, Kadima, to give its first-ever Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) award to a regional immigrant rights organization on January 20.
The awardee, Northwest Detention Center Resistance, advocates for the closure of the privately-operated immigrant detention center in Tacoma, Washington, 30 miles south of Seattle.
Maru Mora Villalpando leads Northwest Detention Center Resistance, which also raises awareness about conditions inside the facility — where workers are paid $1 per day, well below the state’s $11-an-hour minimum wage — and provides material and legal support to the relatives of immigrants detained in the facility, the country’s fourth largest.
“This is the first time the Northwest Detention Center Resistance has received an award and it means a lot coming from Kadima, a group of people who have shown what true support means,” Villalpando told The Times of Israel. “They were the first faith-based group to never second-guess our decisions, they just ask what needs to be done and they do it.”
The activist group regularly stages actions, such as blockading vans carrying detainees for deportation and camping out in front of the facility in support of detainees on hunger strike. Kadima members have attended such protests and even erected a sukkah — a traditional temporary dwelling — outside the facility during the holiday of Sukkot.
Just days before the group received the award last week, however, Villalpando made public the deportation proceedings against her by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She is one of several high-profile immigrant activists who have received such notices in the last few weeks.
The decision to launch their own Tikkun Olam Award didn’t come out of the blue for the Reconstructionist synagogue. Last year, the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle announced its intention to give the federation’s annual Tikkun Olam Award to the Seattle Police Department. After two police officers killed a pregnant black mother with a history of mental health problems, the federation’s award prompted an outcry among some in the local Jewish community.
Soon after, Kadima decided to start its own award and began taking nominations during the High Holidays. The decision to award Northwest Detention Center Resistance came during a year that Kadima has dedicated to the theme of sanctuary, a concept that resonates with immigration activism from the sanctuary movement of religious institutions to so-called sanctuary cities that are self-declared safe havens for undocumented immigrants.
“In response to Trump’s ramped-up use of the anti-immigrant detention and deportation apparatus put in place by President Obama, Kadima has dedicated this year to learning about and participating in Sanctuary efforts,” the Tikkun Olam Award Committee wrote in a statement. They cited the importance of showing support for groups who are impacted firsthand by major social issues.
Former US president Barack Obama presided over 2.5 million deportations of undocumented immigrants, more than all US presidents in the 20th century combined. That policy earned him the nickname “deporter in chief” from some immigration activists.
Since the inauguration of Donald Trump, who campaigned with a hardline position on immigration, deportations have decreased slightly, though many attribute that to fewer undocumented immigrants entering the US because of Trump’s tough stance.
For Villalpando, who came to the US in 1996 and overstayed her visa, receiving a Jewish award was surprising.
“Back in Mexico, my experience with the Jewish community was a very foreign one,” she said. “It never felt like they were a connection between the Jewish community and the rest of us, although they were Mexican too.”
But for some American Jews, the connection is obvious.
“Anti-Semitism in the US has faded since my grandparents arrived, but anti-immigrant sentiment has continued and has been codified into more and more restrictive immigration laws, aimed at excluding poor people of color,” Stern said.