When Illegal Immigrants Are Jews

June 1, 2011
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Douglas Hauer

Over the course of this year’s Sh’ma conversation on the ethics of immigration — and in the larger national discussion — there is a reflexive assumption that the debate is primarily about illegal Mexican and Central American immigrants who entered the United States for economic reasons. Some have defined illegal immigrants as strangers who live among us, citing the Jewish tradition of tolerance toward outsiders within our gates. The anti-immigrant camp, on the other hand, turns to generalizations to define illegal immigrants as criminal and impoverished. Either way, illegal immigrants are “others” in a charged and polarizing policy debate.

What both sides of the debate seem to agree on is that illegal immigration is not specifically a Jewish problem. Illegal immigrants are, by definition, strangers outside our community. Few associate the names Bernstein or Cohen with being an illegal immigrant. But we should. Although little is written on illegal Jewish immigrants, they exist. They are also invisible.

As an immigration lawyer, I have met Jews who are living without lawful immigration status. They are from Israel, Romania, Russia, Latin America, Canada, and other places. What they share in common is an inability to become legal residents of the United States. A future green card is precluded. Many came lawfully on visas, but lost their status after a layoff or the breakup of a marriage. There are no statistics on illegal Jewish immigrants. Their Jewishness is erased when they are counted with other illegal immigrants.

How would any of us react if a family in our congregation were to be arrested and detained for overstaying a visa? I have met entire families in the Jewish community who face exactly this risk in America, the Goldene Medina — the land of golden opportunity.

Illegal immigration cuts across racial, national, religious, economic, and social lines. Jews comprise only a tiny portion of the 12 to 13 million illegal immigrants. While their numbers are small, their stories are compelling. I have met elderly Jews who worked for 30 years without lawful immigration status, only to learn later that the system does not permit them to collect Social Security benefits. I have met accomplished professionals who were brought to the United States as young children by parents who lost their immigration status. These Jews grew up culturally as Americans, but they are illegal. There is no mechanism for curing that status. While America is the only home they know, they live with a sense that their existence here is fragile.

I have met many young Israelis who underestimate the severity of the consequences for working without proper visas, only to learn later that they are accused of fraud or misrepresentation and that they face a lifetime ban against coming back to the United States. And I have met Jews who were oppressed in their native countries and who then came to the United States for a vacation — only to extend that stay for health or family reasons and then fall out of status.

Absent from any statistical data is important information about the subjective fear of bureaucracy that inhibits some of these individuals from seeking any resolution to an expired visa. Jews also get unwittingly swept up into the net of aggressive enforcement initiatives. This combination of unforgiving laws and increased enforcement has scarred many people who find themselves in our system without lawful status.

Our U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have become especially zealous in the past few years. Just last month, I spent many hours at an airport while my client, a Holocaust survivor from Israel, was interrogated about her visa and her intention to stay here only temporarily. It is hard to justify interrogating an Israeli Holocaust survivor on the pretext of security or law enforcement. Even as a lawyer who practices in this field, I am intimidated by the behavior of our government officials. This feeling of intimidation must be so much more personal and frightening for Jews who have experienced persecution.

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell’s October Sh’ma column suggests that we should have confidence in our law enforcement officials. And yet, in the immigration context, coercive abuse of power by various agencies is commonplace. Torah wisdom about boundaries also does little to advance our analysis. We need broad, sweeping immigration reform. Punitive state laws, such as Arizona’s AZ SB 1071, which would require law enforcement officials to collect racial and ethnic information from each pedestrian or driver of a vehicle they stop, are driven by populist sentiments and angry voters, not by justice. These laws target primarily Latino communities and are unconstitutional. Instead of repairing a problem, these laws are costly, and they produce litigation. Our community needs to speak out against these laws. We should do so as Jews and as fair-minded Americans, and especially on behalf of the invisible illegal Jewish immigrants who have no voice.

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Douglas Hauer, an attorney in Boston, serves on the Board of Trustees of the American Immigration Council and on the National Ethics Committee of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.


  1. Great article.

    This is a sore point for the Jewish community. As a foreigner (always legally here), but with the eternal visa problems I have witnessed 2 things:
    1. Immigration officials have used the fear of terrorism -as justified as it is- to create a police state.
    2. I have found little sympathy from the Jewish community towards people that come to this land and in many ways lose their sense of identity (hence the expression: “their Jewishness is erased…”)

    The first point is not surprising, the second one is painful.

    Posted by
    Ruben Misrahi
  2. Interesting article, but I object to the phrase “Their Jewishness is erased.” Nobody can erase someone else’s Jewishness. These people are still Jews. Just because the US government doesn’t keep track of people’s religion doesn’t mean they are erasing it.

    Posted by
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