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Jewish Groups Take Pro-Immigrant Stand

by Robert David Jaffee

April 6, 2006 | 8:00 pm

You didn't see many Jews amid the sea of Mexican and American flags during the recent pro-immigrant rallies that filled city streets, but Jews and Jewish groups, in largely liberal Los Angeles, have been advocating on behalf of immigrants, mostly outside the view of television cameras.

Among local Jewish organizations, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has been leading the way: Its regional branch has been developing and disseminating a pro-immigrant resolution for roughly six months. The resulting declaration, recently approved by the Pacific Southwest Region of the ADL, calls for humane treatment of illegal immigrants, while also accepting the need for "security precautions ... necessary to protect the integrity of the United States border and the well-being of the American people."

Sixteen local civil rights organizations and the Catholic church have signed on to the declaration, said Amanda Susskind, regional director of ADL. The declaration has been forwarded to L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti, with the hope that the City Council, too, will endorse the nonbinding resolution. Signatories hope the declaration will work its way to other cities and to the state Legislature as well.

The ADL declaration is intentionally short on specifics. It does not get into details about the number of years or days per year an undocumented immigrant should work to get resident status or whether or not illegal immigrants should be required to learn English or submit to a criminal background check. Instead, the declaration condemns in broad terms "xenophobia and anti-immigrant bias as having no place in United States' immigration policy" and also proposes the monitoring of extremist groups.

Other local Jewish organizations also have taken a pro-immigration stance, including the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA). Two rabbis affiliated with the organization were part of a delegation of clergy who recently spoke to congressmen in Washington to "present a moral agenda," PJA Executive Director Daniel Sokatch said.

A signatory to the ADL declaration, the alliance "takes the position further," said Sokatch, urging community leaders "to take a stand substantially similar to Cardinal [Roger] Mahony's."

Mahony has spoken out adamantly against House and Senate bills that would define illegal immigration as a felony and would also criminalize the actions of those organizations and people who help these immigrants.

Sokatch says that the PJA would advocate civil disobedience against such provisions, which are part of legislation proposed by Wisconsin Representative James Sensenbrenner and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

"Any law that would cater to the worst, xenophobic elements," Sokatch saus, "would require us to civilly disobey the law."

Sokatch said that he did not attend the March 25 "Gran Marcha" because it was Shabbat, but he and his two daughters did attend another rally at UCLA, which included many non-Latinos, some Jews presumably among them.

The local branch of the American Jewish Congress also signed the ADL declaration. The national organization was expected to consider its own resolution on immigration at its national board meeting this week. Executive Director Neil Goldstein said that his organization is "strongly in favor of border controls," but prefers the more pro-immigrant approach of legislation developed by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"The historic position of Jews is that we are an immigrant people," Goldstein says. "We support the idea of immigrants coming to America balanced with respect for the law and our border."

Another local signatory to the ADL declaration is the legal aid group Bet Tzedek, which represents Latino immigrants through its employment-rights project. The organization aims to prevent discrimination against immigrants "whether they're documented or not," Bet Tzedek Executive Director Mitchell Kamin said.

An individual on the frontlines of a walkout was teacher Steve Zimmer, who runs intervention programs at Marshall High School. Zimmer, who is Jewish, marched with students to act as a "buffer" between the police and students. At the beginning of the day, he had no idea that he would end up walking with the students all the way from Silver Lake to City Hall, adding that he wore "wing tips much to my chagrin."

Once the Marshall marchers, the vast majority of them Latino, reached the crest on Spring Street, they saw thousands of other students -- estimates put the total at 40,000 -- some from as far away as the San Gabriel Valley. Zimmer characterized the moment when his students spotted their peers as "jubilant." Zimmer, who knows City Council President Garcetti, prevailed upon Garcetti to talk to the teens. Later, as widely reported, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa spoke to them as well.

The leadership of United Teachers Los Angeles, the L.A. Unified teachers union, has passed a motion calling on teachers to have conversations with their students on immigration and to support students' constitutional rights. The motion was proposed by Andy Griggs, who is Jewish, and it passed overwhelmingly, UTLA Treasurer David Goldberg said.

"We want to make sure students are safe and don't get beat up," Goldberg said.

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