On Thursday, February 27, at 6 p.m., members of the local clergy convened at Sag Harbor’s Christ Episcopal Church to discuss their recent experiences at the U.S.-Mexico border. The small panel consisted of Reverend Karen Ann Campbell, rector of the Christ Episcopal Church; Rabbi Daniel Geffen of Temple Adas Israel; and minister Kimberly Quinn Johnson of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork.
In addition to a question and answer session, moderated by Patty McCormack, the meeting featured a brief slideshow of images and videos captured by Reverend Campbell during her January travels to Brownsville, Texas. At the forum’s end, audience members were encouraged to ask questions. All three members of the clergy had visited the border in hopes of broadening their understanding of border relations and government intervention.
“I had no idea what I was going to find, and it was amazingly awful, and evil,” Reverend Campbell said. “[P]art of my impetus was, when I was a kid, I found out about the Holocaust … I went to everyone who had been of age in 1938 and said, ‘Well, what did you do?’”
The tale recounted by Reverend Campbell, Minister Quinn Johnson, and Rabbi Geffen was a gruesome one. Photos showed makeshift pup tents for 4,500 migrants seeking asylum to protect them from the elements, open-air kitchen without proper sanitation, showers constructed with pumps that diverted non-potable water from the polluted Rio Grande, and minimal healthcare assistance.
One woman who had recently given birth found out, through a mobile medical unit, that her newborn infant had contracted pneumonia. Border agents, seeing the x-rays, denied her entrance for medical treatment on two separate occasions before finally granting her asylum. Of the 10,000 migrants who appeared at the nation’s border in November, Reverend Campbell said, seeking asylum from clear and present danger in their home countries, only 11 were admitted to the United States.
For Minister Quinn Johnson, travels to the border have ignited a passion for fighting injustice. “I cannot prepare you for what it feels like to witness people shuffled in in chains,” she said. “I am 100 percent clear that the work of my life is to free our people.” Minister Quinn Johnson reached the border by way of Tucson, Arizona.
Rabbi Geffen viewed the trip as an opportunity to see, firsthand, what he understood to be grave American injustices. “It’s not acceptable to sit on the sidelines at the distance,” he said. “I needed to be able to see, with my own eyes, as much as I was capable on this trip.” In response to a question regarding the perceived impotence of activism, Rabbi Geffen said, “We have to constantly be fighting against that feeling of powerlessness.”
Although the clergy members made no mention of specific political figures, their mission was, on its face, necessarily political. “We’ve decided that we need to have an enemy, and if it isn’t going to be Russia, evidently, it’s going to be people of color,” Reverend Campbell said. “I left thinking that Underground Railroad or falsifying documents were the only way to get [asylum-seekers] into the country.”
Minister Quinn Johnson offered a slightly less subversive tactic to enacting change at the border. “We can abolish ICE,” she said, noting that the institution has only been around for two decades; ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was established in 2003, as a response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. “There is a way that we managed the border, that we managed immigration, before ICE,” she added.
All three members seemed to agree that what they had seen had changed them. Rabbi Geffen said that the experience had also been elemental in his understanding of the current system and its extreme pitfalls. “I possess now an experience and a knowledge base and at least a foothold in a larger conversation,” he said. “Being there in person was an important necessary step — at least for me.” He also explained that it is often easy for local community members to ignore the problems at the border, since those problems feel far away from the northeast. Those problems, he said, are merely anecdotal “when it’s not an actual person with an actual name and an actual story.”
Reverend Campbell was less diplomatic in her assessment of what she saw and experienced. “Following orders is not a defense,” she said. “Let them cross. Choose your side in history.”