… because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt
I tried to avoid the puddles — a mélange of water and sewage — as I walked in my wet socks toward the bridge from Tijuana into San Diego. With the heavy rain, the plaza was deserted this close to midnight and I had time to contemplate my question: Are today’s asylum-seekers in the “migrant caravan” really like the Jews fleeing the Shoah, as Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez controversially tweeted last month?
I wondered. So earlier in the morning I presented myself to the nonprofit Border Angels, located in a community center in San Diego and known for its water drops in the desert to save the lives of migrants dying from thirst. Now this grassroots group was busy gathering, organizing and distributing food, diapers, sleeping bags and more to the people hopefully (and hopelessly) in the migrant caravan, languishing 15 miles away in Tijuana.
Originally sheltered in an outdoor sports arena that quickly turned fetid, an estimated 10,000 people were relocated by the Mexican government to a better shelter, away from the border. But close to 200 people refused to move further away from their dream of a better life, and instead pitched their tents and tarps in a dark street in a rough part of town.
To encourage these people to move to the new shelter, the government terminated all services — no water, no bathrooms, no food. Now in the storm, the streets were flooded with this mixture of water and sewage. The makeshift encampment was surrounded by concrete barricades and police cars. Donations to the migrants were discouraged.
Back at the Border Angels office, I spent my morning, then my afternoon, sorting bottles of hand sanitizer, sanitary napkins and children’s shoes. UPS and FedEx made numerous deliveries throughout the day, bringing more than 100 boxes filled with new donations from donors around the country. I was waiting for Hugo, who would take me — and the donations — to the migrant caravan.
By the time Hugo arrived, it was dark and I was tired. The storm arrived as well. Hugo packed up the “new” van (purchased 10 days ago for what some people I know spend on a handbag) until it seemed to sag under the weight. I wedged myself into the passenger seat beneath a heavy box that soon cut off my circulation. When Hugo hit the brakes too quickly, packets of ramen noodles fell on our heads from the overstuffed boxes jammed behind.
There was no traffic at the border, but we waited while border agents consulted with their supervisors as to whether we would be allowed to bring the donations into Mexico. Hugo was persistent — and prepared for a long fight. For the migrants, Hugo said, it was an emergency and a matter of life and death. After several hours, we were allowed to cross.
The streets of Tijuana looked more like rivers than roadways. Hugo carefully navigated the van. I shivered. I wore two shirts, a sweater and my raincoat, but inside the van it was cold and wet. I did not even bother to ask if the heater worked. We pulled up to the intersection to reach the caravan, but the police would not permit us through. Hugo, undeterred, parked on a side street and we walked in. The tents and tarps and soggy blankets looked like ant mounds in the dark. We could hear voices from inside — women, children, men, families. You could see children’s plastic toys, strollers and car seats strewn about.
A young man emerged from beneath a tarp wearing a 49ers sweatshirt with his rosary. His name was Cristian and he was fleeing the poverty and violence of his native El Salvador. If he were forced to return, he told us, he had been warned by gang members that he would be murdered. A few more people, curious enough to brave the rain, emerged from underneath the tarps to talk with us.
Standing in the distance watching us was a young boy, wearing only a T-shirt and shorts, standing barefoot in the wet street. His name was Jose Arturo. He was 12, from Guatemala, and he and his family joined the caravan a month ago. I looked at his feet — they were about the same size as mine. Did he like the nice hiking boots I wore? Yes. Did he want them? He looked confused.
By now a group of people gathered around Hugo and we began walking back toward the van. My job would be to climb into the van and hand items to Hugo as he directed people into an organized line and assessed what they most needed. People wanted diapers for their infants and rain ponchos. Back in the van, I unlaced my shoes and handed them to Jose Arturo. “They’re big!” He smiled and tucked his feet into them. Did he want my raincoat too? Yes! I handed it to him and he put it on and raised the hood to keep the rain from his face.
Hugo finished distributing what he could, but the van was still full and we had not yet unloaded the boxes piled high on the roof. He promised the group that he’d return in the morning with the donations. People panicked, but he promised. Hugo needed to go and I was more than ready to get back to San Diego.
We drove a few blocks, and then Hugo pulled over to the curb, pointed and said,
“Here you go — just walk over the bridge to get back to the U.S.”
What? But I gave away my boots and raincoat.
“You did? I didn’t know that.”
Aren’t we going back to the community center in San Diego?
“No, I’m bringing more supplies to our shelter in Tijuana.”
Can’t I go with you and then after that we’ll go back to San Diego?
“No, I’m going to stay here so I can return to the encampment in the morning — it’s too difficult to cross back and forth.”
I got out of the van and started walking.
My premise earlier that morning was to determine whether the comparison between the people I met and the Jews fleeing the Holocaust was appropriate. No, there is no massive, organized killing machine hunting down these people. But the risk of death is real, whether through starvation, disease or crime if they are forced to return. They cannot go home and they cannot go forward.
There is a debate within my family as to whether my great-grandmother’s family fled Russia because of the Communists or because of the anti-Semitism. Does it really matter if they fled because they foresaw Stalin’s purges or Hitler’s genocide? As my grandmother said when I asked her why she never smiled in the photos from her youth, “Because there was nothing to smile about.” All that matters to me is that my ancestors left a dire situation with no future, and through sheer good fortune, I was born in the U.S.
I refuse to engage in a hierarchy of horror and argue whether a person is or is not like a Jewish refugee because he or she will “only” die from poverty or gang violence and not from ethnic cleansing. To desperate and marginalized people facing no future, I suspect such a distinction is irrelevant. I do not want to debate. I want to help. I want to “do Jewish.”