Immigration Reform and the Jewish Perspective

March 1, 2007
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Gideon Aronoff

As Jews, when we consider immigration reform, we are obliged to begin with the central Jewish teachings that emphasize welcome, protection, and love for the ger, the stranger. Jewish tradition also includes principles of piddyon shevuyim, redeeming the captive, chesed, kindness, and hachnasat orchim, hospitality, which create a solid framework for a compassionate response to the needs of immigrants and refugees.

The Jewish tradition is absolute in its support for refugees as seen in the Torah’s insistence that “you shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you…” ( Deuteronomy 23:16) This has been the driving principle behind the Jewish community’s historic efforts to rescue and resettle hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews, as well as Jewish and non-Jewish refugees who fled persecution around the world.

What the Torah does not contain, however, are concrete solutions for specific immigration problems. The medieval Jewish principle of harem hayishuv is most often understood to allow communities to exclude migrants from permanent settlement when there is a concern that the migration of certain individuals would have an adverse economic impact on the community. Clearly, the Jewish tradition cannot be seen as supporting an absolute right of settlement or to promote open borders. Instead, the full scope of interests of the contemporary Jewish community needs to be factored in to identify the “most Jewish” approach to immigration.

Immigration influences many other areas of Jewish community concern, including foreign, economic, and social policy. From the perspective of migrants, immigration is about seeking access to the opportunities provided by the United States — frequently a chance to provide economic sustenance for one’s family. If one has no work at home, the lure of the U.S. job market can be irresistible. Under our current system where fake documents are readily available and an unworkable employer sanctions program is in effect, migrants are confident that if they are ready to work hard, face the dangers of illegal border crossings, and accept life in a legal limbo, they can find work and a chance to survive.

An independent taskforce on immigration concluded last year that immigration augments and complements the workforce exceptionally well, helps the U.S. maintain a competitive edge and adapt to global market conditions, and gives our economy a particular dynamism. However, they also concluded that despite the positive net benefits of immigration, illegal immigration can have a negative impact on wages at the bottom of the pay scale.

The best way to reduce the negative consequences of illegal immigration is to change the system into a legal system where low- skilled workers can protect their rights. This change would both improve their standing and prevent their employment from undermining the standing of native-born workers. While competition from new workers can legitimately be seen as a threat to these workers, a comprehensive approach to immigration — coupled with a renewed emphasis on education and training — can address these concerns while still serving to grow the economy and the workforce in ways that are important over the long term.

National security is a key issue and paramount concern today when considering immigration reform. Efforts to tighten enforcement while providing legal opportunities for the current undocumented immigrant population and future flows of immigrant workers will best target enforcement resources on those migrants who pose the greatest danger of terrorist or criminal connections. Today, immigration agents waste valuable resources chasing busboys and nannies.

Improperly labeling situations “threats to national security” can harm other core values and interests. For example, today refugees from regions across the world are being denied protection and resettlement here because of the overly broad definition of Material Support for Terrorist Activity put into law after 9/11. These victims of persecution are being barred even though the support they provided to an “alleged terrorist organization” may have been given to a group fighting an enemy of the U.S. or made under duress. By analogy, this provision would have barred Jews during the Holocaust who had assisted the resistance to Nazi genocide.

America is at a crossroads: as the new Congress tackles the pressing issues facing the country today, what happens regarding immigration policy will affect generations to come. What is needed is a careful, considered, and compassionate approach that incorporates the pressing security concerns of all Americans while maintaining America’s historical essence as a welcoming haven.

Congress should pass legislation that provides for border protection policies that are consistent with American humanitarian values; an opportunity for the hard-working undocumented immigrants in our country to regularize their status after fulfilling reasonable criteria; reforms to our family-based immigration system to more quickly reunite families; legal avenues for workers and their families to enter the U.S. to work in a safe and orderly manner; and programs to enhance citizenship and encourage the integration of newcomers in American society.

Unlike many circumstances where the Jewish community faces difficult choices between its deepest values and immediate interests, adopting a comprehensive approach to immigration reform fulfills both humanitarian and other interests simultaneously.

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Gideon Aronoff joined HIAS in 2000 to head the Washington office and was named President and CEO of the organization in 2006. He earned a JD degree from Cornell Law School and a BA degree in history from Brandeis University. He is a member of the board of directors of the National Immigration Forum and has put his knowledge of Jewish community institutions, interests, and community relations concerns to use throughout his career. Before joining HIAS in 2000, he worked for nearly a dozen years in Boston and Washington in policy, advocacy, and leadership positions in the Soviet Jewry movement. He and his wife, Victoria, have one daughter, Dalia.

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