‘What Part of Illegal Don’t You Understand?’

My family’s refugee story shows that we can have an immigration policy that is both sane and humane.

By Sonia Nazario

My family has been running from danger for nearly 100 years. The Nazarios are refugees; their remnants have scattered around the world to survive. My Jewish mother fled Poland in 1933. My Christian father fled Syria two years earlier. They met and married in Argentina, whose right-wing dictatorship imprisoned and almost killed my sister. By giving us a home, the United States saved our lives.

Would it do the same today?

The Trump administration has barred those seeking refuge from our borders and turned our immigration courts into a joke. This is a betrayal of America’s decades-long role as a world leader in refugee protection. It also breaks our own laws and treaty commitments, which say we will take people in, give them a fair court hearing and not return them to harm.

But it is not a total historical anomaly. America has gone through spasms of nativism before. In 1939, Congress shelved a bill to take in 20,000 Jewish children, and the ocean liner St. Louis, which carried 937 Jewish refugees, was turned away from the docks; hundreds aboard were murdered in the Holocaust.

Then, as now, many on both the right and the left have argued that the choice Americans face on immigration and asylum is between zero tolerance and opening the floodgates. But this is a false choice. We can have an immigration policy that is sane and humane.

My mother, Clara Aberbach, was 9 when she left Chodorow, Poland, now part of Ukraine. It was 1933, the year Hitler came to power in Germany.

“I loved Poland,” she told me. She and the other children skated on the Luh River each winter and floated down it on wooden rafts come spring. The summers she spent at her grandmother’s vineyard, feasting on fresh milk and eggs.

Each Saturday, she stepped inside the town’s 300-year-old synagogue, whose walls were painted red, gold and green with scenes from the Bible. One painting showed a rabbit being attacked by a griffin — a symbol of the mass murder of Jews in the area centuries before.

More than 125,000 Jews were killed in pogroms in Ukraine between 1918 and 1922. By 1930, my mother’s family saw a new storm gathering. They knew it might be bad. So they fled to Argentina. The United States wasn’t an option: New quotas kept out “undesirables” — Jews, Asians, Africans.

Many in my family stayed behind. Dozens were exterminated, many in the Auschwitz death camp. Some died in the Warsaw Ghetto, where over 400,000 Jews were confined to 1.3 square miles. In Chodorow, the synagogue was torched. On Sept. 4 and 5, 1942, Germans went house to house there, killing the weak and children on the spot.

The writer’s Syrian grandparents surrounded by their daughters.  
The writer’s Syrian grandparents surrounded by their daughters.  Credit…Photos courtesy of the writer.

One of the few survivors, Toby Levy, who is now 86 and lives in Brooklyn, told me that she saw a German soldier shoot a young girl. He picked the child up with one hand, she was so small; “I will never forget that,” Ms. Levy said. And with the other hand — “click” — he shot her in the head.

In a nearby town where many of my family members lived, children were buried alive. My mother’s aunt stayed on the family vineyard. She, her husband and their five children disappeared off the face of the earth. Her youngest, Asher Lemel Apsel, was just a few years old.

My father’s name was Mahafud, which means protected by God. He was born on a wheat and sheep farm in a Christian enclave of Syria called Mhardeh. Christians were slaughtered in Syria throughout the 20th century. My family feared for their lives whenever they traveled outside of Mhardeh, and they finally decided to leave the country when my father was a newborn.

He and his parents settled in Santiago del Estero, in northern Argentina, which was hot and dry and reminded them of home. They took the name Nazario, thanks to an Argentine migration agent who told my great-uncle Asad Eben Naser Loush that no one would be able to pronounce his name. The agent wrote down “Nazario” instead — a common surname in Italy, where many Argentines were from.

When my father was a young man studying biochemistry, he met my mother on a bus in Buenos Aires. It was 1951, and he recited Pablo Neruda to her: “I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.”

When he stopped riding that route, my mom systematically scouted out every biochemistry lab on the bus line, asking, “Does Mahafud work here?” until she found him and asked him out. When they married, my Jewish grandfather was furious. He said my mother was dead to him for marrying an Arab — he even sat shiva for her — until they gave birth to something he could no longer resist: his first grandsons, twins, no less.

In 1955, a military coup — one of many — shut down the university where my father worked. In 1959, he received a grant to continue his research at the University of Wisconsin. Soon after we arrived in the United States, I was born — the first in my family to be born here.

Tall and dark-skinned, my father longed for Argentina. He invited Latino friends to sit in a circle in front of our home and pass around a gourd filled with mate, an Argentine tea communally sipped from a silver straw. Argentines are obsessed with grilling meat, and true to form, my father barbecued whole goats in our backyard. On weekends, he took me along to the lab, where I watched him switch out test tubes in the centrifugal machines. He was trying to map the genes of microorganisms, work that he would eventually pursue as a professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

I understand Americans’ desire to say, “Take care of our own first!” In Los Angeles, where I live now, we have our own tent cities — blocks upon blocks of homeless encampments. One in seven children in the United States is hungry. Empathy has been stretched to its limits.

