Jewish Journal

Immigration Reform: A Jewish Imperative

by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

January 31, 2013 | 9:53 am

This week, a bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators announced a new immigration reform effort. The next day, President Barack Obama gave a speech outlining his own plan for immigration reform. We hope these comprehensive efforts help resolve the continuing confusion over this issue; in just the first half of 2012, hundreds of bills and resolutions, often contradictory and misguided, were adopted by 41 state legislatures addressing immigration. Anti-immigrant extremists around the country are moving to amend the 14th Amendment to the Constitution’s guarantee of citizenship to anyone born in the United States, recognizing only those born of citizens. This would affect the 350,000 children born in the United States each year to at least one undocumented immigrant parent. With an estimated 11.5-12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States today, who face deportation regardless of how long they have been here, change in our country is long overdue.

Contrary to popular perception, President Obama stepped up the detention of undocumented immigrants during his first term. In 2011, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed nearly 400,000 undocumented immigrants from the country, and nearly 55% were convicted of felonies or misdemeanors; in 2012, ICE detained 410,000 undocumented immigrants. However, on January 29, 2013, President Obama acknowledged that this situation should not continue. He proposed a legal procedure by which undocumented Americans could register and, once passing a background check, gain provisional legal status, and eventually permanent resident status and citizenship. The one potential hold-up is border security issues: Republican leaders may insist that the borders be absolutely secure before implementing the policy, while the President wants to implement the procedure earlier.

Oddly, this is occurring at a time when immigration to the U.S. is decreasing. The Pew Hispanic Center announced in April 2012 that the net migration from Mexico to the United States has stopped and possibly even reversed. They note that from 2005 to 2010, about 1.4 million Mexicans immigrated to the United States while the same number of Mexican immigrants and their U.S.-born children moved from the United States to Mexico. Asians, not Latinos, are now actually the largest group of new arrivals in the United States.

While there is mostly speculation on the effect of undocumented Americans on employment, it has been shown that more than 50 percent of them pay taxes. As with other Americans, they pay sales tax (for a total of more than $8 billion annually). In addition, in 2007 they and their employers were responsible for an estimated $11.2 billion in Social Security and $2.6 billion in Medicare contributions, in addition to other taxes and unemployment insurance payments. Since these workers use fake identification to obtain work, they can never receive unemployment insurance, Social Security, or Medicare, so they actually pay into our system without receiving benefits from it. In 2006, when Texas conducted the first comprehensive economic review of the impact of undocumented Americans, it was discovered that while these Americans produced $1.58 billion of revenue, they only received $1.16 billion in state services, so Texas made $462 million in profit from undocumented Texans.

Critics of immigration reform have used outlandish and false statements to justify their positions, echoing the bigotry against Italian and Jewish immigrants a century ago. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer said this in 2010: “The majority of the illegal trespassers that are coming into the state of Arizona are under the direction and control of organized drug cartels and they are bringing drugs in.” On January 29, 2013, the influential conservative radio pundit Rush Limbaugh made this outrageous statement concerning Hispanic immigrants: “I've seen…research data which says that a vast majority of arriving immigrants today come here because they believe that government is the source of prosperity, and that's what they support.”

No one has ever presented credible evidence to back either of these false claims. Most of these undocumented immigrants are from Mexico (59%, 6.8 million) and are fleeing poverty back home, yet most still live in poverty and insecurity here. About 3 million live in California and about 2 million in Texas, close to the border. Their life in the homeland they are fleeing is one of pain and sorrow and they must leave behind their families and all they know to try to survive. Their stories are tragic; at “My Immigration Story,” you can read their stories of anxiety over coming to the United States at an early age, but still subject to being deported to a country they never knew; of trying to comply with, and work within, the legal framework but being stymied by decades of bureaucratic foot-dragging; of relatives separated by a border, of loved ones’ burial places that cannot be visited.

We must remember as a nation the timeless rabbinic teaching, “Do not judge your fellow until you stand in his place” (Pirke Avot 2:4). We must not attack undocumented workers with the harmful, hateful rhetoric that many use today as they are stuck in a very challenging predicament that few can related to. The rabbis even promoted immigration: “He who has not made good in one place and fails to move and try his luck in some other place has only himself to complain about” (Bava Metzia 75b). One cannot remain stuck in an underprivileged region if it is a clear dead end for oneself and one’s family. In the Torah, there is a positive commandment to love the foreigner in our midst (Deuteronomy 10:18), and a negative commandment against oppressing or perverting justice for them in any way (Exodus 22:20, Deuteronomy 24:17). The rabbis elaborated on this prohibition: “You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not wrong with words, and you shall not oppress financially” (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael Mishpatim). We not only owe them basic human rights; we also have specific religious obligations to go above and beyond to protect them from harm. We should be grateful that America is a desired home for those fleeing dire straits and be proud of what we have to offer. 

Significant numbers of Jews immigrated (and continue to immigrate) to the United States without documentation. We also needed a safe refuge like many others fleeing poverty and persecution today. Our responsibility to the vulnerable immigrant (and heroic journeyer) requires that we honor the image of G-d in all people. Perhaps Emmanuel Levinas, the French Talmudist and Jewish philosopher, said it best: “The respect for the stranger and the sanctification of the name of the Eternal are strangely equivalent” (Nine Talmudic Readings: “Toward the Other,” p. 27).

Now is the time to hear the eternal calls of our religious traditions and of human conscience to ensure the dignity of all humans by providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently in the United States. We are long overdue but sure to prevail, since our commitment is steadfast and justice is on our side.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"

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Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz...

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