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Visit To US-Mexico Border Brings New Perspective To A St. Louis Organization

A group of more than 20 Jewish organization leaders from around the country, including three from St. Louis pose with in the Mexican Counsel General (at center) in Nogales, Arizona in Sept. 2019.
Rori Picker Neiss

In Nogales, Arizona, there were quiet streets with houses and yards and giant metal beams with razor-sharp wires attached at the top. In Nogales, Mexico, there were kids playing soccer in the schoolyard. These are just a few scenes that Rori Picker Neiss observed on a recent trip to the border.

“We were all just really struck by the scene that we were seeing,” Picker Neiss said. 

Picker Neiss is the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis. She and two other members of the council traveled to the Arizona-Mexico border last week. They were accompanied by 22 other Jewish leaders and volunteers from across the nation on a trip organized by the Jewish Council of Public Affairs

The group visited the two bordering cities to gain first-hand knowledge of what is occurring at the border and to better understand immigration policies.

Picker Neiss said the scene at the border was striking because of the brown metal structure that divides the two cities.

“I don't think I knew what to expect, but seeing the wall was a lot more imposing than I had imagined,” she said.

Two cities, two centers

In Nogales, Arizona, the group visited the Casa Alitas, which was previously a juvenile detention center and has been repurposed as a shelter. 

The center houses migrants and asylum-seekers in cells. Picker Neiss said families put up curtains instead of closing the cell doors and hung artwork on the walls to bring light into the rooms since there are few to no windows. Casa Alitas is mostly home to migrant families from Central America that have been processed through border patrol and are awaiting an immigration hearing or an asylum court date. 

Typically, asylum-seekers or migrants wait at the shelter for about 72 hours and are given food, clothing and basic medical checks. But, according to Nogales’ Mexican Consulate General, Picker Neiss said, only about 2% of asylum-seekers in Nogales, Arizona, are granted asylum. 

The shelter Picker Neiss visited in Nogales, Mexico, was noticeably different, she said. AtHogar de Esperanza y Paz (Home of Hope and Peace), there was one large room with rows of bunk beds and a limited number of rooms at the side of the shelter. 

Picker Neiss, Kravitz and the other members of the group were able to observe conditions and meet migrant families on both sides of the border. Sept. 2019.
Credit Rori Picker Neiss
Picker Neiss, Kravitz and the other members of the group were able to observe conditions and meet migrant families on both sides of the border.

Picker Neiss said the staff at both shelters told her their main goal was to try to restore the migrants' dignity as they await the next step in their process. 

She also said she was impressed with the staff and the people at the shelters because they “really created these clean and supportive structures, but you have this moment of pause and you realize they made a way out of a terrible situation, and this is not anybody's ideal one.”

Horrifying stories

Paul Kravitz, a board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, also traveled to the border cities. He and other volunteers helped distribute clothes, games and other items to families at both shelters. He said that after visiting the two safe spaces, he is now able to put a face on immigration.

“We built the wall, so it's a crisis of our own creation, and we can fix it,” Kravitz said. “I am not suggesting to totally open the borders and that we don't need a wall, but we certainly don't need to extend the wall.

“I think there are other solutions — a bipartisan analysis focused on a more thoughtful civil manner, not one that has created the current crisis, would be appropriate,” he said.

While Kravitz navigated through the shelters, he met some families with horrifying stories of why they were fleeing their country and seeking asylum in America. 

One woman who Kravitz met said she was trafficked to America from Bolivia. After finding out that her return ticket to Bolivia was invalid, she went to Border Patrol to request a visa extension, but later was arrested and jailed for two years for illegally working while in the U.S. 

While she was in prison, she was able to retrieve a visa for victims of trafficking. Under that visa, she spent another year waiting to apply for permanent residency. 

Not only were terrifying trafficking stories told, but people revealed narratives of domestic violence. Picker Neiss since there is a small percentage of asylum cases granted in Nogales, Arizona, then most likely the cases including domestic violence victims will not be granted. And compared to other cases in the Nogales, Arizona, domestic violence is deemed not severe enough to receive asylum.

The group also observed a deportation hearing on the Arizona side of the border. Kravitz said seeing mostly Mexican and Central American people shackled and chained in a circuit courtroom was frightening.

Now that Picker Neiss and Kravitz are back from the border, the council plans to propose strategies for organizations to provide resources where needed. 

“There's a story to be told about the people trying to cross the border, that story is one of these are hardworking people looking for a life free of fear and free of anxiety who want to make a life in America where they can find work and can put food on the table,” Kravitz said.

Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Andrea at @drebjournalist.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.