Gideon Aronoff is the president and CEO of HIAS, the international migration agency of the American Jewish community and the oldest refugee rescue and resettlement agency in the United States.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and those of us who believe in compassionate and fair immigration laws are in complete agreement on one thing: the Draconian bill she signed into law on April 23 is the result of the federal government failing to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Like Governor Brewer, HIAS is frustrated with the inaction in Washington and the resulting impact on local communities across the country. Yet unlike the governor, we believe that our value system as Americans and as Jews, which protects human dignity above all else, must never be jeopardized.
For Jews especially, the question “Where are your papers” raises the dual scepters of Nazi Europe and the Soviet Union. Within living memory, some of us were forced to identify ourselves by yellow stars and many of us by having “Yevrey” (“Jew” in Russian) stamped on our identification papers.
The situation in Arizona, though very different from these tragic memories, nevertheless resonates strongly.
Once it takes effect later this year, the Immigration; Law Enforcement; Safe Neighborhoods Act (SB 1070) will require everyone in the state of Arizona to carry government-issued identification at all times or risk arrest. Despite the police training programs Governor Brewer mandated after the law was signed to prevent racial profiling, discrimination seems unavoidable.
For legal residents who will be pulled over based solely on the color of their skin or questioned due to their accents, the reaction no doubt will alternate between shame and rage. This legislation will pit segments of society against each other, resulting in increased hate rhetoric and racial tension.
In Deuteronomy 16:12, we are commanded to establish a fair justice system: “and they shall judge the people with righteous justice.” In Leviticus 24:22, we are further instructed: “You shall have one law for the stranger and the citizens alike.”
We believe these passages have great relevance today and that advocating for the rights of immigrants reflects the Jewish mandate to uphold a fair justice system.
Undocumented immigrants are not the only ones who suffer under our broken immigration system. Employers, workers, families and America’s proud tradition of welcoming immigrants become victims of this law. Enforcement-only approaches have been tried and failed because the motivation to flee grinding poverty—like that experienced by our relatives who came from Eastern Europe—is so great.
As U.S. Department of Human Services Secretary and former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano said, “If you build a 50-foot-high fence or wall, they will build a 51-foot ladder.”
HIAS believes the only humane answer to an inhumane law is comprehensive immigration reform similar to the bipartisan legislation courageously introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 2005. Congress must enact immigration reform to establish border protection and enforcement policies that bolster our national security; enhance enforcement while promoting economic development and human and civil rights; keep families together and decrease the waiting time for family reunification; create pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; devise a plan for future migration flows in order to protect all workers’ rights; and empower immigrants to fully integrate into American society by providing financial support to local governments and community organizations that offer classes and services.
The Torah commands us to “welcome the stranger” and “treat the stranger as ourselves.” It is an injunction stated in one way or another no less than 36 times in our sacred text. The new Arizona law blatantly rejects the strangers among us, trumpeting a hateful, anti-immigrant message that will reverberate through American society and far beyond our borders.
The United States can be a light unto the nations by establishing a just and humane immigration system. Without Congress taking a leadership role on immigration, we can expect other states to follow Arizona’s suit.
Now is the time for the Jewish community to stand together in defense of all immigrants, for we, too, once were strangers. By not demanding immediate action from our national leaders, we betray both our Jewish teachings and our American heritage as a country built by immigrants.