People aren’t racist for fretting that Americans without high school diplomas may have to compete with immigrants for jobs in industries like construction. I understand those who fear rapid cultural change. We have to play straight with people: In the 2019 federal fiscal year, nearly a million migrants were apprehended at our southern border, a 12-year high. That’s not nothing. A third of all Hondurans are planning to migrate, a recent survey showed.

Wouldn’t you? A new study by Doctors Without Borders found that more than two-thirds of migrants fleeing Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala had a family member murdered, kidnapped or disappeared.

Despite their discomfort with the stream of asylum-seekers, Americans took to the streets in 2018 when they saw our government tearing babies out of the arms of Central American mothers. We don’t do that, Americans said. That’s not the kind of country we are.

And yet these same Americans have been largely silent as our government tramples a half-century of refugee and asylum law.

The Trump administration has cut the maximum number of refugees allowed this year to 18,000, down from 110,000 in the final year of the Obama administration. Last October, not one refugee was admitted, at a moment when nearly 71 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes, the most since World War II.

The writer’s parents, Mahafud and Clara Nazario, grilling in Kansas.
The writer’s parents, Mahafud and Clara Nazario, grilling in Kansas.

The Trump administration has barred asylum-seekers from entering the United States to make their claim, as our law says they are entitled to do, instead forcing them to line up for months and await their turn at an official port of entry on the Mexican side of the border. Even when they get to the head of the line, they can be turned back: Since January 2019 we have sent more than 57,000 asylum applicants, including at least 16,000 children, back into Mexico’s borderlands to wait until their court date.

It’s dead winter, and their only shelter is often a few taped-together trash bags. They are at the mercy of cartels and kidnappers, who see them as easy prey. A lawyer in Laredo, Texas, I recently spoke to astounded me by disclosing that more than half of the migrants she has interviewed have had someone in their family kidnapped, extorted or assaulted by narco cartels while waiting just across the border in Nuevo Laredo, a place so dangerous the U.S. State Department compares it to SyriaNorth Korea or Yemen.One asylum officer who resigned in protest told The Los Angeles Times that we are “literally sending people back to be raped and killed.”

When my father was 42, he died of a heart attack. Like many migrants, my mother longed for home, so in 1974, when I was 14 years old, she uprooted her four children and left Kansas for Argentina.

My mother had terrible timing: The military was just about to take power and kill or disappear an estimated 30,000 people.

I would tremble whenever I saw a Ford Falcon cruise down the street; it was the vehicle of choice for undercover military officers. They would pluck people up — professors, teachers, journalists, students — anyone advocating a more just society. They beat you, administered electric shock to your genitals. They put your head in a bucket of urine and feces until you were drowning. They drugged people with the anesthetic Ketalar and every Wednesday shoved them off airplanes into the ocean. They kept hundreds of pregnant women long enough for them to give birth, handed the babies to childless couples in the military, then killed the mothers.

Owning certain books — “Alice in Wonderland,” Freud — could get you in trouble. I helped my mother put all of the family’s books into a big pile in the backyard. We set it on fire.

One day my mother and I were walking down the street when I saw a pool of blood on the ground. “Two journalists were murdered here,” my mother told me.

“Why?” I asked.

“For telling the truth.”

I decided, staring at that pool of blood, to become a journalist.

Among the American values I am most proud of are freedom, the rule of law and the right to dissent. Right now, the rule of law is being quietly massacred in the name of keeping asylum-seekers out — a policy most Americans don’t even agree with. (A Gallup poll last year showed that 57 percent of Americans support taking in Central American refugees, and 76 percent, the highest since Gallup first asked in 2001, see immigration as good for the United States.)

President Trump said he wanted a rigged asylum system, and that’s what he’s given us. In June he tweeted, “When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came.” He proclaimed from the Oval Office, “To be honest with you, you have to get rid of judges.”

The writer at 16, at an event for young journalists.
The writer at 16, at an event for young journalists.

The fix is in. Nationwide, asylum denial rates jumped to 71 percent last September, from 55 percent in 2016. But in the makeshift courts that are increasingly hearing cases near the Mexican border, almost no one is qualifying. Out of the 29,304 people in 2019 who asked for asylum at ports of entry, were ordered to remain in Mexico and were let back into the United States months later for hearings, just 187 — 0.6 percent — won their cases. A lawsuit filed last month by six immigrant rights groups says these proceedings have become “deportation machines.” Four in 10 immigration courts have become “asylum-free zones” where “the rule of law has ceased, and asylum law is functionally suspended.”

The Trump administration is expanding a program in El Paso (where the denial rate is already 97 percent) in which migrants’ cases are decided within 10 days. Ten days to find a lawyer, request documents from officials in another country and line up expert witnesses. It’s a sham.

After a year and a half of life under Argentina’s generals, my mother decided to get us out. We went back to the United States just a few months before the military officially took control of the government on March 24, 1976. But my sister was a senior in high school; she stayed behind to finish the year.

One night in May the phone at our house in Kansas rang with a call from one of my aunts. Soldiers had broken down the door to our Buenos Aires condo and trashed the place. My sister was missing — she had been disappeared.

