With Election Day approaching and Donald Trump being given a realistic chance to win the election for President of the United States, it’s time to revisit Trump’s signature policy: his proposal to deport the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States to their countries of origin. This proposal has many of us thinking of Nazi Germany, and the deportation of 11 million Holocaust victims to the Nazi death camps. But as just about any comparison to the Nazis is extreme, I’ve been considering other historical examples of mass deportation. And 1492 comes to mind.
Before considering 1492, let’s focus for a moment on the present day. As with many of Trump’s proposed policies, it’s not entirely clear exactly what kind of mass deportation Trump means to implement if he’s elected. At certain points during this election season, Trump appears to have pulled back from the idea of mass deportation. But in his most recent statements, Trump has reverted to a hard line:
Under my administration, anyone who illegally crosses the border will be detained until they are removed out of our country and back to the country from which they came. And you can call it deported if you want. The press doesn’t like that term. You can call it whatever the hell you want. They’re gone.
Trump’s plan would start with the immediate roundup and expulsion of “illegal immigrants who are arrested for any crime whatsoever.” Whether he’s talking about serious crime or traffic tickets is not clear. Trump has also claimed that “62 percent of households headed by illegal immigrants” receive some welfare or food stamps, a “tremendous cost to our country” and “will be priorities for immediate removal.” (The truth is that undocumented immigrants are ineligible to receive welfare and food stamps, and each year pay billions of dollars in payroll taxes for benefits they will never receive.) Trump estimates that at least 2 million people residing in the United States fall into one of his “priority” categories for immediate deportation.
But the hard fact is, Trump’s proposals point to the forced deportation of all 11 million immigrants in the United States without documentation. Trump rejects any “path to citizenship” for these immigrants, save for the possible readmission of immigrants after their deportation. Trump has even called for the deportation of the children of these immigrants who were born in the United States and are thus American citizens under the provisions of the U.S. Constitution. Moreover, Trump has made it clear that he wants these deportations to be completed quickly, over a two-year span.
Which brings us back to 1492. Mention 1492 to most Americans, and they’ll think of Christopher Columbus. But many Jews know that 1492 has a second meaning. 1492 was the year that Spain ordered the immediate expulsion of its Jewish population.
Here is the briefest of histories. The Jewish people enjoyed a “golden age” in Spain during its period of Muslim rule in the 8th to 11th centuries, and this age extended even into the early years of the Christian reconquest of Spain. But by the mid-1300s, Spanish Christians made concerted efforts to force Jews to convert to Christianity. These efforts achieved theretofore unprecedented success, and by the early 1400s perhaps half of Spanish Jewry had converted to Christianity. But Spain was not prepared to accept and absorb so many “New Christians.” The fear arose that these New Christians were continuing to practice Judaism in secret, and that Spain’s remaining Jews were seeking to reconvert their former fellow religionists. By the 1480s, the Church established the Spanish Inquisition to watch over this situation, and the Inquisition (led by Father Tomas de Torquemada) concluded that Spain’s Jews needed to be segregated from its Christians. By March of 1492, Spain’s rulers (King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella) concluded that even physical separation was not enough, and they ordered all Jews to leave Spain by the end of July of that year.
Today, historians dispute the severity and scope of the Spanish Expulsion. There is rough agreement that perhaps 100,000 Jews were forced to have Spain in 1492. By some accounts, thousands or tens of thousands of Jewish refugees died in the Spanish expulsion. In his famous work “Jews, G-d and History,” Max Dumont estimates that there were 150,000 Jews remianing in Spain in 1492, of which 50,000 converted to Christianity, 100,000 left Spain and 10,000 died en route from Spain. No one counted the Jews who stayed and those who left, so I’ll follow Dumont’s numbers for the moment.
