Letter from New York: Lifting the Lamp Again

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Letter from New York: Lifting the Lamp Again

Gideon Aronoff

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"The sentiment against immigration, particularly during this period of depression, has become intensified. The opponents of immigration were extremely active. Not for one moment did they let up their propaganda. They filled the press, they were heard on the platform, they make themselves felt in the Halls of Congress."

These words from the 1931 Annual Report of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, could have been written last year. One of the great ironies of American life is our relationship to immigrants and immigration policy. We are a country that was founded by immigrants for immigrants. Yet, for the majority of the 20th century and entirety of the 21st, our nation has been vastly challenged by restrictive immigration laws.

As Jews and Americans, we bear a special responsibility to provide welcome to those seeking refuge. Since God told Abraham “Lekh lekha,” we have been on the move. Our own refugee history includes generations as slaves in Egypt; lengthy exile in Babylonia; and persecution, torture and murder throughout the Middle Ages to recent times.

Our interest peaks in our movement from slavery in Egypt to freedom in our own land during the Hebrew month of Nisan, as we celebrate Pesah, also known as Hag Ha-herut, the Festival of Freedom. Yet, from a liturgical point of view, there is nothing seasonal about the biblical instructions we are given on how to treat “the other.” The Bible commands us no less than 36 times to “welcome the stranger.” We are likewise exhorted to “redeem the captive,” “pursue justice” and “repair the world.” In short, we are all—Jews and strangers alike—created in the image of God and expected to behave accordingly.

From the earliest trickle to New Amsterdam and the 13 Colonies to the great immigration waves of the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews came to America to escape poverty, discrimination and religious persecution, seeking safety and opportunity in the goldene medina.

For much of its history, America kept its doors open to our relatives and ancestors and others who worked hard, prospered and contributed immeasurably to all aspects of American life. Then, the Immigration Act of 1924 established a national-origin quota system for immigration. By the 1930s and 1940s, the doors had almost completely shut, with horrific consequences for European Jews.

Restrictions have waxed and waned over the years, with Jewish immigration advocates succeeding in convincing the government to accommodate two massive waves of immigrants, allowing tens of thousands of displaced persons into the United States in the late ’40s and early ’50s and more than 400,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union in the last 40 years. But today’s immigration laws make it very difficult to arrive in this country as our forebears frequently did, with neither close family ties nor work.

In the United States today, there are 11 million to 12 million undocumented workers—the vast majority from the Western Hemisphere, but also from Europe, Asia and Africa. Most have come to escape grinding poverty and seek opportunity in this still golden land. In 2010, a record 252 people died trying to cross the Arizona border into the United States. Despite recent stepped-up enforcement, our borders are porous, especially to those powerfully motivated by this country’s economic promise.

Nearly all observers agree that border security and undocumented migration are tremendous problems. The debate is not whether we should gain greater control of the borders, but whether it is advisable, or even possible, to succeed if enforcement is the sole focus of our immigration policies.

Ultimately, we can choose from three options: We can do nothing while the problem grows worse year after year; we can try to expel millions at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars and associated family, employment and social disruptions; or we can accept that the broken immigration system can be fixed only by coming together as a country, engaging in a measured debate on immigration policy and ultimately passing legislation that will create legal avenues for the undocumented to be able to work and provide them with a path to citizenship.

In broad strokes, these key principles form the framework for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Other elements include ensuring that our border-control policies are consistent with American humanitarian values while remaining vigilant against terrorists and criminals trying to enter the United States; reforming our family-based immigration system to significantly reduce waiting times for separated families (currently families must wait many years to be reunited with loved ones); and developing programs to enhance citizenship and encourage the integration of newcomers into American society.

It is in our nation’s best interests to move forward without further delay not only because CIR is the right thing to do, but because it tightly intersects with both our economy and national security.

Both Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich have underscored that the United States is engaged in a global competition with other Western economies for labor to replace an aging workforce. Bernanke has argued that the problem of Americans aging out of the workforce is so severe that it would take an annual immigration rate of 3.5 million people to replace those lost to retirement.

