Judaism and Immigration: Where Do You Stand?

I have a confession to make. I don’t like talking about immigration to other people. Maybe its because politics is just one of those subjects that can either make you relate to someone, or shatter a relationship, or maybe it’s because it makes me vulnerable to criticism or unwanted feedback about my own story.

December 2 marked seventeen years since I immigrated to the United States. Now, I am woefully aware of my privilege in that I had the financial help and moral support from my family, since the immigration process is incredibly expensive. There was no running from danger, no imminent threat, no fear for my life. Just a teenager who was looking forward to a new educational and social experience. I was received with (fairly) open arms; joined clubs in college, joined a sorority, had great friends, the usual college experience. Not once was I asked how I came to the United States, where my papers were. Back then, when it was time to renew my Visa, I was able to mail my passport to Chile for my parents to renew it and then send it back to me. Life as an immigrant was infinitely easier than it is today, or at least it was in my eyes. It wasn’t until much later in life that it started dawning on me the reason why it was so easy. “I would have never guessed you were from Chile!”, “you have no accent!”, and my all-time favorite “You don’t look Hispanic!”. Now, I know that the people who made these comments meant no harm, so I don’t hold any of it against them. But, if you repeat those lines in your head, you’ll start seeing it too: I don’t look or sound the way an immigrant is supposed to look or sound. No wonder it was so easy.
And while I was incredibly lucky to have both the financial and emotional support of my family, that is not the case for many people across the globe. The United States has accounted for these situations by enacting 8 U.S. Code § 1158which defined Asylum as someone who is being persecuted in their country of origin due to at least one of the following: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. For those of us, especially those who come from Holocaust survivors, this code appears simple and common sense; no one should have to leave in fear because of who they are or what they believe in. Unfortunately, there are many places in the world today that don’t feel the same way, where people have no choice than to take whatever they can carry, and leave everything else behind hoping to find safety, since their home can no longer provide that for them. In November 2019, 1,488 individuals were granted asylum as per the Refugee Processing Center, and while that number may appear “small”, that is just the number that reported cases finalized in that month; it does not count the amount of cases currently awaiting review, individuals currently in detention centers, and people who (because of fear) have not reported their presence in US soil. If we try to imagine what the total amount of people that fall under any of these categories is, we can assume that it’s a significant number of people who may have been sitting at dinner, maybe with their young children, while the news played in the background, listening to the sounds of anti-immigration rhetoric; people who have been walking down the street and may have been approached because of the way they may look and may have been subjected to some form of harassment. 
Immigration goes all the way back from biblical times. In Leviticus 19:34, God tells us that “the stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. Man, Egypt… we were slaves, we were wronged, and yet, God told us to remember that time so we can use it as a lesson and spread kindness; return the favor that wasn’t given to us. No one gave us a land to go to once He freed us, we had to go and find one, settle, and start from the very beginning. What would have happened if someone had said “sorry, you can’t just come here and expect to build a life, you need to go back to Egypt, how they treated you is not our problem!”. Now, take that one step further. The trip from Egypt to Canaan took years, whole generations died before they finally made it there! Would we still ask those new generations, who have known nothing but Canaan, to go back to Egypt? And what if we look at a more “contemporary” example. After World War II, and after years of physical and emotional persecution and abuse, Jews fled to all corners of the world, hoping to find a country that would take them in so they could rebuild their lives. Had it not been for those countries, many of us would not be here today.

Nowadays, life in Latin America is getting increasingly difficult. If you watch the news, you have heard about the supply shortages and corruption in Venezuela, the social inequality marches and subway burnings in Chile, the political corruption in Bolivia (and every other Latin American country, to be honest), violence in El Salvador, etc. Life in Latin America isn’t just good food and music to dance to; it’s an everyday challenge that is plagued by fear. Every time we hear about large caravans of immigrants finding their way to this country, we need to at least try to look past the “why are they dragging their children when they know it’s illegal”, and flip it to “they are trying to save their children and themselves from imminent danger”. After all, isn’t what Moses did for us when he saved us from Egypt? When our children are in danger, do we let them stay in the dangerous situation, or do we do whatever it takes to remove them from that situation? I know that in my case, If my kids and I are in a house fire, I wouldn’t hesitate to take them out of there into the safest place I can find.

As our country continues its debate on immigration and asylum laws, I ask you this: How may we, as Jews who have been in this position before, can stand by all we have learned from our history and Jewish values, and stand in solidarity with the stranger in our midst, as others did for us in our times of need?

Usually at this point in the blog, I leave you with some form of reflection and wish. However, this particular subject requires some introspection of our values, and sometimes, some thought reframing. I recognize that these things are not comfortable, as they can sometimes lead to discovering things about ourselves that we may not like (which will be a topic for a future blog post!). I encourage you to take all of this and spend some time thinking about your own approach to immigration, and how this approach truly relates to your moral values, and I hope it gives you some new or clearer perspective as we approach the New Year.


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