His parents and grandparents had emigrated to the United States from Guatemala. They'd been thrown in jail, incarcerated in detention centers, deported from his home, and experienced the political murder of his mother’s friend, who had spoken out for human rights in the 1980s, challenging the U.S.-backed dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, later convicted of genocide.
He told me that Guatemalans have a saying: "Nunca Otra Vez."
For decades, thousands of Latin Americans have attempted a dangerous journey to escape violence and poverty in their home countries in search of a better life in the United States.
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Many don’t know what their fate will be once they arrive at the border - whether they will be granted asylum, or turned away to their home countries.
Most are terrified, and have no possible way of knowing that they may be thrown into a detention center when they arrive, while their children may be separated from them. If they lose this chance, their deportation could result in their death. That dire scenario applies to immigrants already living in the U.S. as well.
Does this story sound familiar to you?
Both before, during, and after WWII, there were thousands of Jews who were not granted asylum in the United States. The reasons then were fears about their potential threat to national security, and to demographic preferences and prejudice that led to quotas for Jews.
If you’ve ever heard of the St. Louis, then you’ll know that in May of 1939, more than 900 Jewish refugees were refused entry into the United States. They were turned back to Europe where other countries, like Belgium and Great Britain, took them in. Nearly a third of the ship's passengers ended up in Nazi death camps. They could have been saved.
The plight of Latin Americans bears many resemblances to the desperate refugee Jews of that time. And seeing the international community's lukewarm response then, as now, we have to ask ourselves, has anything really changed?
In his recent lecture ("No Place for the Displaced: The Jewish Refugee Crisis Before, During, and After WWII") at an international conference on the refugee crisis in Rome, Dr. Avinoam Patt, Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Hartford noted: "Even after Kristallnacht, which would be widely reported in the international press, Americans remained reluctant to welcome Jewish refugees, and the restrictive immigration quotas remained in place."
In the 1930s and 1940s, the international community was prepared to reprimand Germany for its treatment of Jews, yet not one of these countries were keen to open their doors to refugees.
Fast forward to 2018 and the United States is just as critical of the governments of many of the Latin American countries where migrants are coming from, yet they don’t want to help.
This is even more appalling when the U.S. should, by all rights, shoulder blame for many of the atrocities happening in Latin America today. Whether it was the government playing a direct role in the start of Guatemala’s Civil War, the involvement of the CIA in destabilizing Chile in 1973, or the overwhelming evidence that suggests the U.S. trained death squads in El Salvador in the 1980s - these are just a few examples.
It’s important to keep in mind that the United States isn’t the only country finding themselves with an influx of refugees. Countries all over Latin America, like Chile, Colombia, and Mexico, are dealing with their own issues of immigration, as more and more people flee Venezuela, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras. The only difference is the immigration policies of these countries tend to be lighter, and don’t necessarily involve splitting up families.
Those escaping horrific situations in Central America, or deathly regimes in Venezuela, aren’t waking up thinking, "Which country should I try to go to?" No matter where they choose, the process is long, difficult, and deadly, and most of the time, these people are already marginalized and scared.
In the 1980s, when over 200,000 indigenous Mayans of Guatemala were killed or "disappeared," those lucky enough to survive did so by being able to flee to neighboring countries. Today, those that we refuse to help face that same struggle to survive.
Migrants fleeing El Salvador have described the constant violence, gang extortions, and threats they are escaping. Most have become displaced within El Salvador, having lived with different family members across the country before exhausting all options. In Venezuela, people are escaping hunger, the death of children by starvation, as the economic and political situation continues to spiral out of control.
If we don’t help, who will?
As we know, for Latin American Jews, Israel has always been an option, but that’s not the case for non-Jews in Latin America. And, even if a legal way exists for these people to migrate, simply asking to leave their country can have fatal consequences.
As American Jews, we're very familiar with the narratives of Jews who fled wartime Europe seeking sanctuary - and who often denied it by the United States itself. It's time we listened to - and taught - the narratives of desperate Latin American migrants and refugees as well.
Hana LaRock is a freelance content writer and online English teacher originally from Long Island, New York. She's been living abroad and traveling for the last five years and currently resides in Mexico. Twitter: @HanaLaRock