Values to Define our Society

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March 1, 2007
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Robert Rubin

Ignoring that market forces tacitly encourage illegal immigrants to come and perform labor that most Americans won’t do, former California Governor Wilson disparaged them as “invaders.” If we sufficiently dehumanize immigrants, it becomes easier to justify the onerous laws and policies we impose. Unfortunately, rhetoric and labeling seem to be an essential element of our immigration debate. What does that say about us? Well, immigration policy is one of those issues that help define society. Often unable to articulate the values that are common to those we consider “members” of our society, we instead reveal core principles by the rules we apply to those who we exclude from membership.

What are the conditions for membership? Whose interests must be taken into account? The deserving immigrant who brings needed skills? The torture victim seeking a safe haven? American business? Unemployed American workers? And if Congress looked to the Jewish value that we are all created in the image of God, b’tselem Elokim, to guide its policymaking, what would that look like? When “made in the image of God,” the stranger appears not only as an immigrant seeking economic opportunity but also among the homeless, the unemployed, and the low-wage earners. What is the proper balance among these competing interests?

These are the questions that confront Congress as it contemplates yet another round of immigration reform. Over the past 25 years, we have enacted major legislation on four occasions. And the debate typically has been couched in extreme terms: Should we pursue Pat Buchanan’s vision of Fortress America or the laissez-faire open borders approach?

Congress will soon be considering bills to overhaul the immigration system. The first question will be whether to enact comprehensive reform that includes some form of a legalization plan for the approximate twelve   million undocumented aliens or to simply focus on law enforcement measures. The backdrop for this debate will be our insatiable thirst for cheap labor that seems to outweigh any real attempt at border or workplace enforcement. This hypocrisy was revealed again last year when Congress authorized a wall to be built along the Mexican border but didn’t appropriate funds for it. So, look for politicians to continue to talk tough about the border but, as always, market forces will trump politics on the ground.

One key proposal would require, or at least authorize, local police officers to enforce federal immigration laws. But we must not divert the resources of police departments from enforcing state and local laws to performing the federal government’s responsibility to administer immigration laws. Once we convert local cops into federal immigration agents, they will lose the trust and cooperation of the community. Crime victims will be chilled from reporting crimes, fearful that the local officer receiving the complaint will turn around and investigate their immigration status. Another provision would allow temporary workers to enter the country. While it’s unclear whether sufficient labor protections can ever provide for a fair guest worker program — allowing temporary workers to enter the country — Congress must ensure that any such program allows for job mobility so that workers are not locked into abusive work environments. Finally, fair procedures, including a confidentiality clause, must be established for the legalization program if we expect people to come out of the shadows.

Vulnerable minority groups (including Jews) often argue that if we don’t support immigrants, who will support “us?” Citing Niemoeller’s famous speech about how “they came first for the Communists and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist . . . ,” these groups are moved by a sense of self-preservation. But for Jews, self-preservation is not enough. We must be equally animated by an unadulterated concern and respect for the “other.” So while it may be “good for the Jews,” we support the immigrant because we understand that this outsider is motivated by the most natural of instincts — to provide for herself and her family. That doesn’t translate into throwing our doors open to all who want to enter, but it certainly means tempering our myopic focus on a law enforcement approach to a socioeconomic phenomenon. We must recognize that it’s not simply an act of generosity to admit immigrants, but it actually keeps us vital — economically and culturally — while honoring the mandates of Torah.

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Robert Rubin, a civil rights attorney for the past 27 years, is Legal Director for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. He specializes in the areas of immigration and voting rights. Prior to coming to the Lawyers Committee, he was the ACLU staff counsel in Jackson, Mississippi. Mr. Rubin has appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court on two voting rights cases and has appeared on numerous occasions before the California Legislature and the U.S. Congress. A Wexner Heritage alum, he currently sits on the Jewish Community Federation's Israel and Overseas Committee and the Progressive Jewish Alliance's Advisory Council.

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