St. Louis activists protest migrant detentions

Photo: Kayla Steinberg
From left, Susan Block, Ellen Alper of NCJW and Alyssa Banford of JCRC take part in the Heartland for Human Justice Coalition protest at Fort Sill in Lawton, Okla.

By Kayla Steinberg, Staff Writer

“My name is Jaakelin Caal Maquin. At the age of 7, I died on Dec. 8, 2018, after being detained by the El Paso border patrol.”

LAWTON, Okla. — The 100-degree southwestern Oklahoma heat beat down on Heartland for Human Justice trip participants as, one by one, they entered the center of a big circle, looked down at little flaps of paper they clutched in their sweaty hands and read aloud first-person narratives of dead migrants that brought many to tears.

The interfaith vigil Aug. 1 at Lawton Heights United Methodist Church in Lawton, Okla., lasted an hour. It was full of songs and stories and memories. Then the group of St. Louis-area activists  headed to the Army post at Fort Sill, just minutes from the tiny church, for the second part of the action: a protest.

In June, federal officials announced that Fort Sill would be a “temporary emergency influx shelter” for approximately 1,400 migrant children because overcrowding at the 168 other facilities and programs in 23 states tasked with providing care for migrant children. But on July 24, one week before the Heartland trip was supposed to leave, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., announced that the center’s opening would be delayed due to a drop in border crossings.

That change of plans didn’t stop the Heartland from bringing an interfaith, cross-cultural group of social justice advocates, about half of them Jewish, to Lawton for a vigil and a protest.

For the 105 participants, protesting the detention and mourning the deaths of immigrants on the border with Mexico was an expression of their faith and experience.

“As Jews in particular, having gone through the history we’ve gone through, we should never idly stand by and let something happen to someone else,” said Ellen Alper, executive director of the National Council of Jewish Women-St. Louis section and one of the trip’s organizers. “It is our job to say, ‘Never again.’ ”

Oklahoma native Sherry Echo Hawk Taluc, a member of the Pawnee and Otoe-Missouria Native American tribes, also feels a responsibility to create a better future in the United States. 

“I don’t want to feel like we’ve lost our homelands to terrible practices,” she said. “It would be like we lost our land in vain.”

Alper and other St. Louis leaders of religious and cultural groups convened a month ago out of frustration and anger over the mistreatment of immigrants crossing the U.S. southern border. From their meeting, Heartland for Human Justice was born. Its 24 affiliates include NCJW, the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, Congregation Shaare Emeth, Central Reform Congregation, United Hebrew Congregation, ADL Heartland, the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association and Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice.

A string of protests across the United States, including one led by Dream Action Oklahoma at Fort Sill, inspired Heartland for Human Justice organizers to lead a trip of their own, and they chose Oklahoma as their destination.

The delayed opening of the Fort Sill detention center didn’t deter the organizers. They just hoped to gather enough social justice advocates to fill one bus.

But nearly 100 people boarded two buses at 7 a.m. on July 31. They filled the buses with singing and chanting, with the first round of “this is what democracy looks like” erupting on Bus 2 at 7:54 a.m.

During the 12-hour trip from St. Louis to Oklahoma, Cantor Joshua Finkel of Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community led participants in chants and songs such as  “This Land is Your Land.”

The action was condensed into two hours on the morning of Aug. 1. At 9 a.m., clergy members sang and strummed guitars at Lawton Heights United Methodist Church, and other participants joined in, donning navy T-shirts that read “Stop Separating Families” and singing the tunes they had practiced on the bus.

The singing gave way to speeches by trip organizers, clergy and other participants.

“We need their holy chutzpah!” Central Reform Congregation Rabbi Susan Talve said. “Let our people and let our families and children go.”

Talve offered a prayer. 

“Loving Creator, thank you for allowing us to be here today to share these words,” she said. “I ask that the ears that hear this message will do good and that the light and love in their hearts will bring them to action to do what is right.”

The singing and chanting and prayers continued at Fort Sill. Participants clustered around a giant “Welcome to Fort Sill, Oklahoma” stone sign and waved hand-drawn signs and posters with pictures of immigrants who had died in U.S. custody. They were watched by police in two vehicles parked on the road next to the army post.

After a half hour at Fort Sill, the buses pulled out of the sandy lot to start the 600-mile haul home to St. Louis.

Fort Sill has a dark past. The 150-year-old military base was built during the Indian Wars and housed Apache prisoners of war including Apache leader Geronimo, who died at Fort Sill. During World War II, it was used as an internment camp for 700 Japanese Americans.

And in 2014, the base housed immigrant children for four months.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 10,000 unaccompanied migrant children were in HHS care as of July 22. Kids often spend weeks or months in U.S. custody before they’re placed with a sponsor.

Some trip participants have directly aided migrants at the border. Marilyn Sue Warren of Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice joined social justice advocates for “Christmas in Tornillo” at the Tornillo Detention Camp in El Paso, Texas. Many, including Warren, brought art supplies and food to nearby migrant housing shelters such as Annunciation House.

And Marie Kenyon, director of the Peace and Justice Commission at the Archdiocese of St. Louis and chair of its immigration task force, frequents the border. In November, she’ll bring 200 high school students to El Paso to show them the border situation firsthand.

Kenyon and many other trip participants hope to inspire teenagers and young adults to take action. 

Alper said: “I think it’s really important for those of us that have been doing this work for a long time to pass the torch to that next generation.”

Many teens and young adults are already eager to help. Clayton High School sophomore Lily Befeler, 15, joined her mother and friend on the trip, wanting to send a message that young people should advocate for human rights.

“We’re the future,” she said. “In a couple of years, we’re gonna be the only ones who can make the change, and it’s for our future.”

Befeler recently returned from a trip to Israel, including a visit to Yad Vashem, and she saw parallels between the Holocaust and the detention of migrants. 

“It’s insane to see how similar everything is,” she said.

Although labeling detention centers “concentration camps” has sparked controversy, many trip participants like Befeler saw clear parallels between events in Jewish history and the plight of today’s U.S. immigrants.

Alper noted that Latin American immigrants and Jews have both been turned away from the United States when seeking refuge. For example, the German ocean liner MS St. Louis, whose 937 passengers were mainly Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, was denied permission to land on American shores.

Now the United States is home to the largest Jewish population outside Israel. For some participants, religious freedom in America gives Jews a responsibility to help other immigrants.

“American Jews have not only survived but thrived in this country because of the freedoms afforded to each person,” said Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the JCRC. “Rabbi Susan Talve referred to this place as the Promised Land. In many ways, America has been the Promised Land for Jews. Now we have to pay it forward. Not only because of our history, but because these freedoms are the foundations on which our community still stands.”

On Tisha B’Av Sunday, Aug. 11, CRC will host a Heartland for Human Justice “lament and learning” program from 2-4 p.m to discuss the stories of migrants. It will follow a 12-2 p.m. Talmud study session about baseless hatred led by CRC Rabbi Daniel Bogard and Picker Neiss.