The Millennial Jews Taking on ICE
The concept of ‘tikkun olam’ — repairing the world — weighs heavy on their minds. So does Jewish history.
Ralph Preiss was a child living in Rosenberg, Germany, on November 9, 1938, when mobs began burning down synagogues, breaking into Jewish-owned businesses, and beating people in the streets. At least 96 people died during Kristallnacht, and nearly 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Preiss’ family witnessed the rise of the Nazi party’s Nuremberg Laws targeting their community. Jews and gentiles were not allowed to marry; Jewish children were banned from public schools; civil servants were dismissed from their posts. Shortly after Kristallnacht, Preiss’ family left Germany, traveling first to France, and then to the Philippines. Most of their extended family stayed behind in Europe and died in the Holocaust. Preiss fled to the United States in 1948 at the age of 18; he built a life in America, but the shadow of terror haunted him.
“When my grandfather shared stories from his past, the thing that disturbed me the most was how his neighbors could watch this escalating state-sponsored violence and chose to do nothing,” said Aaron Regunberg, a 29-year-old former Rhode Island state representative. “We don’t want to be like those bystanders.”
Regunberg is a member of Never Again Action, a group founded by young Jewish activists to fight against the United States’ immigrant detention and deportation machine. Regunberg is a volunteer with the Rhode Island chapter, one of at least 40 that have sprung up across the nation over the past year. For most of these organizers, the cruelty of the immigration apparatus is reminiscent of what their ancestors faced overseas in the years before they were systematically exterminated. They argue that the U.S. government’s mistreatment, incarceration, and dehumanization of immigrants — particularly those who are undocumented — is how the Holocaust began nearly a century ago. When anyone utters the long-held mantra of “never again,” this is what they’re supposed to be working to prevent. The immigrant community’s pain, they say, is our community’s pain.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took to Twitter on June 18, 2019, to describe the conditions at immigration detention centers on the United States-Mexico border: “This administration has established concentration camps on the southern border of the United States for immigrants.” She continued, “This is not hyperbole… Things can be concentration camps without being Dachau or Auschwitz.”
A few days later, 26-year-old Serena Adlerstein, an immigration activist based in Michigan, posted a two-sentence Facebook status that spread like wildfire among organizers. What if, Adlerstein wondered, Jews would just show up at detention centers and shut them down under the banner of “never again”? Would that be so crazy? Adlerstein had been working with the immigrant-led group Movimiento Cosecha — a decentralized, nonviolent direct action group whose campaigns have ranged from obtaining driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants to protesting detention facilities. She had never seen a similar level of interest around immigration from non-immigrants. The discussion around whether the conditions at the border rose to the level of concentration camps had been theoretical until this point — the debate was happening mostly online and on cable news, and it often focused on whether using this descriptor was accurate or insulting to the memory of Holocaust victims. The tone of the replies to Adlerstein’s post was more direct: Fuck yeah let’s do this. Adlerstein and a handful of other Jewish organizers got on the phone that night.
“It felt clear there was a short but critical window of opportunity to take action,” Adlerstein said. Not to make a “semantic debate of whether or not these detention centers are concentration camps,” but to take action. “We need to close them, and we need to end the entire detention and deportation machine.”
Never Again argues that the U.S. government’s mistreatment, incarceration, and dehumanization of immigrants is how the Holocaust began nearly a century ago.
This is not an uncommon story in the digital age, where a single call to action on social media can have a real-world result. It’s how the Women’s March got started, how Hong Kong protesters organized, and how the movement to oust Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló grew. The call to dismantle U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) — the agency that arrests, detains, and deports immigrants — has been floating in immigrant activism circles for years. But the hashtag #AbolishICE only became a prominent online call to arms in the Trump era. Adlerstein’s Facebook post tapped into the outrage of non-immigrant organizers fed up with the U.S. immigration system.
On June 30, six days after Adlerstein’s post, around 100 people showed up to a protest outside the Elizabeth Contract Detention Facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey, under the banner “Never Again Action.” The for-profit detention center, which has a history of alleged “harsh and inhumane” conditions — including unclean drinking water, subpar medical care, and reports of maggots in the food — is run by CoreCivic and holds around 300 men and women, including detained immigrants and asylum seekers. The federal government has had a contract with the center to detain immigrants since the 1990s, and to this day it remains one of the largest detention centers in the Northeast. During the action, 36 of the protesters were arrested.
