Seeing What is Hidden: a Yom Kippur Reflection

There are places in our nation that are difficult to see, but when called upon to look closely, we mustn’t turn away. 

On Monday, September 14, a former nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, filed a whistleblower complaint along with Project South and the Government Accountability Project to the Department of Homeland Security that alleges “Lack of Medical Care, Unsafe Work Practices, and Absence of Adequate Protection Against COVID-19 for Detained Immigrants and Employees Alike” at the facility. Among these allegations is a pattern of reproductive sterilization of migrant women without adequate informed consent which, if true, would be an egregious abuse of state power, especially if it were proven that these unwanted medical procedures were a deliberate attempt to prevent migrant women from having children in the United States (which would make those children U.S. citizens). 

The facility is run by a private company contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency of the U.S. executive branch. Immigrant detention facilities are governed by a set of performance-based national detention standards established in 2011, but ICE is responsible for its own oversight. Learning about this complaint, I knew I had to speak out in favor of a rapid response, from three positions: my position as a Jewish person seeking to repair the world (tikkun olam), my position as a citizen with rights and responsibilities for a democratic nation, and from my perspective as a history curator specializing in the relationship between citizens, nations, and human rights. 

The Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University, where I am the curator, presents public events, exhibits, and educational resources focused on World War II and the Holocaust in an effort to promote education and dialogue about the past and its significance today. Among the pillars of our mission are understanding the ethical and political consequences of our actions and acceptance of civic and personal responsibility.  In 2017, we took up the topic of immigration because we knew that people were struggling to understand the complex history that led to present-day immigration debates in the United States (which had become riddled with dehumanizing rhetoric), and because we recognized the role that statelessness, revocation of citizenship status, and immigration restrictions played in the lives of people attempting to flee Nazi Germany in the lead-up to World War II and in the efforts of survivors of the war to find a place they could call home.

Last Tuesday, we partnered with Welcoming America and CivicGeorgia to host an education event based on our 2018 exhibit Refuge or Refusal: Turning Points in U.S. Immigration History. Amidst the complexity of the topic, we hoped that our participants would come away with a single big idea: immigration policy and citizenship status are powerful tools that affect people’s lives, and in our democracy we have changed them many times as we’ve attempted to define the purpose and composition of our nation. During our event, we reviewed a timeline of those changes and also considered the effects of a shifting legal landscape on people seeking safe and stable lives in a complex world. Among other trends, we noted the precipitous rise in immigrant incarceration since 2015. Increased incarceration of undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation hearings and asylum-seekers awaiting case hearings is associated with the criminalization of immigration offenses and the federalization of enforcement beginning in the 1990s. (In our country, we regard jail time as a punishment for a crime; routine jailing of immigrants treats the act of border-crossing as a criminal offense.) The Homeland Security Act of 2002 granted powers to the Secretary of the new executive agency to detain or release noncitizens during pending removal proceedings.  And since 2015, the federal government has attempted to use incarceration as a deterrent, arguing that “one particular individual may be civilly detained for the sake of sending a message” to others “who may be considering immigration.” Although the deterrence effect is made possible only by the visibility of immigrant detention as a policy, many immigrant detention facilities are located in relatively sparsely populated rural areas of the United States, essential to local economies, but away from the direct view of many American citizens. Irwin County Detention center is 3.5 hours southeast of Atlanta, in a county with fewer than 10,000 people, 70% white, 30% Black, and 4% Hispanic. The majority of the employees at the Detention Center are Black, and many of the people incarcerated there do not speak English

Although immigration policy created the situation at Irwin Detention Center, the complaint filed on Monday is not about immigration. Immigration is at issue only insofar as it has placed individuals at the mercy of the state. The complaint represents a means by which citizens are attempting to work within our governmental bureaucracy to ensure that our nation is protecting human rights, maintaining minimal standards of treatment for people within its custody, and for people working for companies that enforce its policies. It is up to all of us to use what power we have to shed light on the places where the most vulnerable people are hidden.

The founders of the United States believed in the idea of a nation built on the doctrine of natural rights, a nation that would attempt, at its core, to protect the rights of its citizens to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A thorough study of American history illuminates the many points of contention around who could be a citizen, and the rights of non-citizens, but the idea of inalienable rights demands that we affirm these principles time and again. Still, even if all people are created equal, life circumstances and group conflicts affect their relative power over each other. What, then, is the responsibility of people with power?

