With the term refugee having become a pejorative in many quarters, this is an appropriate time to reflect upon the plight of our own people during the countless years when we faced situations that compelled us to leave our homes but had nowhere to go.
When we took matters into our own hands and crossed borders, whether legally or illegally, sometimes it was a matter of survival, but just as often it was a determination to better our lot in life.
Our journey to America was no different.
Many of us who are blessed to have arrived on these shores ourselves, or fortunate enough to have had ancestors who did so earlier, too often don’t feel empathy for those trying to travel that road today.
For me, this issue became doubly personal in October 2015. After a program of the Chicago Humanities Festival, I introduced myself to speaker and author Jose Angel N., who had just read from his book, “Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant.” The memoir movingly describes Jose’s surreptitious entry into the United States from Mexico at 18, and the incredible journey that followed.
Jose came here with a sixth grade education to have a chance at a better life, to get an education. His home had two books, one of which was a world atlas that led to his curiosity about life beyond Guadalajara, a place that he had never left, and the other a Bible that was kept under glass.
Twenty years later Jose has earned a G.E.D., B.A. and M.A., and is about to complete the course requirements for a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois. Married to an American-born woman who is also working on a Ph.D. at the same university, and with a beautiful 5-year-old daughter, they could well be the “poster” family for the image of the United States of America in the 21st century. But, Jose is still illegal. No, being married to an American doesn’t change his status.
Other than entering the United States without proper papers, Jose has broken no laws. He and his wife pay taxes. They contribute to our economy. Yet Jose lives under the constant fear of deportation. Far from being viewed as a precious resource for America, Jose and others like him are portrayed as a threat.
Since meeting Jose a year and a half ago, we have gotten together several times. My wife and I have met his wife and daughter.
Jose and I have stayed in touch as the conditions that he faces have gone from bad to worse. But Jose has not been silenced. Far from it.
In addition to continuing his writing, he’s made presentations at a growing number of universities, most recently California State, East Bay, where his book was chosen as a “Freshman Common Read.” But unlike the pride we would feel about such accomplishments for ourselves and our loved ones, Jose is left to feel hunted.
In Parshat Kedoshim, we are told, “You shall love your fellow as yourself — I am Hashem.” This is not presented to us as a choice.
In shul recently in Chicago, someone expressed exasperation to me about Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s strong support for the city’s status as a “sanctuary” for undocumented immigrants who are abiding by the law and working hard to improve their lot in life.
Thinking that I might convince my interlocutor otherwise, I told him about my friend Jose and my sympathy for his plight and that of others like him.
I shared the fact that my own father lived a life of what was then called an illegal alien, in Chicago from 1925 to 1935. Had he not taken matters into his own hands and left Hungary because he wanted a chance of a better life free of constant threat of anti-Semitism, he would have ended up 19 years later at Auschwitz with the rest of his family.
The man responded by saying that two wrongs don’t make a right. I told him that I thought that sometimes two wrongs do make a right. What he said next will probably stick with me forever. He told me that he was the son of Holocaust survivors and he still thought that two wrongs don’t make a right.
I have committed myself to helping Jose in any way I can. I hope to use some of my connections to find him additional speaking engagements. But as Jose has said to me on every occasion that we get together for coffee or a meal or speak on the phone, the fact that someone else cares always leaves him feeling better.
Isn’t that what we would wish for ourselves if we were in his position? Isn’t that what our tradition tells us we should do?
Howard M. Rieger served as president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America from 2004 to 2009.