We have first-hand accounts of the Spanish Expulsion. This is from a Spanish Jew, writing from Italy in 1495:
They sold their houses, their landed estates, and their cattle for very small prices, to save themselves. The King [of Spain] did not allow them to carry silver and gold out of his country, so that they were compelled to exchange their silver and gold for merchandise of cloths and skins and other things. One hundred and twenty thousand of them went to Portugal, [where the King] acted much worse toward them than the King of Spain, [making] slaves of all those that remained in his country … He also ordered the congregation of Lisbon, his capital, not to raise their voice in their prayers, that the Lord might not hear their complaining about the violence that was done unto them. Many of the exiled Spaniards went to Mohammedan countries, to Fez, Tlemçen, and the Berber provinces, under the King of Tunis. On account of their large numbers the Moors did not allow them into their cities, and many of them died in the fields from hunger, thirst, and lack of everything … When the edict of expulsion became known in the other countries, vessels came from Genoa to the Spanish harbors to carry away the Jews. The crews of these vessels, too, acted maliciously and meanly toward the Jews, robbed them, and delivered some of them to the famous pirate of that time who was called the Corsair of Genoa. To those who escaped and arrived at Genoa the people of the city showed themselves merciless, and oppressed and robbed them, and the cruelty of their wicked hearts went so far that they took the infants from the mothers’ breasts. [Elsewhere, some Jews] died by famine, others sold their children to Christians to sustain their life. Finally, a plague broke out among them, spread to Naples, and very many of them died, so that the living wearied of burying the dead.
Christian accounts of the expulsion paint a similar picture. The following account is from a Catholic priest:
Within the terms fixed by the edict of expulsion, the Jews sold and disposed of their property for a mere nothing. They went about asking Christians to buy and found no buyers. Fine houses and estates were sold for trifles; a house was exchanged for a mule, and a vineyard given for a little cloth or linen. The rich Jews paid the expenses of the departure of the poor, practicing toward each other the greatest charity, so that they would not become converts. In the first week of July they took the route for quitting their native land, great and small, old and young, on horses and in carts. They experienced great trouble; some falling, others rising; some dying and others being born; some being stricken with illness. Christians along the way persuaded them to be baptized, but those who converted were very few.
Granted, our sources are sketchy, and even if we had better information about the Spanish Expulsion, we shouldn’t assume that a proposed present-day mass deportation would closely resemble one that took place 500 years ago. But I think we can draw some general conclusions from the Spanish Expulsion, particularly since the same conclusions emerge from any examination of the Nazi mass deportations:
- Deportees will be forced to dispose much of their property at great personal loss. Remember that Trump proposes to deport millions of people in a short space of time. These people will not be able to take their homes with them, and probably not their cars either. All possessions that cannot fit in a few suitcases will have to be sold. With millions of people all selling their stuff at the same time, prices will be (to paraphrase the priest’s description above) “a mere nothing.” Those remaining in the U.S. will benefit from these “bargains” (a better word than “benefit” might be “theft”), but not all Americans will benefit. For example: what do you imagine will happen to new car sales, with so many used cars dumped on the market for next to nothing? What do you think will happen to our auto workers as a result?
- Deportees will struggle to find new homes in new lands. Here’s a lesson that Jews know: just because the country where you live seeks to deport you, doesn’t mean there’s another country just waiting out there to take you in. As reported above, many Jews expelled from Spain set out for cities and countries that eventually refused to accept them. The many Jews who left Spain for Portugal were expelled from Portugal (or forced to convert to Christianity) just a few years later. And here’s a fact that many Jews and most Christians do not know: before Hitler determined to murder the Jews under his rule, he tried to force them to emigrate. Most of these Jews were more than willing to leave Nazi rule, but few were able to find other countries willing to take them in.
- Deportees will die in great numbers. While we don’t know how many Jews died in the Spanish expulsion, it’s reasonable to guess (as did Dumont) that 10% of the Spanish Jewish refugees died in the process of trying to find a new home. We can pray that the survival rate under Trump’s deportation will be higher than this! But we also have to be realistic. The very young, the very old, the sick and the infirm are going to suffer the worst under forced deportation. Even if I can muster the optimism to hope that things are better today for refugees than they were 500 years ago, it’s still going to be the case that many of Trump’s refugees will be killed in the course of his deportation effort. How many? My guess is in the hundreds of thousands. The risks Jews faced 500 years ago on their journeys from Spain—extreme weather, disease, bandits and thieves, rip-off artists and the hostility of potential new neighbors—are still with us today, and their deadly potential has not diminished.
The election is six days from now. The talk of this campaign season has been about sexual misconduct and emails, but not about the suffering of potentially millions of American-made refugees. I know, I know, this is supposed to be a blog about religion and not politics. But when the Bible commands us (over and over and over again) to treat the stranger in our midst with kindness—without regard for how the stranger crossed our border into our midst—isn’t this something that Jews and Christians should be talking about?