Caravan of migrants? More like ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’

As the caravan of thousands from Central America — a modern-day equivalent of “wandering Jews” — slowly treks through Mexico toward the new promised land (aka the United States), I’m wondering how we can observe the commandments from Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy to welcome and not fear the stranger.

If a large group of strangers was approaching their tent, would Abraham and Sarah have put out the “no vacancy” sign? I doubt it.

The migrants in the caravan are trying to follow the law; in fact, according to the Washington Post, they will “probably attempt to surrender to Border Patrol agents,” to plead their case, once they reach the U.S. border. Meanwhile, President Trump is doing his best to whip up fear and loathing by claiming that there are “major criminals and Middle Easterners” among those fleeing the crime and poverty of their homeland. He has ordered U.S. troops to the border to help “manage” the situation.

There probably are a few criminals of various nationalities blending in with the group. It’s happened in the past. Fidel Castro is said to have emptied his prisons to let the worst criminals head for Florida, and criminals were certainly among those who left the former Soviet Union for Israel and the United States.

But we should remember the Emma Lazarus poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty that welcomes the poor, “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” This country should use its economic clout to pressure repressive regimes to become democracies that keep their people safe and economically secure so they don’t have to leave their homelands. Unfortunately, our past backing of dictators has certainly contributed to the current crisis.

We could easily absorb thousands of migrant families, but how much of a welcome are we required to provide?

We should give asylum-seekers photo IDs and social security numbers as soon as they arrive, so they can get legitimate jobs and not rely on welfare. When our government prohibits them from working legally, they are forced to work under the table for cash, most likely for less than minimum wage or union scale (with no benefits).

We could easily absorb thousands of migrant families, but how much of a welcome are we required to provide?

But welcoming goes beyond that.

Should we contribute to groups like HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), Catholic Charities, Jewish Family and Children’s Services and others that provide housing, food, clothing and other financial assistance even though we often walk past homeless and mentally ill people asking us for spare change on the street?

Are we required to offer free health care and subsidized housing to refugees when so many low-income and middle-class families that don’t qualify for assistance are living from paycheck to paycheck and could end up on the street if hit by unexpected financial crisis?

There are long waiting lists for below-market housing, and we don’t have enough shelter beds for our own people. Do we welcome strangers by moving them to the front of the line? I don’t think that was the intention of the commandments. And giving them priority would probably have an opposite effect — eroding popular support for them.

It would be great if billionaires such as George Soros, Marc Benioff, Bill Gates and others would devote some of their fortunes to assist asylum seekers, other immigrants and our own citizens with decent housing and medical care, but don’t bet on that happening.

I believe that we should welcome asylum-seekers with open arms, but I’m not ready to have open borders and abolish ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement).

I also believe that local police and law enforcement officials should not help ICE with random sweeps based on racial profiles, but they should cooperate with the feds on operations targeting citizens and non-citizens engaging in human trafficking, drug smuggling and gang activities that terrorize everyone.

I recently read “The Escape Line” by Megan Koreman. It tells the heroic story of Dutch and French Jews and Christians who risked their lives by making fake documents and smuggling people in peril (French Jews and American pilots shot down behind enemy lines) out of France during World War II.

God bless them. I hope we never have to hide strangers in our own communities to meet our obligation to welcome them.

Like the old joke about two Jews having three opinions, I’m one conflicted Jew holding two opinions. Taking the middle ground pleases no one and offends everyone.

We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

Joel Kamisher
Joel Kamisher

Joel Kamisher is a retired radio news reporter and member of Congregation Emanu-El who lives in San Francisco and keeps busy working as a school crossing guard and an usher for the San Francisco Giants.