In the weeks that followed, it seemed like Jewish activists were shutting down detention centers or ICE-related offices everywhere: Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Buffalo, D.C. According to Adlerstein, nearly 700 people had signed up via a Google form in the day and a half after her Facebook post, saying they would like to take action against ICE. That number would continue to grow. People were not only showing up but opening their wallets. For that first protest, organizers set up a GoFundMe to raise $25,000 in bail money for those risking arrest; they ended up raising $180,000. (Part of the money went to Movimiento Cosecha, with whom they organized the D.C. action.)
The protests received widespread press coverage, and local hubs started to spring up around the nation to take action in their own communities. Though the movement was decentralized and there was no formal national organization leading the way, Never Again Action had a momentum very few new groups have had in the Trump era.
Jewish engagement with social justice in the United States stretches across more than a hundred years, from Samuel Gompers’ founding of the American Federation of Labor in the 1880s, to 23-year-old Ukrainian immigrant Clara Lemlich’s 1909 organization of 20,0000 garment workers, to the Jewish Freedom Riders of the 1960s. The involvement of American Jews with the civil rights movement took place in part because it was happening a generation after the Holocaust, though support for the cause was not unanimous in the community. “There was a feeling of, ‘Why is it that no one stood up for us? How can we allow this to happen in our own country and criticize people for not fighting against discrimination and fascism in another country?’” explains Judith Rosenbaum, PhD, executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive. In the 1960s, “American Jews had more access to power, education, and influence. But they still were close enough to a time where that was not the case. There was an awareness and identification with people who were excluded and othered.”
Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe was at its peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when over two million people fleeing religious persecution entered the United States. Many Jews lived in tightly knit neighborhoods that were explicitly different from other immigrant communities — from speaking Yiddish to having their own holidays and celebrations — and anti-Semitism was widespread in America. Organizations like the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which was established in 1881 and today provides advocacy for refugees and asylum seekers, were meant to help Jewish migrants transition into the United States. The involvement of Jews in immigration activism has often been tied to the community’s experience with being refugees. In recent years, the Jewish community’s perceived pro-migrant stance has become the target of anti-Semites and neo-Nazis who spread a familiar conspiracy theory: Jews are plotting to destroy America by encouraging people of color to migrate en masse. As a result, their activism on behalf of immigrants and refugees has been cited by white supremacists newly emboldened under Trump when committing violence — the number of anti-Semitic incidents has spiked in recent years — and in some cases, it has had deadly results. The gunman who killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018 was obsessed with this conspiracy theory, and so was the shooter who killed a woman when he opened fire at the Chabad of Poway synagogue on the last day of Passover last year.
Never Again’s organizers have not been deterred by fear, instead choosing to honor the community’s tradition of activism in the face of prejudice. As I spoke with them over the course of several weeks, it was clear the concept of “tikkun olam” — repairing the world — weighed heavy on the organizers’ minds. So did their age. Rosenbaum said that younger Jews have always been involved in social movements, and were often the ones taking it to the streets, especially during the civil rights movement, while older Jews focused on pushing for legislative changes. It’s not that different from the way Never Again has pushed for direct confrontation instead of negotiating with lawmakers. “What is exciting about young people,” Rosenbaum said, “is there’s another generation that has a commitment to social justice, and frames it in a Jewish language.”
Never Again organizers say the original idea was to funnel newly energized Jewish protesters into the existing immigrants’ rights groups across the country. (“I had a job with Cosecha, and everyone else had a job,” Adlerstein says. “We had our other lives and didn’t plan to be doing any protesting this summer.”) But immigration advocates told Never Again Action their groups couldn’t handle an influx of new activists, nor did they have the resources to educate those new to the movement. There was also a degree of skepticism and distrust toward the mostly millennial Jews who had been called to action by a single Facebook post.
