A “removal” used to mean moving a dead body from a home or hospital to a funeral home in preparation for burial or cremation. In President Trump’s America, however, the term has come to refer to deportation from the United States. Still, when I think of “expedited removals,” the image that comes to mind is one of a black hearse screeching up to the curb and guys in dark suits with bad haircuts running up to the front door with a gurney. Somehow, boarding passes for Guatemala and El Salvador never quite make it into that picture. Nor do handcuffs, heavily-armed guards and midnight knocks on the door by la migra.
Perhaps substitution of the word “removal” for “deportation” is appropriate, as President Trump appears to be treating undocumented immigrants as dead tissue that must be excised to save the American body. Like Kevin O’Leary on TV’s Shark Tank, it’s as if our president is telling our immigrants “you’re dead to me.” He somehow wishes to purify us by eliminating from our midst those who risked their lives in a bid to escape to the land of the free. And I venture to say that I’m not the only one who finds recent events disrespectful to those who didn’t survive the journey, who never made it to freedom.
The Bible speaks of the “uncleanness of death” (tu’med met in the Hebrew) that comes upon those who touch a corpse until such time as they sprinkle the water of purification upon themselves. Num. 19:13. Does our president really believe that ridding ourselves of those who arrived here in desperation, “yearning to breathe free,” in the words of Emma Lazarus immortalized at the base of the Statue of Liberty, will serve as some sort of purification? Is this particular brand of xenophobia some sort of Marseillaise under which we are fighting against an impure blood polluting our furrows? The whole concept leaves me rather aghast. I only hope that our president has a relationship with God and that he is reminded of the injunction of Leviticus 19:34, “But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (KJV) Indeed, we were all immigrants once.
The immigration follies have been going on in one form or another for well over a century. My grandfather, who arrived on our shores in 1923, held a passport from a nation in which he was not born, in which he never resided, and which, in fact, did not even exist. This legal fiction allowed him to satisfy the quota for that year and that, apparently, was enough to get him through Ellis Island, where his sponsor picked him up. Then, as now, laying it all on the line for a new life involved dancing into a gray area between what was legal and was humanly right.
Grandpa was a Polish Jew, which, in those days, essentially rendered him a stateless person. Poland did not recognize the citizenship of Jews, although that did not stop its government from drafting Grandpa into its army. And so, the “nationality” field on his passport reads “Israeli.” My mother still has it, packed away in a box in the back of a closet. The fact that the modern nation of Israel did not come into existence for another quarter of a century did not seem to bother anyone at the time.
My grandfather, a tailor by trade, became a furrier in Manhattan’s garment district and began a long life as a resident of New York City. When I was little, he lived three floors below us in our rent-controlled Bronx walk-up, and later, after my grandmother died, about a block away with his new wife. He learned English, studied for the citizenship test, and became a naturalized American long before I was born.
Many years later, in his old age, he finally visited Israel, where he prayed at the Wailing Wall and relaxed on the beach at Netanya. Having died in the year that Reagan took office, I have to wonder what he would think of the shenanigans of late. I have no idea how Grandpa felt about Reagan, but I am hard pressed to imagine him voting for a Republican. On a windy day this past May, during my first visit to New York in more than 20 years, I visited his gravesite in Queens. I took photos for my mother, who wanted reassurance that her parents’ graves were being cared for. I recalled childhood days of utter boredom, at this very spot, waiting endlessly for my mother to finish her visit, knowing nothing of her grief that years failed to erase.
My mother grew up in a one-bedroom apartment where she had the pleasure of sharing a pull-out bed in the living room with her older sister. The girls were expected to speak English at home, and English was the only language that my grandparents used with their kids. When it came to conversations with each other, however, my grandparents lapsed into a medley of eastern European languages. Mom recalls how, through the bedroom door at night, she and her sister could hear the murmured cadences of Russian, Yiddish, Polish, German. And she remembers how, even in their English conversations, they often spoke of something mysterious called “the HIAS” (pronounced “high ass”).
The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society provided food, clothing and shelter to Jews newly arrived on our shores after having escaped Russian pogroms and, later, genocide at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust. They had a dormitory on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and a setup on Ellis Island, where they often lent indigent immigrants the $25 landing fee. In looking up the history of the HIAS online, I was shocked to learn that they’re still in existence, fighting against the anti-immigration policies of our current administration.
It’s reassuring to know that there are still organizations out there speaking for those who have essentially been rendered voiceless and left for dead. As for my grandpa, if he were alive today, I believe he’d be donating his time and money to support the HIAS and others who work to make an American life possible for those who find themselves in the same difficulties that he once faced.