No parent leaves their homeland lightly.
I look at images of children crying for their mothers and fathers, children in ICE cages sleeping under aluminum blankets, and I can’t help but go back to the moment in 1969 when I was separated from my own family, a separation that lasted five years.
The borders separating my family belonged to Hungary, not to the United States. The borders were not used to keep people out – no one wanted to immigrate to Hungary – but to trap people in. My parents were not brown-skinned Guatemalans and Hondurans fleeing violence and poverty. In fact, they were well off – both doctors. Yet my father’s entire family had been killed by Hungarian fascists in the camps of the Second World War, and the anti-Semitism didn’t stop when the Russians rolled into Hungary at the war’s end. It still hasn’t. Just Google the photo of George Soros, the right’s scapegoat de jour; Hungarians taking the tram in Budapest are literally forced to step on his face on their way to work.
Leaving Hungary was not simple, and not legal according to the laws of the government in place at the time. Tourist visas could be had for the West, but with one precondition. You had to leave one member of your family behind. Family separations have always been useful tools of governments.
My father may have been naive. On a hot night in August 1969, my mother, my father, and my brother would leave for Vienna with tourist visas, leaving me with my grandmother. From Vienna, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society got them train tickets for Rome, and eight months later, plane tickets to America. As refugees, they had help finding low-prestige jobs – part-time physician gigs for my father who had studied English for years in anticipation of fleeing Hungary and had taken the licensing exams to practice medicine while in Rome. My mother, also a physician, took work clearing houses. They were helped with rent money to start off with an apartment in the Bronx.
In his absence, my father was lambasted in the Hungarian press as a capitalist traitor who’d leave his only daughter for the chance to get rich. I was allowed to live with my mother’s family in a house with no running water and an uncle who regularly berated my father, calling him a stinking Jew. For years, I slept next to my grandmother who taught me that in America, everything was ice cream and sunshine. I waited on my mother’s blue airmail envelopes like warn air in Springtime. Letters came regularly, and at times, inexpensive gifts from America. But after the second year I’d forgotten my parents’ faces. My mother was a faded photograph.
From New York, my mother took regular train and bus trips to the Hungarian embassy in Washington DC. They told her, every time, to go home and forget about her daughter. She’d made the decision to leave; it was her fault for leaving.
It eventually took a Congressman from the Bronx, Jonathan Bingham, to reunite us. He met privately with the Hungarian ambassador, and with the help of the America embassy in Budapest finally negotiated my release. I was reunited with my family in February of 1974.
We know the cost of these separations to children, and to their parents. No parent leaves their homeland lightly. No child deserves an ordeal like this.
No parent decides to go on a 1000 mile journey, unprotected by law, unsure of what to eat or where to sleep, for personal benefit. The people at our Southern border are not criminals under any law that warrants respect. Like my father, they are seeking safety and opportunity for their families.
Most Americans get this. Most of us are from someplace else. At some point, every one of us was “another.” We are a bountiful country, a country made richer by the many faces that call this place home. And beyond riches, we must be a decent nation.