This week is the Jewish holiday of Passover, when Jews remember when we were slaves in Egypt and when we crossed the sea to freedom. We are also reminded that after escaping Egypt, we wandered in the desert for forty years, refugees from Egypt and unable to return to our own homeland. The Torah commands Jews, “Welcome the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” As a Jew, I find Passover an especially important time to recognize the issues of today’s migrants and refugees.
The European migrant crisis has been all over the news for months. Over a million migrants entered Europe in 2015, provoking a crisis in European nations that didn’t know how or didn’t want to resettle so many people at once.
Starting almost two years ago, the mass migration of Central American refugees, including a huge proportion of minors, through Mexico to attempt to cross into the U.S. at the U.S.-Mexico border was termed a migrant crisis in the United States. The United States has perennially viewed Mexican and Central American immigration as a crisis, an invasion, or a threat.
Yet little has been done to theoretically connect these two migrant crises, which are quite similar on a rhetorical level. The receiving nations find themselves in crisis when they receive an influx of unapproved migrants seeking refuge. But rather than turning to racist and orientalist fear-mongering or pitting Syrians against Central Americans for a small number of refugee spots in some kind of refugee competition, this moment could be used to provoke reflection on the idea of the migrant crisis, and what the response should be. What is the real crisis?
The real crisis is not that, with such high numbers of migrants reaching Europe, European countries do not know what to do with them. Nor is the real crisis high numbers of people crossing into the United States, undocumented. The real crisis is violence, poverty, and unlivable conditions in Syria and Central America forcing people to leave their homes in the first place. And the resulting uproar and nativism in the receiving nations is not a crisis of lack of resources as much as lack of human feeling toward refugees and migrants.
Some commentators have suggested that the U.S. would better keep out Syrian migrants seen as potential terrorists or orientalized Islamic others. That Central American refugees are all criminals or job stealers. These ugly responses to a genuine crisis of people being forced to leave their native lands evidence, perhaps more than anything else, fear. Time and again, conservatives invoke the threat of losing American (or European) culture to outside invaders who come as refugees but are incapable of assimilation. To these fears of the original culture being lost, I say: influx of different cultures makes our own community that much the richer, that much more creative, that much more vibrant. Culture is always hybrid, always changing. There is no one American Culture, static and unchanging. Change is what makes our society vibrant.
Rather than giving in to fear of change, which is inevitable and valuable, we should embrace love over fear, and embrace migrants rather than sending them away. Of course, given that America is a settler colonialist nation to begin with–we are almost all migrants–the country certainly has no right to reject new immigrants. But even aside from that, accepting refugees should never be in question. It is a moral imperative, when someone is fleeing for his or her life, to give shelter. Instead of using the migrant crisis as a platform to create a further sense of nationalism and impending doom, world leaders should use these crises to take a stand for brotherhood and remember the responsibility we all have as human beings toward our fellow humans. Migrants are people. Those of us who are privileged, who have more, who live in peace and relative safety, have a responsibility to share with people who have less. When someone comes to your door, unable to return home because they might die, it is your moral responsibility to accept them. Provide refuge. Do not turn away the stranger. Europeans would do well to remember this when Syrians come, and Americans would do well to remember this when Mexicans and Central Americans come.
Migration crises should not be crises for the receiving nations. Rather than turning to fear and hatred of others, we should take these migration crises as opportunities for us to love our neighbors, for us to live up to high moral values, for us to make ourselves proud, for following the just and right path. My religion, Judaism, tells me, “Welcome the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Israel.” But I think anyone of morals, whatever his or her religion, could stand by this statement. We should embrace love over fear, and embrace migrants rather than sending them away. Migrants are people. Not numbers. And they deserve to be treated as such.