Jewish groups are pleased with President Bush's initiative to give illegal immigrants temporary legal status in the United States, but they are withholding accolades until they see how Congress fills in the details.
"The most important thing is that the president recognized and stated publicly that immigrants are a tremendous value to the United States and that our immigration system needs to be fixed," said Gideon Aronoff, vice president of government relations and public policy for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS).
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush has been focused on the war on terrorism, paying little attention to the immigration issue. However, his new immigration initiative announced Jan. 7 has "put the issue front and center, back at the top of the agenda," Aronoff said, "and that is a very good thing."
The initiative would offer temporary legal status to illegal immigrants who want to enter the U.S. workforce. They could fill jobs for which no American employee can be found for up to three years, after which their permits could be renewed. Immigrants who currently work illegally could qualify for the temporary worker status after paying a one-time fee that has yet to be decided.
Critics say the initiative fails to provide a long-term solution to the problem of illegal immigration. Immigrant advocates point to the dangers illegal immigrants face on the nation's border with Mexico, where most enter the country, and of exploitative U.S. employers.
Since Sept. 11, undocumented workers in the United States have been called a potential threat to homeland security.
Bush's plan is only a "quick fix," said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which works to strengthen Jewish ties with blacks and Latinos. The program doesn't provide meaningful access to permanent visas or a path to citizenship, he said.
In addition, while Bush has praised undocumented immigrants' economic contributions to the country, the initiative ultimately will relegate temporary workers to second-class employee status, Schneier said.
"The Latino leaders I have talked with are disappointed with the initiative," he continued. "As part of intergroup relations, it behooves the Jewish community to take its lead from Latino leadership."
The president's plan is targeted primarily at Latinos, though Jews, too, have a stake in comprehensive immigration reform. Of the estimated 8 million-10 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, a few are Israeli, Russian and Latino Jewish immigrants.
"In the Russian Jewish community, no more than 7 percent is illegal," said Alec Brook-Krasny, executive director of the Council of Jewish Emigre Community Organizations, an umbrella group for 25 Russian Jewish organizations in New York. Bush's initiative would affect no more than 10,000 Russian-speaking Jews in New York, he said.
There is no comprehensive estimate of illegal Israeli immigrants in the United States, according to Ido Aharoni, consul for media and public affairs at Israel's New York consulate.
"I can only assume some will be affected," he said, if they have overstayed tourist visas or are working illegally.
Still, the Jewish community traditionally has felt a sense of responsibility on immigration issues for historical, humanitarian and political reasons. As recently as this summer, HIAS and several other Jewish organizations lobbied the U.S. government for comprehensive immigration reform.
An immigration resolution will be on the agenda at next month's annual meeting of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), said Reva Price, the group's Washington representative. The resolution, which is still being drafted, will reaffirm the group's commitment to open immigration policies and will address the backlog in family immigration, among other issues.
Part of the problem with Bush's plan may be its lack of detail. While groups like HIAS, JCPA and the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) -- longstanding backers of generous immigration policies -- support Bush's idea, they're withholding final judgment until the specifics of the plan are determined in Congress.
Bush's speech set forth the broad outlines of the plan, leaving details -- such as how to apply, who may qualify and what might disqualify someone from the program -- for Congress to decide.
Bush "brought up critical issues favoring migrants and those coming over the border," Price said. But, she added, "the devil is in the details, and we will have to wait and see what the proposal looks like."
Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel at the AJCommittee, called the plan a "step in the right direction." He cautioned, however, that the plan may not set forth a path by which immigrants who have lived in the United States for a set period of time could become citizens.
Aronoff of HIAS said Bush's plan also doesn't resolve concerns about backlogs in family immigration, one of the group's main concerns.
The groups were careful not to criticize the president's proposal too harshly, however.
"I think the choice for the Jewish community and the country is stark: Either we bury our heads in the sand and pretend there is no problem and do nothing, or we come up with a sensible, long-term approach that helps on humanitarian and security needs," Aronoff said. "The national conversation on immigration reform got a shot in the arm from President Bush -- and what the final conclusion will be has yet to be written."
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