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Undocumented Workers: Good for America? Good for the Jews?

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

July 29, 2011 | 11:47 am

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

How should the American people treat a population which only has a marginal economic impact yet still manages to stimulate job growth and consumption in the country?  The presumed answer is sadly far from the reality of how America behaves towards “illegal immigrants.” They often work 10 – 16 hours a day for minimal if not nominal pay without legal protection, risking imprisonment and deportation, and have no footholds which could lead to a more productive life.  Constantly being treated as the “other” has significant social implications for these workers often leading to deep alienation.

Jews can empathize with those who suffer from governmental and societal discrimination. Throughout history, Jews were consistently considered strangers and outsiders, whether from Egypt, Spain, or the Former Soviet Union, and we have on an international scale lived lives in fear due to geo-political and socio-economic discrimination.

Currently, many Jews mistakenly perceive undocumented workers in the United States to be an alien, (“the other”) as if our own immigration status were a relic of the distant past. In fact, thousands of illegal Jewish immigrants - from Israel, Latin America, and the Former Soviet Union - live in America today at risk without documentation as well. If not for our historic past, then for our religious teachings we must address the grave injustice and mistreatment of undocumented workers in America. The Torah teaches, “You shall have one law for the stranger and the citizens alike” (Leviticus 24:22). We may not treat the citizen and the stranger differently according to Jewish law.

Judaism places the highest emphasis on the freedom and dignity of the human. The strictness of national borders that places nationalism over individualism is a religiously flawed stance. The Rabbis taught that “God gathered the dust (of the first human) from the four corners of the world. Why from the four corners of the earth? So that if one comes from the east to the west and arrives at the end of his life as he near departing from the world, it will not be said to him, ‘This land is not the dust of your body, it’s of mine. Go back to where you were created.’ Rather, every place that a person walks, from there he was created and from there he will return.” The Torah stresses that nationality is not a part of human essence and thus we can never allow for discrimination.

The dawn of globalization has enabled the possibility for a free flow of money, products, and labor. However, while we continue to knock down barriers for the flow of money and products, we are erecting higher walls preventing the most underprivileged people from migrating naturally. 

Non-Jews and Jews alike should reverse the cruel punitive practices in the U.S. because the undocumented population has a marginal economic impact, and in fact stimulates job growth and consumption. Currently about eleven million people work in the US illegally, and their net economic impact on Americans is relatively small. The most conservative estimates show that undocumented workers only contribute around .03 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. This is approximately equivalent to the net cost of government services given to this immigrant population. While this overall impact is small, many sectors in the American economy, such as construction and agriculture, would suffer greatly without the labor of undocumented workers.

Second, even the Chamber of Commerce is in support of those “already contributing to our economy” becoming legalized. A 2010 report demonstrated that across US industries, the net effect of immigration has actually created more jobs for American citizens, including low-skilled workers. Contrary to public perception, immigrants do not take jobs away from American laborers; rather, they take jobs that would otherwise be sent abroad.

Finally, studies show not only that these workers tend to increase productivity, but that they also naturally support the local economy as consumers.

Therefore, the result is that undocumented workers actually support the American economy as productive members of society, and yet suffer at the hands of that same society. The American Jewish community must be at the forefront to resolve this inequality. Some of the smallest adjustments can ensure the largest impact. For instance, all workers, including those undocumented, must receive a living wage and this will strengthen the overall economy through a decrease in unemployment. Raising wages and benefits, perhaps counter intuitively, decreases unemployment because it has been shown that those who are happier at their work stay longer and are more productive.

For the welfare of this country, write to your Representatives in government to begin supporting a sector of America’s workforce and to end the oppression of undocumented workers.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the senior Jewish educator at the UCLA Hillel. He is also founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek and a fifth-year doctoral candidate in moral psychology and epistemology at Columbia University. He is also on faculty at Shalhevet High School.

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