When Karol Ruiz of Dover was 7 years old, she and her mother fled Colombia to join her father in New Jersey. In doing so, they risked encountering “coyotes,” cross-border smugglers who could murder, rape, rob, and possibly force them into slavery.
At one point, they were able to escape from a coyote in Tijuana, who had threatened to rape Karol’s mother, by hiding under a pile of dirty sheets in a laundry basket at a motel while he searched for them in vain. They made it to California and eventually the family settled in Randolph.
“Our family was constantly living in poverty” in the affluent Morris County suburb, Ruiz said. “We lived in a house with no heat and no oil and my father was too afraid of getting evicted to talk to the landlord.”
Citing her own dramatic story of living in the United States without legal permission, Ruiz, now an immigration lawyer, urged members of a Jewish education class in Summit not to “criminalize or idealize” undocumented immigrants, but to “humanize us.”
“If you recognize the humanity in another person it is much harder to then abuse them,” said Ruiz, 38, co-president and a volunteer attorney at the Winds of the Spirit Immigration Resource Center in Morristown. The collective partners with local food banks and environmental groups, and provides low- or no-cost legal aid to immigrants.
In a May 17 lecture at Congregation Ohr Shalom, the Summit Jewish Community Center, she said the current climate for immigrants in the United States is “becoming more oppressive. We are seeing a rise in the reporting of hate crimes, sometimes against legal immigrants. The rhetoric is constantly criminalizing and dehumanizing immigrants in this country and I think that is dangerous.”
Her appearance was the final session of the Conservative congregation’s adult education series, “Current Concerns in Our World.”
“Immigration and illegal immigration are a human concern and create an issue of discrimination, which falls under a Jewish banner because Jews have so often suffered discrimination,” said Judy Peskin, a Summit resident who coordinates her synagogue’s adult education programs.
“Our series dealt with contemporary problems facing our Jewish community as citizens in a world filled with moral problems.”
Prior topics included American foreign policy, Jewish alternatives to Zionism, Holocaust survival, and the first 100 days of the Trump administration.
“I am very pleased that our community was able to welcome her and hear her story,” Rabbi Avi Friedman of Ohr Shalom told NJJN. “In my opinion, the Jewish tradition is extremely clear regarding our obligation to welcome newcomers and treat them justly. We Jews know too well from firsthand experience what happens when the immigrant is not treated fairly.”
The dangers of risking personal safety to migrate to the United States were not unknown to Ruiz, her parents, or her sister. She was born in Cali, Colombia, in 1978. It was a despotic country in which the violence by drug cartels, revolutionaries, and counterinsurgency forces was “a common occurrence.” After her father was stabbed while walking through a park, her family was determined to leave their native land.
Because they were not active in any political movements, her parents were not candidates for asylum in the United States. When Karol was 7, her father came to America without permission, risking his life on a “pretty harrowing” sailing trip from Mexico to San Diego. Unable to find work as a welder, he worked three part-time jobs and lived at the poverty level.
“That year apart from him was traumatic,” she said. “It was horrible.”
Ruiz said that while her family’s journey toward reunification was dangerous, for others, the trek is downright deadly. “Many immigrants die in the desert once they cross the border,” said Ruiz.
Once the Ruiz family finally entered the United States and settled in Randolph, her visa-less status prevented Ruiz from getting food stamps or Medicaid or a driver’s license. At school, she was called a “spic,” and she did not apply to college because she could not obtain any financial aid. “I fell into depression. I felt my life was over,” Ruiz said.
In order to take advantage of spousal privilege, she married her Puerto Rican boyfriend who had American citizenship when she was 18; just two months later, citizenship requirements became more difficult, even for those marrying citizens. They have an 18-year-old son but have since divorced.
After receiving an associate’s degree from the County College of Morris, she went on to graduate from Seton Hall Law School. Ruiz handles many of her clients’ cases without charge. She speaks frequently about the issues that have affected her life, and she urged her audience not to glamorize the suffering or heroics by refugees.
“They are not necessarily going to come here and worship the ground you walk on,” she said. “They may be doctors and lawyers, but they may be too traumatized to do anything except sit at home in a fetal positon and cry…They may commit crimes. They may be involved in domestic violence. They may steal. They are human, just like anyone else.”
Asked by NJJN how the United States should handle its immigrant populations, Ruiz said, “Being an idealist, I want to pass a law for all who want to live in this country and contribute to this country. We need to recognize that immigrants contribute to the economy and the social fiber of this country and ensure that laws match the reality.”
And she had a special message for Jews:
“History repeats itself, and we in the immigrant rights movement have learned a lot from the movements to provide refuge to the Jews who escaped from Nazi Germany,” she said. “So, until we unite the movements to protect various vulnerable communities, including blacks, Jews, immigrants, and other minorities, and until we recognize that the least among us are not safe, none of us is safe.”