From the Autumn, 2014 issue ofJewish CurrentsTHEY COME ACROSS THOUSANDS OF MILES, across multiple borders, across the ranches of La Arrocera, across La Bestia — clinging to the top as it hurtles along the rails — across jungles and valleys and mountains and desert and then that one final river. They come to find a refuge from brutal violence, they come to find work, they come to find their families. And they keep coming. More than 60,000 children, the majority of them from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, have crossed the U.S. border without accompanying adults since October of last year. Another 39,000 adults with children have also arrived during that time. The number is not insignificant, yet it represents a mere three thousandths of the U.S. population. Those on the right predictably declare this a crisis; President Obama has pronounced it a national emergency.
Even a compassionate person might be tempted to ask: Why should we take responsibility for the orphans of distant catastrophes? Why is this our problem? We don’t have to look deep into history for an answer.
IN EL SALVADOR, TWO INFAMOUS GANGS, Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, have turned the entire country into a turf-war battlefield. Even after they agreed to a 2013 truce, the following year still saw a rate of nearly seven murders every day, which recently spiked back up to fourteen killings daily. Describing these groups as “gangs” doesn’t do them justice: They’re small armies, with tens of thousands of members spread across several countries, and with arsenals of weaponry. And they were founded in Los Angeles. It wasn’t until the late 1990s, when federal officials began deporting thousands of gang members, that they took root in the soil of El Salvador.
Guatemala, too, has been wracked by violence among drug trafficking gangs — and between the gangs and law enforcement, armed and prodded by the U.S. in our vain and ruinous War on Drugs. The country is “reaping the legacy of chronic lawlessness which left state institutions weak and powerless,” Sebastián Elgueta, a researcher on Central America at Amnesty International, told The Guardian. “The current violence has not occurred in a vacuum. Massive human rights violations, war crimes, and genocide have gone unpunished.” Those crimes go back to the 1980s, when the U.S. backed a series of military dictators in their brutal wars against popular movements.
In Honduras, the elected president, Manuel Zelaya, who had been leaning left, was overthrown in a June 2009 coup. As the U.S. vacillated over whether to officially declare Zelaya’s removal from power a coup, a wave of repression hit the country. Dozens of journalists, lawyers, and political activists have been murdered. This didn’t stop the U.S. from allocating over $50 million from 2010 to 2012 to support “security” in Honduras, a key transit point in the drug war.
According to one measure, Honduras’ second largest city, San Pedro Sula, has the highest murder rate of any city in the world — and so far this year, more of its children have fled north than from any other city in Central America. Tegucigalpa, Honduras’ capital, comes in second. More than 3,000 children fled from the two cities alone in the first five months of this year.
The problems these children are fleeing, then, are not the result of distant history or primitive violence, but of events in which our country is directly implicated. This alone is sufficient moral rationale to support their right to asylum, to rejoin their families, to find refuge. But beyond our country’s torturous entanglement in Latin America, our own Jewish history demands no less.
We know how the open-door immigration policies of the U.S. brought some two million of our ancestors here from the poverty and violence of Eastern Europe in only four decades, from 1881 until 1921. We know how Jewish lives were transformed in the goldene medine (the golden land) — and how those lives, in turn, transformed the U.S. for the better.
Then, in 1921, the doors shut, and they stayed shut straight through the Holocaust. We remember the Kindertransports, which conveyed thousands of Jewish children to Great Britain just before the World War II; we remember the SS St. Louis, which was turned away by the U.S., the more than 900 Jewish refugees on board forced to return to Europe. We remember the Struma, with 768 Jewish refugees aboard, which was sunk in Turkish waters after being denied entry to the country. We remember members of our own extended families who didn’t even get that far, whom we never had the chance to know.
AS LIVING AMERICAN JEWS, WE HAVE BEEN FORTUNATE — yet we have some familiarity with the wrenching misfortune of being turned away, of being unable to leave, of being stateless and cast out, of leading a life in exile. To forge our values in our historical experience, and to stand with the “wretched refuse”: This is what it means to be a progressive Jew.
Happily, we aren’t alone. The organized American Jewish community has rallied around the immigration issue, and a recent statement [PDF] by HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) was signed by organizations from the Workmen’s Circle to the Anti-Defamation League to the American Jewish Committee to the Jewish Council on Public Affairs. It reads, in part: “The only long term solution to this crisis is a holistic approach that prioritizes safety and opportunity for children in the countries of the Northern Triangle. Increased border enforcement must be accompanied by more meaningful measures to ensure that all migrants in danger of persecution have access to a meaningful opportunity to seek asylum.”
Congress is predictably paralyzed, with Republicans insisting on more draconian reforms and their right-wing base shouting for rapid deportation. President Obama, it should be said, deported over 1.5 million immigrants during his first term, which the New York Timesnoted was “the most by any president since the 1950s.” Since then the pace has only increased.
At one time or another, Democrats have promised to increase the number of immigration judges, to reunite families, to offer immigrants currently here illegally amnesty, to carve out a path to citizenship. These are all worthy measures.
But we ask our readers to think bigger. We want a world in which no one is illegal. A world without a permanent underclass trapped in low-wage jobs. Citizenship should not be reduced to an accident of birth; if someone contributes to the commonwealth, to the wealth of the community, then they should be entitled to all the rights of a member of that community. We appeal to the cosmopolitanism and solidarity that we consider to be fundamental Jewish values. We welcome the strangers. Throw open the golden door.