Gotham Gazette

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Passover Lessons and Our Chance to Welcome Migrants with Open Arms

Welcoming migrants to NYC (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

As Passover begins this week, it provides us with a critical opportunity to reflect on immigration, freedom, and the holiday’s relevance for Jews and non-Jews alike. Today more than ever.

“When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Leviticus 19:33-34

So the Bible reminds us as we celebrate Passover. We look back to the persecution and enslavement of the Jews in Egypt, and remember their flight to freedom. We are urged to reflect on what it means to be a stranger, and recommit to welcoming and caring for the strangers in our midst.

Let’s remember that we, as Americans, were once strangers in this land, and not so long ago. Let’s remember that our forebears took risks to come to unknown shores. Please, this Passover, tell that history to your children and grandchildren; teach them their immigrant story. I urge each of us to find an artifact from our ancestors and include it on our Passover tables as a reminder that we are all immigrants.

For me, the Passover story is a story about human rights, about the intrinsic right of every person to flee harm at the hands of an oppressor – and about the fundamental responsibility each of us has to see those from another land not as “aliens,” but as human beings worthy of our concern, compassion, respect, and love.  

Tragically, our country has not learned this enduring lesson. When President Biden took office, he ended the Trump-era practice of detaining immigrant families fleeing war, gang violence, discrimination, and poverty when they arrive at our border. But in March, the Biden Administration began taking steps to return to this cruel practice, and days later announced plans to implement a transit ban that will bar families with children and all adults from being able to seek asylum in the U.S. Outrageous!

We’ve all read about the warehousing of immigrants – including children – in overcrowded, regimented, inhumane places where they are denied access to medical care, adequate food and drinking water, and even basic hygiene items like soap or toothpaste. The lifelong harms associated with detention, particularly for children, are dire. The ban on seeking asylum will inevitably lead to more migrant deaths and family separations. In the process, it will put more immigrant children at risk of ending up in dangerous jobs that violate child labor laws, as recently reported in The New York Times.

Last year, New York City saw a huge influx of buses arriving at the Port Authority carrying thousands of immigrants shipped like cargo on the orders of Texas Governor Greg Abbott. (Surely a new low in ruthlessly exploiting human suffering for political gain.) I have been one of many volunteers on site to welcome these strangers to our city. The location has become a hub where immigrants, who after they arrive often end up living in city-run shelters, come looking for food, clothing, and services. And what they want more than anything is jobs.

The volunteers have been extraordinary. They have donated more clothing than is possible to imagine, are engaging houses of worship in the shelter effort, and are now signing up additional volunteers to do even more. What troubles me, however, as I stated in an op-ed in Urban Matters published by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School, is that Mayor Adams, who continues to take credit for being welcoming, does not recognize or truly partner with the volunteers and organizations that are actually on the ground and making a difference. His administration must do more, starting, very simply, by ensuring that every new New Yorker has an NYC ID card.

As a lifelong New Yorker, I can say with confidence that the Port Authority Bus Terminal is on nobody’s list of great travel destinations. But as I think about the meaning of Passover, about the lessons it has to teach us about freedom and the moral obligation that every Jew and non-Jew shares to do right by strangers, this maligned New York City location feels sacred. It has become a beacon for the strangers among us – a place to get clothing, a cup of coffee or something to eat, and a helping hand from people who see new arrivals and do not look away.

This Passover season I will continue to volunteer at Port Authority. I will remind myself that despite the inhumanity of immigration policy at every level of our government, good people find a way – and sometimes in the most unlikely places.    

Ruth Messinger, former Manhattan borough president and Democratic nominee for Mayor, is a global ambassador for American Jewish World Service and a social justice consultant.

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