By Ben Weiner

In the spring of 2018, I had the privilege of traveling with a small group to the beautiful country of El Salvador. The trip was led by a non-profit organization whose mission is to build solidarity between Salvadorians and Americans. Over the course of several weeks, we met a diverse array of people from rural farmers to local politicians, learned about El Salvador’s history, and discussed the challenges the country faces today. This experience played a pivotal role in my understanding of the United States’ global influence and my perspective on our nation’s immigration policies. 

I stayed several days in a small rural town called Huisisilapa where I met dozens of people with family members in the United States who periodically sent money back to El Salvador. In fact, I stayed with a family that was in the process of expanding their home with funds from a family member living in California. Still, those I met were worried about the well-being of their loved ones due to the increased risk of deportation as a result of the Trump Administration’s newly adopted immigration policy. It quickly became clear to me that, in many ways, the United States president has more of an impact on the lives of most Salvadoran citizens than it has on my own. 

My group then traveled to a tiny village called El Mozote, a lively town despite the fact that it was the location of a horrific crime decades earlier. During the two-day period between December 11 and 12, 1981, American-trained Salvadoran troops known as the Atlacatl Battalion murdered all but one inhabitant. Estimates are that 800 to 1,200 people were killed there despite the town being known for its neutrality during the country’s civil war. The center of the town features a memorial with a silhouette of an unidentified family holding hands, along with the names of the recorded victims and their ages engraved on the wall behind it. 

While the influx of refugees from Central America to the southern border has become an extremely controversial and divisive topic, I believe we must recognize the role that the United States has played in this crisis. Such an acknowledgement then necessitates specific actions in order to rewrite our wrongs and help the people in need today. This starts with passing legislation that creates a pathway to citizenship and increases the number of asylum seekers we welcome into the country. Meanwhile, we should continue the Biden Administration’s plan of investing directly in the economy and infrastructure of not only El Salvador, but countries like Guatemala and Nicaragua which have also been negatively impacted by American intervention in the mid to late 20th century. Each of these countries face enormous issues that they do not have the necessary resources to address such as climate change, an increase in violence, and economic instability, and would benefit mightily from the humanitarian support of the United States. 

While it’s important to recognize past wrongdoings of the US, guilt should not be the driving force in solving this crisis. Instead, we should strive to be better. Increasing immigration, and in turn diversity, would benefit this country in so many ways. A majority of studies show that an increase in immigration correlates with economic growth over time, as immigrants add hundreds of billions of dollars in annual tax revenue, decrease the national unemployment rate, and represent roughly a trillion dollars in current spending power. There are also many social benefits as immigration and diversity enriches the culture of this country. Being around people with different backgrounds and life experiences has been proven to increase tolerance and understanding. It also boosts religious diversity, which is critical if we wish to bridge the divide between the different faith groups.

As Jews, our faith reinforces the social justice for which we advocate. The Torah states, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). This passage reminds us of our own time in exile, and encourages us to treat those who leave their homelands for a better life the way we would hope to be treated. In contemporary history, our own exodus from Europe during the 1930s should be a cautionary tale. While anti-semitism was spreading rapidly throughout the continent, strict US immigration quotas left hundreds of thousands of Jews hoping to escape persecution stranded. Many of them died in the Holocaust. 

While solving this issue relies on the global leadership of the President and the US government, it is upon us to press our elected leaders into taking action to address this situation. H.R. 2237, also known as the GRACE Act, is just one of several immigration reform bills that have been proposed in Congress. The GRACE Act would set the minimum annual refugee cap at no less than 125,000 individuals, make it difficult for future administrations to reduce that number, and ease the process for raising that cap when necessary. 

Like for so many others, this country has allowed my family to grow and flourish for multiple generations. In this spirit, we should embrace and acknowledge the impact that immigrants have had in shaping the United States, not create additional barriers. We must continue this profound tradition and strive to create viable and effective pathways towards citizenship for all who seek refuge from violence or disasters. Only then can we live up to our promise of being the beacon of hope we claim to be.

Ben Weiner is a junior at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. In the image, courtesy of The Northwest School, Ben is seen back row, third from the left.

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