During college, I was strolling down the street with a friend, both of us bundled against the winter cold. We walked past a pair huddled in a doorway, clutching a frayed blanket. I said I wished I knew a permanent solution, how to help homeless people get back on their feet. To my complete surprise, my friend turned livid. “My grandfather came to this country with nothing but two dollars in his shoe. Nobody helped him. Why should I help them!”
I remember staring, speechless. I, too, was the grandchild of immigrants. To say their lives were harsh is a vast understatement — crossing the ocean in steerage, always frightened, often hungry, freezing in the winter, sweltering in the summer, illnesses terrifying, medicine not affordable, lonely and alone. But my reaction to my own heritage was diametrically opposed to my college classmate’s. I experienced my family’s history as connecting me to immigrants and to all who struggle; my classmate felt disconnected, even adversarial.
Us and Them are much more complex than they appear at first glance. Like the vast majority in the United States, I’m a mixture of both. I’m an Us because I’m white and I’ve never had to worry about food, clothing, shelter or medical care. I’m a Them because I’m a woman and a Jew. Problems skyrocket when the Us and the Them within the individual aren’t friends. At that point, parts of the same person go to war, one part trying to disown the other, even obliterate the other. From a Build-The-Wall perspective, too many are trying to build an internal emotional wall between their present-day selves and their own immigrant history.
Walls come in many forms, shapes and sizes. Donald Trump wants to build a literal border wall. People who want to erase their immigrant heritage want to build a metaphorical wall, self vs. self. When individuals and families and children are met at our borders with violence and rejection, then we’re attacking not only potential new immigrants but also our own immigrant selves. Those who support these policies don’t realize that their actions and mindsets cause deep wounds within our borders as well as beyond.
What can we do? Start by owning the Us and the Them within. Reach out. Clasp your own hand. That will guide you toward doing the same for others.
It’s not a solve or a cure or a fix. It’s a beginning.