Driving down Interstate 10 toward the hotel I could see the border wall running alongside the Rio Grande. It seemed to trail off into the distance further than last time I’d been in town, but that could just be because I wasn’t paying as much attention.
This was not my first time in El Paso, Texas. My grandma, mom and brother were all born there and I’d lived there from ages 2-7. Since moving to California in the 80s I’d been back at least once a year, but this time might very well be my last. I’d flown to El Paso to bury my grandma, our matriarch, and with most of the family now living in California, there won’t be much of a reason to go back.
El Paso is the ultimate border town. Until recently people talked about the El Paso/Juarez region as a singular place, but after the cartel wars in the 2000s, things changed. The fluidity of the border tightened and many Americans stopped going over. Now El Paso is making headlines for a different reason: thousands of immigrants fleeing horrific circumstances are ending up in internment camps there. The conditions are inhumane. Children are being taken from their parents and held in savage conditions, while Fox News and Trump convince the Right that this is a just punishment for parents fleeing massacres and war.
Sitting on my grandma’s living room floor with my family, sifting through boxes of old photos, postcards, letters, and ephemera going back over 100 years, I started thinking about my own family’s immigrant story and how we came to be Jews from El Paso.
My great-grandfather Lazar Kopilowitz was born in Pokroi, Lithuania, a small Jewish shtetl that was part of Tsarist Russia. Tired of the terror of Cossacks and pogroms, and fearing conscription into the Russian army to fight in WWI, he took what money he had and began walking East. He ended up walking all the way East, eventually taking a boat to Japan, and from there to Hawaii, ultimately landing in San Francisco on November 1, 1915. One of his first jobs in America was helping to dismantle the Panama–Pacific International Exposition. His other job was working as a busboy for $15 a month plus room and board.
Lazar eventually saved enough money to head to New Jersey where he worked in a relative’s candy store and learned English. Once the U.S. joined the war he found himself in the Army, which was rather ironic considering he left Europe to stay out of the Russian one. In the Army he contracted tuberculosis, and since this was 1919, the best treatment they had for it was “go live someplace warm and dry and work outside.” Leaving the East Coast, Lazar headed to Fort Bayard, New Mexico, but before he did so, he was brought before the Supreme Court and naturalized a US citizen, along with other foreign nationals who’d served in the Army. That’s how simple it was to become a citizen back then.
I’m telling you all this to make a point, but before I do so, let me give you a very truncated version of the rest of the story. Lazar ended up staying in the Southwest. In 1921 he brought over his childhood sweetheart Lillian, who was my great grandmother, and shortly after that they began a goat farm in Deming, New Mexico. Realizing they wanted to raise their family around other Jews, they moved the goat farm to El Paso where there was a Rabbi and a congregation. They had three daughters – one of whom was my grandma Blanche — and of the three girls, two married men who came to work at what had become a dairy cow farm. By the time they sold the family business in the 1970s The Wholesome Dairy was one of the largest dairies in the Southwest. Lazar Kopilowitz truly achieved the American dream.
My great-grandfather’s story is a remarkable one, but not unique. This is a country founded by immigrants, and those of us who’ve had the privilege of being born here, grew up hearing stories about the sacrifices and journeys our ancestors made to create a better life.
And this is the part that I can’t seem to wrap my head around. During the few days I was in El Paso, I talked to other people whose family immigration stories were similar – they began with fleeing persecution and violence. Yet some of these people still somehow supported the camps.
As we were grieving, I was on my best behavior, following the golden rule of “Don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit,” but I wanted to take a moment to address this now.
Let me be clear and unequivocal: there is no argument you can make that justifies separating children from their parents. There is also no argument you can make that justifies depriving people of basic human rights and dignity.
Those of you saying “They are criminals because they came here illegally” are misinformed. The vast majority of the people coming across the border are seeking asylum because they’re fleeing violence in Central America. This is not illegal. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” Just like my great-grandfather Lazar Kopilowitz, these people are leaving untenable situations because they have no choice. Think about it like this: how bad would things have to get for you to leave everything you know behind, and show up in another country without a penny to your name?
Those of you saying “Well it was worse under Obama” are also misinformed. While it is true that there were more deportations under the Obama administration, it was Trump’s senior policy advisor Stephen Miller who came up with the “Zero Tolerance” policy that separates families at the border. Regardless, that’s a stupid argument anyway: “It’s ok to do it because the other guy did it” is a weak-ass excuse for putting children in subhuman conditions.
Those of you saying “They should do it the right way like my family did” are not only misinformed, you’re arguing in bad faith. I know for a fact that my great-grandfather became a legal citizen because we found his naturalization papers when cleaning out my grandma’s stuff. How many of you who argue “They should do it the right way like my family did” can say the same? How many of you have the paperwork proving that your ancestors came here and became legal citizens? Do you have the name of the boat they came in on? How about the port? The thing is, none of that actually matters because there’s a very good chance that when your ancestors showed up we didn’t really have a “right way.”*
Congress didn’t pass the National Origins Act until 1924. Before that you could just show up, and if you weren’t diseased, you were let in. The idea of “illegal immigrants” is actually a relatively new concept in our country, but even that shouldn’t matter considering that the United States committed genocide against the Native Americans just to get our “sweet land of liberty.”
What I’m getting at is this: the camps at the border are not only unjust, they are evil. There is not a single good argument that can prove otherwise. If you support them, you’re a bad person.
My great-grandfather came to the United States because otherwise he would’ve been killed. There’s a good chance your ancestors came here for the same reason. How can you deny that opportunity to someone fleeing something equally horrific and still be considered a good person? The answer is: you can’t.
*That is of course unless you were Chinese and it was between 1882 and 1943, when the US government adhered to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbid Chinese immigration. Or unless you were one of the thousands of Jews turned away in the 1930s because FDR was afraid they could be Nazi spies. Those Jews went back to Europe and died in the Holocaust.
Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him atBrokeAssStuart.com and join his mailing list to stay up on the work he’s doing:http://bit.ly/BrokeAssList. His guest column, Broke-Ass City, runs Thursdays in the Examiner.