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Thanksgiving Feature (2): Defending American Policy on Immigration and Refugees

At this time of year, we are reminded of the investment that the Jewish community and the nation-at-large retains in the fact that this nation of immigrants began as a place of refuge from political religious oppression.

It is from those roots that the country grew into a prosperous, pluralistic democracy, and the American Jewish community prospered as well.

As a consequence, there has been a national tradition supportive of immigrants of refugees, of liberal immigration policies, of commitment to this nation as a safe haven for the oppressed of other lands and of belief, based upon national experience, that newcomers bring skills, talents and a desire to succeed that enrich the nation.

The Jewish community has been acutely sensitive and committed to that tradition as we are aware of our own immigrant experience here, remembering from history the consequences to those who flee persecution when the doors of safe haven are closed.

This is all the more reason for concern as in the U.S. Congress today legislative action threatens to alter drastically federal immigration and refugee policies, which, not long ago, facilitated the opening of doors to thousands of Soviet Jews and continues to welcome immigrants and refugees from around the world.

In late October, the House Judiciary Committee completed work on the Immigration in the National Interest Act, which, together with immigration measures under consideration in the U.S. Senate and immigrant-related welfare reform provisions in bills recently passed by both chambers of Congress, could produce sweeping changes in the nation’s immigration system.

One of the most troubling provisions is that the legislation would slash the number of refugees allowed into the country by nearly half – to 50,000 – and require authorization by Congress for emergency increases, would cut overall legal immigration by one-third – to 500,000 – effectively end family reunification programs for all relatives except spouses and minor children and would severely restrict access to public benefits not only for most legal immigrants but also for those who become naturalized U.S. citizens, thereby creating two unequal levels of citizenship for the first time in U.S. history.

Why such severe measures, when economists and researchers from across the political spectrum agree that legally admitted immigrants and refugees, on balance and over time, energize America, work hard, open businesses and revitalize urban neighborhoods?

The reasons are not objective, but respond instead to increasing anti-immigrant and refugee sentiment nationwide.

That sentiment, which initially reflected concerns regarding illegal immigration, increased in the face of a shrinking economy, government deficits and job insecurity, as a blurring of lines in public perception between legal and illegal residents fed the temptation to make scapegoats of all newcomers, regardless of status.

False assumptions that legal immigrants come to this country to receive welfare benefits or to take jobs, or that the country is facing an out-of-control onslaught of illegal immigration, have set the stage for restrictive legislation.

In fact, 85 percent of all newcomers enter this country legally. Rather than taking jobs, they often bring an entrepreneurial drive which tends to create jobs.

According to studies by the Department of Labor, immigrants generate almost $300 billion in annual income.

Charges that they drain government money through dependence on public benefits remain unsubstantiated.

On the contrary, studies show that immigrant families are less likely to use welfare than are U.S. citizens.

Those few analyses that reach an opposite conclusion have included in their calculations welfare assistance provided to refugees. Refugees do use welfare at a higher rate, a result of circumstances under which they arrive.

That aid is often transitional, however, as most refugees move quickly toward self-sufficiency.

This is all the more reason why proposed cuts in refugee admissions are so alarming.

From its own experience, the Jewish community understand the perils faced by refugees.

Time and again throughout history Jews have sought to escape tyranny and persecution only to find the gates of refuge closed to them.

They have therefore understood and supported sustained U.S. leadership as a beacon of safe haven for all people.

At the same time, the break up of the Soviet Union has created political, social and economic tensions that leave a large Jewish population there extremely vulnerable.

The need may arise yet again to rescue Jews from danger. With refugee crises neither orderly nor predictable, mechanisms for response must be flexible.

The current U.S. policy of consultation between the administration and Congress to set annual admissions levels provides that flexibility and the Jewish community has urged that this policy be maintained.

The reunification of families, a cornerstone of federal immigration policy, is also under attack.

Proposed new legislation would not only end many family reunification categories, but would alter as well regulations affecting the ability of U.S. citizens to reunite with parents, an issue of particular concern for former Soviet Jewish refugees seeking to bring parents here.

Now, parents are included in the immediate relatives category, for whom an unlimited number of visas is available with little or no waiting period.

New regulations would move parents from this category to one with limited visa availability.

Further, citizens would be allowed to sponsor their parents only if 50 percent or more of the parents’ children live in the United States and if proof can be shown that health insurance has been purchased for parents before they arrive.

Such requirements place impossible burdens on all but the wealthiest of families.

Finally, welfare reform legislation, in both the House and Senate, would deny legal immigrants access to a range of government programs, including food stamps, AFDC and Supplemental Security Income, on which elderly immigrants must sometimes rely.

The Senate bill extends these restrictions to naturalized U.S. citizens, requiring all legal immigrants to work 40 “qualifying” quarters – (earning enough to owe federal income tax – before becoming eligible for benefits.

The work requirement amounts to a minimum of 10 years, regardless of whether the immigrant naturalizes before that time.

This major change in law would make unprecedented distinctions in the treatment of U.S. citizens and may create a “second-class” citizenship status for the foreign born.

The Jewish community has strongly protested the basic injustice of denying benefits to those who enter the country legally. Legal immigrants play by the rules, work hard and pay taxes. Arguably, if they fall on hard times, they should receive the benefits that their tax dollars help to support.

Moreover, because the majority of immigrants come to be reunited with families who assume financial responsibility as a requirement for immigration during the first years of the newcomer’s residence, limits on benefits would severely impede reunification efforts, particularly for parents and citizen children.

The most profound teachings of Jewish tradition emphasize the duty to rescue the persecuted and to receive the stranger with understanding and openness.

Connected with those teachings is a communal interest in the Jewish immigrant and refugee community, those already here and those yet to come.

As a consequence, the Jewish community has consistently supported a generous legal immigration policy based on family reunification and refugee protection.

That support reflects a commitment not just to Jewish interests but also to the traditions and values upon which this nation of immigrants was founded and upon which it has the best opportunity for continued prosperity.

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