Recent history has shown that social media-fueled outrage can be short-lived. When images of the Trump administration tearing migrant children from the arms of their parents under its “zero-tolerance” policy in the summer of 2018, protesters took to the streets demanding that President Trump reunify the families. A lot of well-meaning people were shocked that something as horrifying as family separation could happen on American soil under command from its president, but immigrant activists — many of whom had witnessed or experienced the systematic dismantling of their own communities under other administrations — were not. Still, a fraught alliance was born between immigrant activists and non-immigrant allies. But after a month of back-to-back mass actions and with the Trump administration saying it was ending the policy, many newcomers moved on — leaving the longtime immigrant advocates in the dust.
This pro-migrant stance has become the target of anti-Semites and neo-Nazis who spread a familiar conspiracy theory: Jews are plotting to destroy America by encouraging people of color to migrate en masse.
Because of her years-long relationship with Movimiento Cosecha, Adlerstein was acutely aware of how Never Again Action should approach these concerns. After a series of strategic retreats in August, the group decided to formalize its work and continue as an independent, new organization. “It felt very clear that Never Again Action had its own role within the immigrant rights movement in this particular moment,” Adlerstein says. “We felt as a group who had activated thousands of people for the first time on the issue of immigration that it was important to actually invest in the fight for the long haul. In order to do that, we needed to provide people with support, organizing skills, and political education.”
Over the fall, Never Again Action developed a formal structure, operating, partly as a religious nonprofit and partly as a social welfare group. This approach is one used by organizations from the ACLU to the NRA, and allows the group to do both advocacy and lobbying. The group relies on fundraisers and donations to sustain the organization. Today, Never Again Action has 11 full-time staffers — the national “core team” — who are mostly based in the Northeast.
Having a national organization allows activists to offer support to the local chapters in a way that would have been difficult if the movement remained as it was over the summer. The core team collaborates with on-the-ground organizers to develop a strategy for each action, helps push out information to press and social media, and shows up in person the day of an action. The actions’ objectives vary from place to place; oftentimes they engage in direct confrontations, such as literally blocking the entrance to a detention center. In these instances, a “red team” made up of volunteers risks arrest by blocking traffic or building access with sit-downs or by forming human chains. They receive civil disobedience training beforehand, coordinated by Never Again, and the group has a bail fund to get people out of jail if arrests do take place. Besides the obvious goal of shutting down ICE centers, the actions have other benefits: More media attention means more people joining the movement or supporting it financially. On other occasions, the actions are smaller in scale, such as showing up to support an immigrant during their check-in with ICE or organizing a small protest across the street from the house of individuals who collaborate with the agency.
The organization says its ultimate goal is to wholly dismantle the existing immigration enforcement system. First, however, its chapters are trying to make the group inescapable. A press release boasted in December: “ICE is everywhere. So is Never Again Action.”
The rain was pouring down as 200 protesters solemnly marched toward the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, Rhode Island, on the unseasonably warm evening of December 10. The silence was only occasionally broken with song: “We’ve got ancestors at our backs. We’ve got generations forward. We’ve got land and spirit in our bones. Never again. Para nadie.”
The Wyatt, as this detention center is commonly known, is an example of institutions Never Again wants to dismantle. Back in 1995, it became the first privately run prison in the nation. After the death of immigrant detainee Hiu Lui “Jason” Ng in 2008, the ACLU sued Wyatt for “cruel, inhumane, malicious and sadistic behavior” and ICE also ended its contracts with the detention center. The agency resumed them in March 2019 and the Wyatt quickly became the subject of frequent protests by groups from Central Falls, which is low-income and majority Latinx. Protesters from several local immigrants’ rights groups, including Never Again Action, have led sit-downs in front of the prison and blocked the facility’s entrances, leading to the arrest of dozens over the last few months. Never Again activists have returned to the Wyatt a handful of times since the summer; in August, a truck driven by a corrections officer accelerated into the crowd, though no protestors were seriously injured.
Never Again has also set its sights higher than just detention centers — it wants to take down the very systems that fund it. In an effort coordinated with the Wyatt protest on that same day in December, thousands of miles away in Kansas City, Missouri, seven Never Again members were arrested outside of UMB Bank, which had sued the city of Central Falls on behalf of the Wyatt’s bondholders to keep the prison’s contract with ICE in place. “The most recognized segment of the immigration crisis is family separation and the camps, but we know factually the problem is much, much larger than that,” said Stephen Lurie, the group’s actions and strategy specialist. The decision to protest the bank and the detention center at the same time was designed to show that there’s a whole private sector that’s implicated in helping the U.S. immigration enforcement apparatus function.
