Jewish Solutions at the Mexican Border?
When the US Department of Homeland Security began separating children from their parents who entered the US illegally seeking asylum, American Jewish organizations spoke up.
Now, an advanced contingent of a caravan of Central American asylum seekers are encamped in Tijuana. In Guatemala’s mountain villages, desperate refugees are fleeing to the US with children who are not always their blood relations. Border smugglers for reasons of their own charge less — not more — to smuggle in adults accompanied by children claiming to be part of a “family unit.”
Jewish history provides guidance for what might be done.
Jews have been part of Southwestern border history since soon after Cortez’s conquest of the Aztec Empire, when Spanish Jews who had sought safety in Mexico fled further north to New Mexico to escape the Inquisition’s reach in the new world.
Later, Jews began to arrive from Central and Eastern Europe. Sam Ravel’s family arrived from Lithuania. Ravel and his brother Louis cultivated a diverse clientele on both sides of the border.
The Ravels owned the Commercial Hotel and the Ravel Brothers Mercantile where Sam and his brother Louis lived in the rear with teenage brother Arthur.
This is where Jewish lore intersects with today’s cross-border drama.
Visiting nearly 6,000 US troops rushed by President Trump to Texas’ border with Mexico, Defense Secretary General “Mad Dog” Mattis explained to them that they were there to “lay wire” to prevent “illegals from trying to enter illegally.”
The Central American migrant asylum seekers being bused to Tijuana are not heavily armed — or armed at all — unlike Pancho Villa’s soldiers who raided Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916. Villa’s real invasion precipitated the punitive mission by 10,000 troops under the command of General “Black Jack” Pershing into Northern Mexico.
Was an Mexican-Jewish arms deal gone awry the cause of the bloody Villa’s raid?
Sam Ravel may have been the mysterious “Anglo-Saxon” whom Villa accused of “hoodwinking” his men in a crossborder arms deal. The Ravels admitted to selling arms to Mexican rebels — Sam had been arrested in Mexico in 1914 — but always denied defrauding with the Mexican rebel chief.
When the Villistas raided Columbus, teenage Arthur Ravel was dragged him from home to the Ravels’ Commercial Hotel. Fortunately, the Villistas believed terrified Arthur when he stated he did not know the combination to the business’ safe. Sam was saved because he was away on a trip to see his dentist in El Paso.
Young Arthur Ravel eventually escaped the Villistas and ran, in his underwear, through the cold night into the desert.
If anything, Villa had a closer relationship with the Jewish community of El Paso, Texas. A Jewish American, Sam Dreben, actually fought in his ranks until 1913. After World War I, thousands of Russian Jews arrived in Mexico, but were denied entry to Texas under the US’ new immigration law. Berlin-born Rabbi Martin Zielonka was active in El Paso where over half the Jewish merchants spoke Spanish, and Jewish soldiers served at Fort Bliss. Rabbi Zielonka worked to convince the Jewish immigrants to remain in Mexico. When dozens of Jewish immigrants were arrested by the border patrol, he intervened to get them deported to Mexico rather than Russia.
During the 1920s, Rabbi Zielonka became “a one-man immigration bureau.” He tried to organize the Jewish community in Mexico to care for Jewish immigrants. Having helping found the Jewish Relief Society in Mexico City in 1908, Zielonka hoped that Mexico City’s growing Jewish community could take in these immigrants. He wanted them to settle in the Mexican interior not to enter the US illegally and inflame American nativists.
Despite Rabbi Zielonka’s efforts, “Jewish illegals” who settled in El Paso strained the community’s resources, though many left the city during the 1930s.
Today, might not American Jewish institutions — long the leader in resettlement of asylum seekers of all religions and races — act to ease the new crisis at the US-Mexico border, and urge the US government to take a more constructive approach than barbed wire and tear gas or bullets?
While denying entry to Syrian “illegals” trying to enter from the Golan, the Israeli government is now providing cross-border humanitarian aid. Might not we also learn from Israel.
There are reports of a possible deal by the Trump administration with the incoming administration of Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to implement a “Remain in Mexico” plan requiring asylum seekers to stay south of the American border while their asylum claims are adjudicated in US courts. The plan could be part of comprehensive package to encourage assimilation in Mexico and economic stability in Central America — and an end to the troubling pictures from the San Diego-Tijuana border region.
Rabbi Zielonka would commend this compromise “Jewish approach.”
A long-time consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Dr. Brackman is an expert on the history of African American-Jewish relations who has also written on the San Diego-Tijuana border region.