With fewer than one million legal immigrants currently being admitted annually, there is significant leeway for greater legal immigration. This reality explains the deep involvement in the immigration debate of business coalitions, who see access to immigrant workers as the only way to guarantee that fruit will be picked, dishes washed and buildings constructed.

Likewise, much of organized labor has moved away from its traditionally hostile approach to immigration. Andy Stern, recently retired president of the Service Employees International Union, explains that “An underground economy—where workers have little protection and work for substandard pay in hazardous conditions—undermines the standards for all workers in this country and breeds divisions in workplaces and our communities.” Union leaders have concluded that with the general decline in union membership, much of its future influence may depend on unionizing undocumented workers.

In short, immigration advocates in both business and labor argue that the best way to reduce the negative impact of illegal immigration and improve the economy is to change the system to a legal one, where low-skilled workers have protected rights and the responsibilities of citizenship.

In post-9/11 America, immigration has frequently been cast as a challenge to our security. While there have been ugly attempts to create the false impression that our immigration and terrorism problems are one and the same, legitimate concerns do exist: With a porous border and a shadow society of undocumented immigrants, there is ample opportunity for terrorists and criminals to gain access and flourish.

Smart immigration policies can help improve security on the borders and in our country’s interior. It is time for enforcement resources to be focused on those migrants who pose the greatest danger of terrorist or criminal connections rather than maintaining the current policies, which force immigration agents to waste time and resources chasing busboys and nannies. This can only be done if those busboys and nannies are given legal opportunities for employment (which would include background checks).

Yet, even within the current imperative for enhanced security, we need to be extremely cautious to neither overstep nor harm other core values and interests by identifying threats where they do not exist.

For example, today refugees from regions across the world are being denied protection and resettlement in the United States because of the overly broad definition of the material support for terrorist activity statute put into law after 9/11.

These victims of persecution are being barred from admission even though the support they once provided may have been given to groups challenging brutally repressive regimes in countries such as Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. For example, a young girl, kidnapped at age 12 by a rebel group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, used as a child soldier and later threatened for advocating against the use of children in armed conflict has been unable to receive a grant of asylum. Her application has been on hold for more than two years because she was forced to take part in armed conflict as a child.

By analogy, this provision would have barred Jews during the Holocaust who had provided assistance to Nazi resistance groups. Despite years of work to correct this injustice, Congress and two successive administrations have not been able to find an adequate solution, in significant part for fear of looking soft on security.

Nor should we be punishing the young undocumented students, some 50,000 to 65,000 of whom graduate from American high schools each year. Without legal status, they are currently unable to access higher education. The DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act), which failed to pass Congress in the last session, would have granted conditional permanent resident status to young people who came to the United States before the age of 16, can demonstrate “good moral character,” have lived in this country for at least five years at the time of enactment and have graduated from high school.

The bill would have granted them eligibility for permanent residence status—a direct path to citizenship—if after graduation these individuals attend college or serve in the military for two years.

Truthfully, if this most basic of immigration bills was unable to pass Congress, the prospects for CIR are dimmer today than they have been for some time. Our national interests and religious traditions dictate that immigration would be one issue on which we would agree. But, unfortunately, the need for immigration reform has devolved into partisan arguments, with Democrats generally pro-immigration and Republicans generally not. However, not even a Republican president, George W. Bush, who was pro-immigration, was able to pass legislation. With Congress in deadlock, it will be a major challenge for the Obama administration to move forward at this time.

The current political climate does not give us a pass to take immigration issues off the front burner. In the past, immigration activists have been successful in convincing the government to loosen restrictions in times of crisis. In the Jewish community, we have not only been active when those at risk were our own. Countless times we have successfully advocated for the stranger—for example, the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s and, more recently, Iraqis who helped the United States military in the Iraq war.

As Americans, we must continue to work in a pragmatic and principled way to ensure we are a welcoming and inclusive nation and not one defined by fear and isolation. As Jews—who each year recall our own enslavement in Egypt—we are commanded to make welcoming the stranger and all it entails our mission, not because they are or are not Jews, but because we are Jews.

Gideon Aronoff is the president and CEO of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the international migration agency of the American Jewish community.

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