The results of the November elections did little to further the hope that comprehensive immigration reform is a realistic goal for the immediate future. For much of the 20th and all of the 21st century, this country has been living a conundrum as far as immigration is concerned. On the one hand we were founded by immigrants for immigrants; on the other hand, our laws have done more to block immigration than to embrace it.
Yet, as Jews, our core beliefs and our central communal interests require us to remain fully engaged in the fate of Jewish and non-Jewish immigrants and refugees in the United States and around the world. I see five principal reasons why we in the Jewish community should, and must, take on the obligation of advocating for just and compassionate immigration laws.
1. Our Jewish religious and ethical teachings: There are 36 references in the Bible to the commandment of welcoming, loving, and protecting the stranger; this commandment is stated more than any other. This mitzvah is also supported by our obligations of pidyon shevuyim (redemption of the captive) and hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests). More powerfully, we are to understand from our experience in Egypt, where we were strangers, too, that, as Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom has said: “‘Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.’”
2. The lessons of Jewish history: Jews have been a wandering people, a people of migration, ever since God exhorted Abraham in Genesis 12:1, “Lech lecha”: “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” Our history ever since has been one of movement — escaping violence and persecution, and seeking opportunity and fulfillment.
3. Ongoing Jewish migration: In our globally connected Jewish community, there are multiple and ongoing needs faced by Jewish migrants. According to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, approximately 15 percent of the American Jewish community is foreign born. For Jews to serve Jewish migrants, and for the United States to welcome Jewish immigrants, we need an effective and generous immigration policy across the board.
4. Community relations/coalition building: As a community whose numbers are small, it is especially important for us to reach across ethnic and political lines to engage others. Their concerns are our concerns, as ours are theirs. For example, as we seek to build ties with Latinos, we cannot say that hundreds of Latino immigrants who die in the desert each year are not a Jewish concern.
5. Common national interests as Americans: Immigration is, and always has been, a core issue of national identity in the United States. Do we want to be a welcoming and inclusive nation or one defined by fear and isolation? Even as we struggle through the current recession, we must acknowledge the fact that undocumented workers contribute significantly to our economy. Rather than spending precious government dollars on finding and expelling illegal workers, we should be expending effort on maximizing their ability to contribute to our economic and societal growth. Estimates vary about the positive impact on the GDP of a comprehensive immigration reform package. The Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, suggests that such a package would result in an increase of $180 billion in GDP, and a recent study by the University of California, Los Angeles suggests that it would result in an increase of $1.5 trillion in GDP.
These five points make the case for why in 2011 Jews should care deeply about immigration. We are perfectly suited to be strong advocates for comprehensive immigration reform. The seeming paralysis in Washington does not give us a pass. We must continue to press those in power to protect those who are powerless as they seek refuge on our shores. At the end of the day, we care for the stranger not because he or she is Jewish, but because we are Jewish.email print