World War II and the Holocaust awakened the world to a need to set aspirational standards for human rights for all people, regardless of their state affiliation or citizenship status. In 1948, the newly established United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Still, there is no single agreed-upon agency that can enforce respect for those rights around the world. Thus, it is up to us to assess our own power, and to use it where we can to protect those whom circumstances have rendered most vulnerable. And if our democratic state incarcerates people while they wait to learn in which nation they will be allowed to pursue their happiness, then we cannot turn away from them in that limbo; we cannot leave them hidden in the dark. 


Taschlich Group gathering in Front of Irwin County Detention Center. Rabbi Joshua Lesser and Lily Brent are in the center.

What then should we do?  As I've written before in this blog, there are senators, such as Corey Booker, who have attempted to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by passing emergency legislation to release all people in ICE detention who do not pose a risk of harm to the people of the United States. By legal standards, that would be just about everyone. As I write this, the FIRST Act is stalled in the Judiciary Committee. There are other ways to act. On Friday, September 25, Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta led a group of people in a Taschlich Ritual outside the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla. My dear friend Lily Brent, who is the executive director of Repair the World Atlanta, was there.  She wrote of her experience, "Today, I had the honor of convening with friends and colleagues to issue a moral and spiritual call for collective repentance and societal change. In front of Irwin Detention Center in Ocilla Georgia, we spoke out against detention of people seeking to immigrate to this country, against racism from slavery to mass incarceration, against unsafe and unsanitary conditions of confinement, turned potentially deadly under COVID, against the long history of medical neglect, abuse, experimentation and exploitation of Black, Latinx and Indigenous people, against greed and profiting from all of the above instead of seeking solutions to poverty and inequity. May this be the year for justice."

On Yom Kippur we do Teshuvah. Often translated as repentance, "teshuvah" literally means "to turn around." We turn around to seek ourselves. And we do it again every year.  We seek a better world again, and again. We seek a world where we take responsibility for each other. We seek a world where our eyes are open, and our hearts are open. We return to our fiercest hopes. These were the hopes of the people who founded the United States in the image of a nation free from tyranny. These were the hopes of the people who recognized the effects of the poison of slavery and racism on the history of this hopeful nation, who fought for a more perfect union. These were the hopes of the people who came to build a new life in this nation, fleeing from situations that put their lives in danger, situations beyond their control. And these are my hopes. As I open my ears to Kol Nidre tonight, I will be praying for the strength to continue to hope. In the words of Arundhati Roy, "Another world's not only possible. On a quiet day, you can hear her breathing. She's on her way."

May we all have the strength to use what power we can to build a foundation of justice so that all creatures may be free to pursue their happiness, speedily, and in our time.


Adina Langer said…
Since publishing this post, I've been following unfolding coverage related to the investigation. It is disturbing to see how political division is affecting the ways in which the investigation, and the parties involved, are being characterized by members of Congress. Central to the dispute is the allegation of mass hysterectomies being performed by Dr. Amin. This claim is only part of the much larger whistle-blower complaint, but it has gained significant traction as the fulcrum of argument between opposing parties. On September 24, Georgia Representatives Doug Collins and Austin Scott, Republicans, sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General claiming that Ms. Wooten's allegation are questionable and that Project South has a radical anti-law enforcement agenda. The intention of the the letter seems to be to disparage the whistle-blower report before an investigation fully commences. Only Democrats from the House Judicial Committee visited the Detention Center on September 26. They too focused on the reports of forced medical procedures, but the article in 11 Alive reporting on their visit noted that the facility has been the "target of anger and scrutiny from Democrats." Although I know that our criminal justice system requires a presumption of innocence until guilt is proven, in the case of systems created by the state, the burden of proof must rest on the party with greater power-- the state. We must all hold our state institutions to a higher standard, regardless of political alignment. I deeply hope that the divisive politics associated with U.S. immigration and incarceration law do not make justice and accountability impossible even as I acknowledge the challenges they pose to the reaching of a public consensus on truth and responsibility.