America’s Shameful Treatment of Immigrants Contradicts Jewish Law
The pictures on the US-Mexico border have been gut-wrenching and heartbreaking: women and children gassed, whole communities bunched together in conditions resembling a disorderly slum, and even children dying in custody.
Over 200 years ago, America became a land that welcomed immigrant peoples to its shores. But today, masses of desperate individuals seeking a brighter future find themselves criminalized, unwanted, and characterized as the worst kind of vermin to ever come to America.
What has been forgotten is the human element of this tragedy, which has forced thousands to walk more than 2,500 miles to seek refuge and a better, safer life for their families.
These people are not just Mexicans; they also hail from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and elsewhere. In order to get to the American border, they have had to journey through Mexico and now — thousands of miles later — find themselves trapped with nowhere to go.
Some of these people find themselves there as a result of their failing governments, who have been unable and unwilling to protect them from criminal gangs that murder, rape, and kill. Some — perhaps many — of these people are truly desperate and destitute.
True, much of this is a result of dysfunctional government policies in their home countries — but some of it also rests on us. We have not done enough to protect civilians during the Syrian civil war, yet refuse to help those victimized by it. We have also, on some occasions, helped create some of the poor and dangerous conditions in Mexico and South America — but now wash our hands of it.
Lets’ be clear: The majority of these people are law-abiding individuals who want to better themselves and contribute to America. While there are certainly criminals among them, some of those who threw rocks at security forces may have done so out of total human desperation or as a result of patience exploded by the absolute derision and disgust at their situation. It’s not an excuse, but it’s a reminder that we cannot paint all people with one broad stroke.
As Jews, we should know better than anyone that immigration can save lives — and also how immigrants can contribute to a country. Even before World War II and the Holocaust, many Americans treated Jewish immigrants just as Mexican and South American immigrants are being treated today. As a result, we have a special obligation to truly consider these new immigrants’ plight — and to speak out when they are treated wrongly or are suffering from racist behavior and characterization.
Just because some Jews may no longer feel like the “other” in America does not mean they can escape this obligation.
Seeking a better life or asking to be considered a refugee isn’t a crime. The Biblical command is clear and unambiguous: You shall not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus, 22:19).
The historical reality is that the stranger, the oppressed, the impoverished, the orphan, and the widow are the most vulnerable of society’s outcasts. Having experienced what it is like to be an unwanted citizen and an outcast, Jews have an obligation to stand up for these people. Many of them are are exactly the sort of people that we want in this country: bold risk takers who will walk thousands of miles and crawl under barbed wire to get a taste of what so many native-born Americans take for granted.
The matter is complicated, but let’s have this debate in a way that exemplifies the American and Jewish kindness that is rarely found elsewhere.
Rabbi Chaim Landau was born in the United Kingdom and is a graduate of Guildford College of Law, Jews College in London, and Yeshivat Hamivtar, Jerusalem, where he obtained Smichah. He is Rabbi Emeritus at Ner Tamid Congregation in Baltimore MD where he served for 25 years.