My sister, who now practices medicine in the Midwest, was hesitant to be identified in this article. She was afraid that her friends, colleagues and patients here in the United States would judge her for what she went through — that they wouldn’t be able to comprehend that in Argentina at that time, you could be imprisoned and killed despite being entirely innocent.

The aunt in Buenos Aires was too afraid to go to the police for fear they might snatch her, too. She called my father’s sister Sofia in northern Argentina, who called a cousin whose son worked in Argentina’s secret services. “What can you do?” she begged. She learned that my sister was alive and being held at the central police station. Sofia had the family gather any disposable cash and all of their gold bracelets, in case they were needed for bribes, and she flew to Buenos Aires. She waited several tense hours in the station before someone acknowledged that my sister was there. But she was transferred, and then transferred again.

A few weeks later, my sister’s boyfriend, Javier Gustavo Grebel, was picked up while leafleting against the military outside a school. Those with clearly Jewish names, like his, fared worse than other prisoners. A now-declassified telegram from the United States Embassy titled “Violence Against Argentine Jews” says anti-Semitic military commanders called people “Jew dog” during torture sessions. Some believed that simply being Jewish was enough to get you arrested.

We later heard from another prisoner that Javier’s torturers broke all the bones in his face. Did he end up in the military’s “chupaderos,” its concentration camps? To this day, his family has no idea what happened to him.

While all this was going on, I was acutely aware that I was the only natural-born American citizen in my family. So at 14 I lobbied my congressional leaders in Kansas to save my sister. This led to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sending a telegram to Argentina’s dictator, Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, asking why my sister was being held without charge. (Mr. Kissinger is, of course, the same diplomat who appeared to give the new regime a green light for human rights abuses when he told Argentina’s foreign minister in June 1976, “We understand you must establish authority,” and, “If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly.”)

On the night of Sept. 21, 1976, my sister was released. She had been imprisoned for five months. What was done to her in that time? It was so painful for her to relive the experience that, although we’re very close, we didn’t speak of it for decades.

Now I know: My sister was raped, forced to stand in stress positions, blindfolded, and held in a damp, cold cell. She went days without food or sleep. The night she was released, there was a thick frost in the air. Often, prisoners were shot moments after being let go. Walking away from the prison, she told me, she expected to feel a bullet at any minute.

The American government generally does not allow innocent people to be imprisoned, raped and shot in the back. These are the kinds of experiences refugees who come here seeking safety are fleeing.

We can have a pragmatic, compassionate refugee policy. We don’t have to choose between letting everyone in and no one in.

Conservatives may not like this, but we have to let through people who say they are afraid. Allow applicants into the United States and monitor them until their court hearings (which nine in 10 do show up for). Don’t lock them up, as we are doing with some 60,000 immigrants a night, in places where they get inadequate medical care. At least seven migrant children have died in immigration custody since 2018. This simply didn’t happen before. Our government is killing children through neglect.

Make the court process fair; make it fitting of our country. Take our increasingly politicized immigration courts out of the Department of Justice and make them independent. Make sure that immigrant children have a government-funded lawyer, since most cannot afford representation, which basically guarantees they will lose. From October 2017 to June 2018, 70 babies went to court alone.

Liberals might not like this, but we also have to deport migrants who lose their cases. President Trump refers to asylum as a “loophole” in our system. That’s bogus. Yet there is another loophole that must be addressed: A vast majority of those who lose their asylum cases don’t leave the country. They stay and blend into the woodwork. This rightfully riles Americans who believe these unsuccessful asylum-seekers are thumbing their noses at our legal process. Require Immigration and Customs Enforcement to focus on deporting people who have just lost their asylum cases, not the parent who has been here 30 years.

Democrats need to get woke and realize that any immigration reform plan has to show they believe in the rule of law. I’ve lived in a country with no laws. Democrats don’t want that. We cannot take in everyone, so we need to prioritize those fleeing harm. Stop talking about idiotic things like open borders. Or liberals will keep losing on this issue.

There’s something ready-made for Americans who care about this travesty to lobby for: the Refugee Protection Act, introduced in Congress in November. It would require the United States to take in far more refugees, including at least 100,000 a year from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras alone. It would prevent the government from forcing people to apply for asylum in other countries they passed through on the way here, and prohibit ports of entry from pleading overcrowding as an excuse to turn people away. It would exempt migrants from criminal prosecution for crossing without documents, and allow asylum-seekers to be released temporarily in the United States if they pose no risk to public safety. It would reverse a Trump administration decision that bars people fleeing domestic or gang violence from obtaining asylum. And it would require our government to appoint lawyers for migrant children.

Americans need to stop whining and ride Congress to pass this bill. Every one of my fellow Jews in this country should have their hair on fire over this — especially folks like Jared Kushner, whose Polish family, like mine, found safety here.

I often get asked: What part of “illegal” don’t you understand? Well, our laws say we have to help people who are running for their lives. Take it from a Nazario: President Trump is the one who has broken the law.

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