By Barbara Levy Gradet, LCSW
Immigration is a political hot potato right now – a controversial issue that has people debating from Texas to the White House and now right here in Maryland. Last week I was asked to represent the Baltimore Jewish Council at the Governor’s meeting in Annapolis on unaccompanied minors who have fled Central America. Governor O’Malley brought together about 50 religious leaders and heads of faith-based organizations to discuss the plight of the thousands of these unaccompanied children who are coming over the border and what Maryland can do to help these children. It quickly became clear that this is not an issue about immigration. These children are not immigrants. They are refugees seeking safety.
The Governor and his key staff shared information about the horrific danger that these children are experiencing in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. These children are terrorized by members of drug cartels, threatened with bodily harm to themselves and their families, and are witnessing unspeakable acts of violence. Can we even imagine how dangerous the situation is if a mother or father feels the best way to protect their children is to send them on such a perilous journey, often by themselves, to escape the horror and risk of death happening all around them?
The federal government has suggested housing these children in old Army barracks and other large facilities. Governor O’Malley thinks differently. He believes strongly that these children need foster families to provide care and a loving environment while they await the refugee hearings to which they are entitled. The Governor is passionate about ensuring that these children are not further traumaztized. All of us, fortunate enough to be part of this gathering, agreed that we must respond to this humanitarian crisis with care, compassion, and resources.
Everyone in Maryland should care. Everyone in the United States should care. Texas might share the border, but we all share the responsibility of looking out for these kids. How can you not have compassion for a child who has endured more tragedy and suffering than most see in a lifetime? I agree with the Governor that we should not warehouse these children, we should be figuring out ways to care for them.
History should serve as a reminder to our Jewish Community and to other communities. Prior to 1924, the United States was pretty much open to those from other countries seeking a better life. But The Immigration Act of 1924, or Johnson–Reed Act, restricted the entry of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. This severely impacted many Jews fleeing Nazi persecution and extermination. Many of you remember the S.S. St. Louis, packed with Jews seeking refuge from Europe in the late 1930’s. It was turned away at Cuba, then turned away from the US and returned to Europe where many on board faced death at the hands of the Nazis.
I’m here today because my great grandmother, when she was just 13, was saved from the pogroms by being smuggled out of her country in the false bottom of a hay cart. Although she risked her life to get here, once she made it, she was allowed to stay and thrive in America. So many members of our Jewish Community have similar stories to tell.
The debate over immigration is not going away anytime soon. But the debate over what to do for the children who are already here, shouldn’t be a debate at all. This is not a political issue, it is a humanitarian one. As Jews, let us do what we have done time and time again…let us care about all who suffer and remember that we were once strangers in a strange land.
By Barbara Levy Gradet, LCSW, Executive Director, Jewish Community Services
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