Friday, June 5, 2020 -
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Give me your tired, your poor…

There was a song I used to sing a lot when I was little. Its melody was very beautiful, truly stirring, “shalach teshalach et ha-em, ha-banim tikach lach, lema’an yitav lach, lema’an yitav lach, ve-ha’arachta yamim.” The text is from Deuteronomy: Send away a mother bird before you remove her little chicks from the nest.

As incomprehensible as this seemingly cruel mitzvah is, it does acknowledge that, even in the animal world a mother bird should not have to bear the profound pain of witnessing her little birdies being ripped away from her.

This past week, with all the discussion about the difficult issue of immigrants and refugees from Central America, that song has been playing in my head. You don’t expose a bird to the pain of children being taken from her — let alone humans. It’s not just wrong. It’s cruel.

And that word that keeps swirling: refugee. It is practically branded in our Jewish DNA. Immigrant: It is burned into our Jewish experience.

I don’t really understand why people so desperate that they risked everything in this world — trekking with their families across lands so dangerous they could be hurt or killed at any moment — are considered criminals. Even if they enter America through an illegal port, given that they have no likely chance at a legal one, their act is still in the spirit of seeking political asylum. Whatever the ultimate ruling on their entry, we must show compassion for people who have been dealt such a terrible hand in life.

I don’t see it as a typical crime. Yes, it’s illegal, and security and economic considerations are important. But what are these people in such desperate circumstances supposed to do? Many of them are simply trying to save themselves from a terrible life. Is there no way to sift them to spot the actual criminals who pose a threat to American society, and divide them from those whose sole criminal act is entering illegally?

The truth is, I am not competent to understand the very complex immigration system. So, with respect, I leave that to the experts.

But it takes simply being human to blanch in horror at a cruel policy of breaking up families, separating parents from their children. I can’t sleep at night, thinking of those children crying for their parents. And the parents’ pain as well. I hear phantom raw animal sounds of primal pain — the searing audio of little voices, unstoppable raw crying of “Mami” and “Papi,” followed by their being ripped from their parents. It’s these broken brutal cries that I hear.

I don’t know what the answer is, and perhaps the hardest thing to come to terms with in this very difficult immigration saga is that there may be no completely good outcome. People will be hurt. But if the conclusion of a process for a particular family turns out to be deportation, then at least deport a family together. As a family’s last hope for a better life has just been ripped from under them, as it is sent back into the “jungle” needing to cope with dangers and threats, let it at least go as a family unit.

No matter how genuinely complex the issue is, cruelty should never be legislated. Protection of the physical and emotional well being of children is a cornerstone of any moral and humane society. Without that, there’s nothing. True enough, after reading up on some of these holding centers, they’re not as bad as the sound bites make them out to be, and there is an argument for limiting a facility to children to ensure their protection from predators or abusers. Some of the adults arriving with children who present as parents could be child traffickers, or just cynically using their children as bargaining chips to paint a more vulnerable picture of their situation.

These situations are exceptions. To rupture families as a matter of policy is not something you compromise on. You keep families together rather than separate them due to remote possibilities.

It doesn’t matter how this law came about or who is responsible for it. It’s here now. On our watch. It’s our responsibility to put a stop to it. It doesn’t matter whether the parents entered the US illegally. We must still find a way to keep these families united.

The pain of separating children from their parents runs so deep that the psychological damage can be devastating.

To give just one example, in September, 1948 a 32-year-old Chinese woman hanged herself from a shower pipe in a detention quarter. She had been detained for months and separated from her child.

While the Jewish experience in being displaced as a consequence of genocide, exile or expulsion is clearly different from the current situation, this doesn’t mitigate our ethical and moral obligation to help these people, even if only temporarily, whether they are economic migrants or fleeing for their lives.

What I also fail to understand, how does the separation of families serve as a deterrent? This is the rationale offered, but if families are desperate enough to choose to expose their children to such a dangerous journey in hopes of entering America, this policy is not going to stop them.

Also, philosophically, the idea of so calculatingly instituting deterrents, why? We are talking about plain good folk, not people with a criminal history, (obviously, criminals ought to be rejected), so shouldn’t we try to differentiate between the two rather than institute an undifferentiated deterrent? I’m talking about ordinary people trying to escape a terrible fate, who made the call to try to enter America, yes, even illegally, after all other avenues were exhausted. Aren’t there better ways to discourage illegal entrance, yet still find a compassionate way to deal with the illegal entrance of non-criminals?

While it’s not a legal document, the spirit and anthem of America’s immigration policy is compressed into Emma Lazarus famous sonnet, “The New Colossus,” engraved on Lady Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Let that be the song that rises above all.

Copyright © 2018 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

One thought on “Give me your tired, your poor…

  1. Yaakov Watkins

    Ms Goldberg asks, seemingly rhetorically, aren’t there better ways to deal with immigration. The answer is “no”. Spain Italy, Turkey, Greece, the UK, and Canada have the problem and don’t have a humane answer.

    Some problems don’t have acceptable answers.

    One thing that doesn’t help is self righteous people passing judgement on people doing the be best they can.


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