Has America Lost Its Soul?

Rabbi Chaim Landau

The pictures from south of the border are gut-wrenching and heart-stopping. Women and children gassed, whole communities bunched together in slum-like conditions and people so desperate that all they have to lose is their own lives.

Just 300 years ago, America became a land that welcomed all immigrants, and today, masses of desperate individuals seeking a brighter future — like those who came before them — find themselves characterized as the worst kind of vermin. Yet 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 shelter in what they may believe is the most powerful, sympathetic and embracing in the world.

We are talking about a community of refugees who hail from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. In order to get to the American border, they had to also journey through Mexico, which means that some thousands of miles later, they find themselves trapped as hopes for a safe escape from their home countries fade.

They find themselves there as a result of their own failing governments, which have been unable and unwilling to protect their own citizens from gang violence, thus leading people to flee to a land that gives them hope for safety and success. These are desperate people attempting to escape starvation, extreme poverty and political persecution and want normal lives for their children.

And the irony of all of this is that when you look at the full picture, the common factor of all these people’s woes is U.S. intervention in their home countries. Deliberate intervention by this country resulted in civil wars that left these regions politically unstable. This was followed by natural disasters like Hurricane Mitch, which killed at least 7,000 people in Honduras alone. Then there was a coup d’etat in Honduras, during which hundreds of women were murdered in El Salvador and Honduras. Most recently, Honduran President Hernandez Alvarado won an election on allegedly fraudulent grounds, which led to a large number of individuals being killed by security forces.

This is a sorry tale of human misery and dysfunctional government policies both here and abroad. Have we already forgotten the millions of refugees taken in with open arms during the Syrian civil war when Europe admitted nearly half of the population seeking to escape? Down south, we are talking about refugees whose only desire is to live in safety in the most free and democratic country in the world. Of course, social resources may be strained and challenged to deal with these people, but wouldn’t it be great to see how this community would respond to a life of economic prosperity?

Let’s be clear. The majority of these people are law-abiding and will contribute to American society and its economy. Those who threw rocks at the security forces did so out of total human desperation. Maybe, instead, we should hold as a model that photo of a young girl in the caravan, smiling and waving the American flag against a backdrop of makeshift tents. Is this who America is afraid of?

Many of these people are exactly the sort we want in this country: bold risk-takers who will walk thousands off miles and crawl under barbed wire to get a taste of what so many native-born Americans take for granted. The matter is complicated, so let’s uncomplicate it and understand the circumstances that call for sympathy and an American welcome that can’t be found elsewhere.

Rabbi Chaim Landau is rabbi emeritus at Ner Tamid Congregation.

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