On January 23, Never Again Action protesters joined forces with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Make the Road New York, and New Sanctuary Coalition with another target in mind: Amazon. The multinational technology company has been in activists’ crosshairs because the ICE databases that facilitate the tracking down of undocumented immigrants are hosted by Amazon Web Services. The protest rested on the same idea as the one at the UMB Bank: Immigration enforcement would fall apart without its enablers.
Partnering with local and national immigration groups remains a big part of Never Again Action’s institutional DNA. The organization is aware it has blind spots and is worried it could cause more harm than good if it didn’t center those most affected by Trump’s policies. “The challenge has been orienting other white Jews to actually listen to those who have been doing the work long before them,” Lurie said. Never Again members who are U.S. citizens also have a lot less to lose than immigrants doing the same type of activism, which is why they are more willing to take direct action and put their bodies on the line, risking arrest or other forms of targeting by law enforcement.
The morning of the Amazon protest, Never Again Action showed up to support New Sanctuary Coalitions’s executive director Ravi Ragbir at a rally before he walked through the doors of ICE’s offices in downtown Manhattan for his regular check-in with the agency. (Non-detained immigrants like Ragbir whose cases are still being fought in court go through this process as regularly as every six months.) The danger of being deported for just showing up to these appointments has increased under the Trump administration, which has made a point of apprehending people who had previously been considered “low priority” for enforcement. Ragbir’s allies showed up to make sure that didn’t happen. Never Again Action took a behind-the-scenes approach, mobilizing their members and helping with security for the event. The entire coalition blended together in a “Jericho Walk” while Ragbir went through his meeting with ICE, circling the agency’s offices seven times as they prayed, like Joshua did in the Battle of Jericho.
Never Again members who are U.S. citizens have a lot less to lose than immigrants doing the same type of activism, which is why they are more willing to take direct action and put their bodies on the line.
Before her Facebook call to action, Adlerstein’s involvement in the immigrant rights movement stemmed from moral conviction. Organizing with Never Again has allowed her to see her own Jewish heritage in a new way. “It feels really powerful to show up as Jewish in this work,” she explained. Hallie Berkson-Gold, 28, handles “absorption” for Never Again (making sure that online support transforms into people showing up to protests in real life). She didn’t really pay attention to the immigrants’ rights movement before Trump became president, she said. “I honestly feel embarrassed,” she said. “This wasn’t something that impacted me directly, so I had the privilege of not having to pay attention.” But seeing the current immigration crisis unfold sparked something in her. “I think about my own family’s story and them coming here,” she said. “As more news came out about the conditions in camps across the country, it compelled me to act.”
For the January action against Amazon, a few dozen activists bundled up in winter clothes chanted as they walked through the heart of midtown Manhattan. “Amazon, you know it’s true! The crimes of ICE depend on you!” Tourists gawked and recorded the marchers with their phones, while NYPD officers supervised the protesters by walking alongside them. The group eventually stormed the Amazon Books store on 34th Street, as curious customers and annoyed staffers looked on. The store is on the ground floor of 7 West 34th Street, where Amazon has leased nearly 470,000 square feet of offices across from the Empire State Building. Between chants and speeches demanding executives come down and meet with them, the group read the names of immigrants who’ve died in ICE custody and said Kaddish for them. “What if IBM had refused to work with the Nazis?” they asked. A few activists decked in Never Again Action swag gave flyers to customers outlining why they were protesting Amazon specifically. The short action was finished after an hour without any arrests. As the group walked away, singing in Hebrew and English about building this world with love, they left with a promise: “We will be back.”
“We understand where this can go; we’ve seen this before,” said Rhode Island’s Regunberg. “It’s very easy to say the words ‘never again,’ but those words are a promise. To keep that promise requires action — and requires doing what I wish my grandpa’s neighbors had done in 1934, which is to stand up and to throw sand in the gears of this machine however we can.”